By Laura Sanicola
A Fordham Prep religion teacher, who will not return to the school after an allegation of sexual abuse against him was deemed credible, is responding to the allegations made by former student Michael Meenan.
Meenan, Fordham Prep ’84, alleged that his former religion teacher Fernand Beck performed oral sex on him against his will when they both slept over at a party in Westchester County the summer after Meenan’s graduation. On August 5th, Fordham Preparatory School sent a letter to the Fordham Prep community explaining that the allegation against Beck has been deemed credible and that Beck would not be returning.
The full letter to the Fordham Preparatory community from Rev. Christopher J. Devron, the president of Fordham Prep, can be found here.
In an email dated August 9th sent to members of the class of 1981 and obtained by The Fordham Ram, Beck defended his reputation and bemoaned that the high school did not conduct the “thorough and unbiased investigation” at the time that would have cleared him.
A call to Beck’s house was not returned.
Meenan left the Prep to study at Brown University and has been a journalist and public school educator. He said while home for the holidays a few months after his graduation, he reported the abuse to his headmaster Neil McCarthy, with whom Meenan interacted with regularly as class president. Meenan alleged that McCarthy responded, “So Meenan, what are you telling me, you think you’re a faggot?”
McCarthy could not be reached for comment, but has denied the interaction in an article in The New York Times.
An investigation was not conducted following Meenan’s initial report of abuse in 1984, Meenan said. No mention of Meenan’s first attempt to approach by the school was mentioned in Fordham Prep’s the August 5th letter to the Fordham community informing them of the findings of the investigation.
However, 32 years later, Meenan was inspired to revisit his experience by his longtime school friend Neal Huff, who appeared in the movie Spotlight, the Academy Award winning film about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Meenan then sought the counsel of Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has handled many cases of sexual abuse against the Catholic Church.
Fordham Prep sent the following statement to The Fordham Ram last week, signed by Devron.
“Fordham Prep will not and does not tolerate any instance of sexual misconduct or inappropriate teacher-student relationships. We treat seriously any allegation of harm against any student, whether present or past. Our entire community stands in solidarity with all victims of abuse and we pray for healing and peace in the wake of their suffering.
“When this administration was notified of the allegation against Mr. Beck in April 2016, we immediately reported the allegation to law enforcement authorities. No criminal investigations were undertaken by these authorities since the statute of limitations had long expired. Fordham Prep also retained the well-respected firm of Day Pitney as an independent counsel to lead a comprehensive investigation to determine the credibility of the allegation. During the pendency of the investigation, Mr. Beck was suspended.
“Day Pitney conducted a thorough investigation led by a seasoned and well-respected investigative counsel. Based on the facts they gathered, they concluded that the allegation against Mr. Beck was credible. As a result of this finding, Mr. Beck will not return to teach at Fordham Prep.”
Fordham Prep removed Beck within a month of the 2016 allegation and informed The Fordham Prep community of Beck’s departure. Still, Garabedian is concerned by what he views as a lack of oversight at Fordham Prep.
“The question here is, where are the supervisors and why weren’t the students properly supervised,” Garabedian said in a recent phone interview. “Supervisors must do their job so that irreparable harm does not occur.”
In the years following the alleged attack, Meenan said he has suffered from alcohol abuse and mental unrest knowing that Beck was still teaching at the school.
“Can we really take this at face value that there are no other victims?” Meenan asked in a phone interview. “We need to know that the school is safe for children.”
Huff, who portrayed abuse victim Phil Saviano in Spotlight, was one of the first people that Meenan told about the alleged abuse in 1984. Huff had an overall positive experience at Fordham Prep, crediting the school for helping him achieve what he has achieved today.
“The Prep is a great school, and I got a great education,” Huff said in a phone interview. “But as somebody who grew up Catholic, I find the idea that an institution can protect but not really go after people that prey on children inordinately troubling.”
