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Gayhurst’s rugby team: Peter O’Brian is second from the right seated on the ground.
Gayhurst’s rugby team: Peter O’Brian is second from the right seated on the ground.

A film spurred me to confront my childhood nightmare 54 years later Add to ...

On the evening of Feb. 4, 2014, I landed at London Heathrow Airport, nervous about finally joining a number of men I had never met, but with whom I shared secrets that were over 50 years old.We were on our way to Crown Court in Buckinghamshire, for the sentencing of two schoolteachers, Peter Wright and Hugh Henry – old men now. Each of us, as young boys, had been sexually abused by one of them, and had become official complainants in the Crown’s case against them.

Throughout my life, my plan had been to stay silent and ignore what had happened to me; I would keep going forward. I had been certain, as a child, that no adult would believe me if I told them. And even if they did, it was so disgraceful, they would have to hush it up; I would be blamed rather than rescued. Later, as an adult, I feared that my family would be hurt, my friends would distance themselves, and I would lose my tenuous place in the world.

That plan suddenly fell apart one September evening in 2011, just after midnight, when I sat down in front of the television. Our bedroom cable box is automatically set to TVO, where I serve as chair of the board, and a documentary was just beginning.

The opening shot, supported by ominous music, showed a black-and-white photograph of a large Victorian manor house. I recognized it as Caldicott, a prominent English boarding school for young boys, set in the green countryside west of London. I had played rugby and cricket there as a kid. It stood only five miles from my old school, Gayhurst, where, as a son of a Canadian officer in the Royal Air Force, I was a student from 1956 to 1959, when I was between the ages of 9 and 12.

As the film began, it was as if I were watching a guided missile coming in; even though I knew it was going to explode, I was unable to move. Its title was Chosen, and it told the story of how boys were selected and groomed for sexual abuse at Caldicott. Within minutes, one of the men interviewed for the film looked into the camera and said, in a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone, “I can remember his smell … the alcohol on his breath … this jovial teacher … with one shrivelled testicle … I suddenly had big secrets.” I could hardly breathe. He was describing my abuser, Hugh Henry, who had spent some time teaching at Caldicott as well as at my own school.

I was astonished. There was somebody else in the world who had shared my nightmare all these years. I had thought I was the only one. I e-mailed the film’s director to ask if I could contact the man he had interviewed. I got no response. For the first time since I was a kid, I was looking back, and it was getting harder to stay silent.

Two months later, a second explosion. Tony, a friend from those early school days, sent me a short news report: “Roland Peter Wright, 81, and Hugh Edward Henry, 80, are accused of indecently assaulting boys at Caldicott Preparatory School.”

I read the words over and over. It was public; Mr. Henry had been accused by name.

I walked around my house in a daze. I looked in the front-hall mirror, expecting to see a panicked 11-year-old in a blue-and-grey uniform. Staring back at me was the lived-in mug of a 65-year-old with tears in his eyes. My own “chosen” story was finally catching up with me, across the Atlantic, and through my own medium, film. I had outskated it for 53 years, but now it had checked me from behind. No fair.

At day’s end, I said to my wife, Carolyn, who knew about the abuse: “By the way, I heard that Hugh Henry was charged. It will be interesting to see what happens.”

She didn’t let me off that easy. “What are you going to do about it?” she asked.

It was my now-or-never moment. I could come forward and get involved in the case, hopefully help others speak up, and, at the same time, reach back for the boy who was still left behind in the dark and bring him home … or I could stick with the plan: Keep going.

I decided to test the waters. I called Tony and asked him what he would think if I became a complainant against our old teacher and coach. Although not a victim himself, he said he would definitely support me. I was encouraged.

Then I had lunch with an old film colleague, who told me, “It was all a long time ago and you’re fine now; forget about it and get on with your life.” His well-intentioned strategy had, in fact, been my own for all these years.

But hearing that ready bromide shocked me. I felt outraged that any of us could sweep sexual assault aside as easily as that. We ordered our meal, and our conversation turned to films and friends.

Eventually, we came back to the subject. I countered: “Okay, but we both sent our boys to sports and camp, right?”

He nodded.

“What if they had been abused?”

After a long 10 seconds of silence, he said, “What can I do to help?”

I had turned a corner. I couldn’t stick with the plan any more. Carolyn and our two adult sons agreed it was time I checked out the options.

The next morning, I called the Child Abuse Investigation Unit of the Thames Valley Police. I hung up as soon as I heard the automated greeting. On my third attempt, I left a garbled message.

A day later, Detective Constable Andy Alexander, one of the two investigators assigned to the case, called me back. He was friendly and professional, and it wasn’t long before he asked the essential question: “When you were a boarder at school in the 1950s, were you sexually abused by Hugh Henry?”

I stalled, said I was just calling to see if I could support the guys who had already testified. He replied that the only way to be involved was to make a formal witness statement. He asked again, clearly concerned: “Were you? Were you abused by Hugh Henry?”

I couldn’t speak. I somehow choked out “Yes.” I had become 11 years old again. Then, to my surprise, I said it again, more firmly. “Yes. Yes I was.”

There it was. I had said it out loud and the world hadn’t come to an end.

“Well, sir, that’s the worst part over with,” said the detective. “It gets easier from now on.”

