Hackley sex-abuse case: Psychologists reflect on decades-old revelations

“Two more private schools, abuse, and why survivors need time to come forward
Time for NY to pass the Child Victims Act!” Professor Marci A. Hamilton

Hackley sex-abuse case: Psychologists reflect on decades-old revelations

It’s no surprise that public reports of adult sexual abuse of children draw out victims who may have hidden the assaults for decades, experts say.

“Despite the fact this is so widespread in our society, no one talks about this,” said Julia Hochstadt, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Manhattan who specializes in working with child sex-abuse victims. “Acknowledg(ing) that something did, in fact, happen to them … sets the stage for people to come forward and talk about something that did happen to them, even 50 years ago.”

Recent reports that trusted adults had sexually abused their charges at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge and the Hackley School in Tarrytown back in the 1960s and 1970s are the latest revelations in what is becoming an avalanche of sex-abuse exposure.

Sexual victims of religious leaders, teachers and club leaders are coming forward long after the statutes of limitations have run out on legal remedies to demand that institutions at least acknowledge that they were preyed upon.

What drives any victim to denounce their attacker is personal, but the sudden onslaught of accusations could be driven by the change in people’s attitudes about sexual abuse itself, psychologists said. Research over the past half century has looked at the long-term consequences of child sexual abuse and there are now legal consequences for ignoring any type of abuse, from domestic violence to child rape.

“I think that (views) about sexuality in general have changed in the past 50 to 60 years,” Hochstadt said. “When I read the (Hackley) story, I was particularly impressed by the language the school was using … validating what had happened.”

On Thursday, Hackley sent a letter to parents and alumni revealing that several students had been abused by a school employee, now dead, back in the 1960s.

Hackley is a different school now than it was in the 1960s and ’70s. Author Alec Wilkinson, who graduated in 1970, remembers it as a haven from the confusion and unhappiness of his adolescence. He was a day student, he said, and removed from whatever was going on with the boarding school side of things. The revelations of abuse surprised him, he said.

“It was a haven for a number of delightfully odd and eccentric people, students and faculty,” he recalled. “It was a refuge when I was there. It was … the four best years of my life.”

At the Waldorf school, a former student revealed in a memoir last year that she’d been abused by a teacher there years ago, prompting another former student to come forward with a similar experience involving the same teacher. Hackley’s letter followed an investigation begun after former students came forward, the school said.

Radio talk show hostess Alexa Servodidio, a clinical social worker and therapist with offices in Mamaroneck, said the type of abuse, the duration, the relationship between abuser and abused and what support victims get if they come forward all determine how well they react long term to the abuse, but that certain things generally ring true in child sex-abuse victims over time.

Many have trust issues and difficulties setting boundaries. Many have relationship problems, either because they are too trusting or too suspicious, too emotional or too closed off, she said.

“The rawness of the emotion in dealing with how toxic and painful these can be doesn’t diminish with time,” Hochstadt said. “If someone finds themselves able to deal with what happened to them, and you have the proper support, it’s possible to mitigate those feelings and actions. The goal of this kind of work is giving people a safe space to process the awful things that have happened to them and give validation that it was an awful thing that happened and they did nothing to deserve this.”