Huff alleges that there were several faculty members during his time at Fordham who had a reputation of being sexually interested in students. He described an encounter in which he approached a male teacher after class, who proceeded to corner him and attempt to kiss him against his will. Still, he thinks the current administration is handling Meenan’s case properly.
“I have a six month old son and I’d love to think he’d have a great experience at the Prep,” Huff said. “In the big picture, I hope that more people come forward and that Michael can get some peace.”
Other alumni echoed Huff’s warm feelings for the school. Joe DioGuardi, a former Congressman and graduate of Fordham Prep in 1958, received the email when it was sent to alumni.
“It’s a shame,” DioGuardi said in a recent phone interview, adding, “without that education at The Prep I don’t think I’d ever aspire to do what I did with my life.”
He lauded Devron for handling the situation “quickly, forthrightly and completely.”
“Devon did an excellent job putting it all out there, so everyone would take notice,” DioGuardi said.
Garabedian has represented clients in two other cases against two other priests at Fordham Prep.
One of the priests, the Rev. Eugene O’Brien, was the principal and president of Fordham Prep in the early ’70s, when he allegedly molested a student. The accuser filed a lawsuit which was settled in 1997 for $25,000 by Fordham. Another case was brought by Connecticut lawyer Richard Cerick, who he said was raped by Rev. Roy Drake, a former science teacher at Fordham Prep in the late 1960s. According to Cerick, who represented himself in court, the rape occurred Drake’s apartment on campus, the night before they left on a ski trip when Cerick was 16.
In 2008, The New York Times reported that two survivor advocacy groups — the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and BishopAccountability.org — criticized Fordham Prep’s administrators for allowing the priests to reside on campus for years after the complaints of sexual abuse were made. Drake lived in Murray Weigel Hall in 2005, when Cerick filed his first formal complaint.
In 2009, Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, apologized to Cerick.
Most recently, Connecticut filmmaker Neal Gumpel filed a complaint about Rev. Roy Drake, who passed away in 2008.
Neal Gumpel was not a Fordham Prep student when he alleged he was attacked by Drake. In late 1968, Gumpel, then 16, said he was visiting his brother at the Maine Maritime Academy and stayed with Drake. Drake was not employed at Fordham Prep at the time of the incident.
Gumpel said he told his mother of the attack while in Maine, but did not seek the help of Garabedian until 2014, at his wife’s urging. By this time, he said his health had deteriorated and he had been institutionalized for mental health issues.
The settlement did not go as Gumpel hoped. The church offered to pay for some counseling, according to Gumpel but would not offer a public apology.
“I wanted a public apology,” Gumpel said. “I wanted them to say this happened.”
Fordham Prep’s official response to Gumbel’s allegation as provided by spokesperson Colleen Roche is as follows:
” Neal Gumpel’s allegations against Father Roy Drake, SJ are painful to contemplate. However, at the time when Mr. Gumpel says the abuse took place, Father Drake was not assigned to Fordham Preparatory School. At the time, he was on an extended leave of absence from the Society of Jesus, living in Maine and working for the Maine Maritime Academy. In fact, Fr. Drake was assigned to The Prep for only a few months in the mid-1960s. Mr. Gumpel’s case is currently under investigation by the Northeast Province of the Society of Jesus. Therefore, all inquiries concerning the incident should be referred to the Province and its lawyers.”
Having represented clients in a number of cases, Garabedian noticed a pattern surrounding the school.
“It has become obvious that Fordham Prep has a problem with pedophiles among its ranks,” Garabedian said.”The supervisors at Fordham Prep have failed their students.”
Meenan says the strength to continue fighting his case comes from what he learned at the school himself.
“The skills of persistence and bravery drilled into us as Jesuit students inside that school are the skills I’m using right now to get justice,” he said.
This article was updated on 8/16/16 at 5:11 p.m. to reflect additional comments by Fordham Prep on Gumpel’s allegations.