Andy Alexander had been a young beat cop when he joined his friend and boss, Detective Sergeant Joe Banfield, to form the two-man child-sex-abuse unit in 2009. It was now their job to produce evidence and witness statements for the Crown’s case; they were also always committed to my well-being. Andy seemed to sense, as we passed through the stages of the process – which involved months of telephone calls, e-mails and courier documents – whether I was 65 or 11 when I answered his questions.

Hugh Henry first got his hand down my pants when we were alone in a classroom. The next term, he got me moved out of my dorm, away from my friends, and put alone in a tiny loft above the school chapel. He said to me, “You lucky fellow, everyone wants to be up here; I put a word in for you.”

I woke up the first night there fighting for breath, with his tongue in my mouth. He started to “visit” during the night, often after closing time at the pub. Sometimes morning came without incident. Other times I would wake suddenly and find him panting over me, one hand in my crotch, the other masturbating himself.

I wasn’t completely alone. I had a little crystal radio set with the aerial wound around a water pipe; I had discovered Radio Luxembourg and the wonder of rock ’n’ roll. During Mr. Henry’s visits, I would remember the music and escape into the magic world of Shake, Rattle and Roll by Bill Haley and his Comets or Good Golly, Miss Molly by Little Richard.

This phase ended one night when the watchman shone his light up the stairs and called out, “What’s going on up there?” In that heart-stopping moment, I saw Hugh Henry’s recklessness in taking what he wanted. All the same, he was ready with a polished answer, “I’m just settling a boy down, thank you.” He stood up in the dark and listened to the receding footsteps.

Without a word, he tiptoed down the stairs. He never returned to that tiny, solitary room.

A couple of weeks later, he passed me in the playground after sports. He barked, “My room. Ten minutes. Bring your French text.” A new routine. I would perch on the side of his bed ready with my book; he would rise slowly from his chair, seize my arms, and, with a swift wrestling move, fall back on the bed holding me face down on top of him. He simulated sex between my thighs until he climaxed.

Once, as I left his room, the school matron was working at her desk across the hall. Without looking up, she scolded, “Well, I didn’t hear much French going on in there,” as I ran away.

When I told all this to Det. Constable Alexander, he said that he believed me – that simulated sex was a signature of Hugh Henry’s. It was a huge relief. I was 11 again and thrilled that someone in authority accepted my story.

At one point, he asked if my parents were still living, and I told him they had died quite recently. He said that abused boys rarely come forward before both their parents have gone. Sadly, I confirmed that I had never told my parents, either.

I had finished telling Andy my story; he had prepared my official written testimony. But when the moment came, I wasn’t ready to sign it. I didn’t want to send Hugh Henry to jail. At 65, I still thought of him as a really great guy – as I did when I was a boy and had overlooked his nighttime visits in order to survive.

When I shared this with Andy, it was the only time he ever became frustrated – not by me, but by the situation. “Let me tell you,” he said, “Hugh Henry is not a really great guy.”

His words rocked me. It took hearing that to truly accept that my old teacher was a pedophile.

I signed my witness statement on Jan. 5, 2012, and the Crown added three charges to their case on my behalf. Hugh Henry pleaded guilty to a total of 13 charges of indecent assault of a minor, involving nine complainants. He was convicted on May 10.

Peter Wright and Hugh Henry were scheduled to be sentenced together on Feb. 6, 2014, after Mr. Wright’s trial was also complete. (They had initially faced charges of conspiring to commit their assaults; those were subsequently dropped for technical reasons.) But Hugh Henry was not present. Two days earlier, he had driven from his house to a nearby railway crossing. According to the driver of the 6:05 p.m. commuter from Marylebone to Aylesbury, a man stepped onto the tracks and stood facing away from the rushing train. Hugh Henry was struck down and killed instantly. Andy told me it was his third suicide attempt.

Peter Wright was sentenced to eight years. After, we walked in subdued groups to the nearby Crown Hotel. Some were bitterly angry that Hugh Henry had killed himself before sentencing. I felt relief. He had less hold on me now.

We sat around an oak refectory table for a group interview with Channel 4 News. Then, finally, with pints of ale, we stuck our hands out and really met each other. We talked about Chosen, the trial, the sentencing – everything except the experience we had in common. We already knew about that. Andy and Joe arrived. We all wanted to buy them a round.

Many of my fellow survivors still suffer from the effects of their abuse. One, a rugby captain at Caldicott and the first to speak out against Peter Wright 15 years ago, has become a leading advocate for mandatory reporting of suspected sexual abuse; he is also beset by what he calls a “Krakatoa temper.” Another had become an addict on the streets of Edinburgh by age 14; it took 10 years for him to feel ready to come back in. He told us flatly, “It ruined my life.” Others have lived their lives struggling with bouts of deep depression, with fractured marriages and broken relationships with their children.

I think I have been luckier than many of them, thanks in part to geography. My family returned to Canada in 1959, which gave me the advantage of a clean start.

As we stood in the pub, the years fell away, and it was a great comfort to me to finally relax in the warmth of being together with these battered and brave men.

Missing from the group was the man who had shaken me by so vividly describing Hugh Henry in Chosen. I never had a chance to thank him: He had died of cancer less than a year earlier, but not before he saw Hugh Henry convicted.

Peter O’Brian is chair of the board of TVOntario and the award-winning producer of such films as The Grey Fox and My American Cousin.

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