The recent revelation
of sex abuse at the world renowned Boys
Choir of Harlem is reminiscent of the scandals in the Catholic
Church. In both cases leaders placed the desire to protect their
institutions ahead of the need to protect children victimized
by a terrible crime. Instead of being protected, the institutions
in question are now in disrepute and facing uncertain futures.
Boys Choir of Harlem, founded by Dr. Walter Turnbull in 1968,
is one of the nation’s
premier cultural institutions. The Choir has performed for presidents,
the Pope, and Nelson Mandela as well as appearing on film sound
tracks ranging from Glory to Malcolm X. The Choir
is housed in the Choir Academy of Harlem, a school operated in
conjunction with the New York City Department of Education.
2001 a student informed Dr. Turnbull that he had been repeatedly
abused by Frank Jones,
a choir counselor, over a two-year period of time. Turnbull was
more concerned with bad news getting out than he was for the
well being of the victim. He didn’t report the allegations to
the Department of Education, to the police, or to the student’s
parents. Instead he allowed Jones to confront and threaten his
victim. After months of depending on the non-responsive
Turnbull for help, the student told his mother about the abuse
and she went to the police. After the ensuing investigation the
Department of Education demanded that Jones be fired and kept
away from Choir members. Turnbull violated the order and allowed
Jones to chaperone the choir on over night trips. Jones was convicted
of sexual assault and is serving a two-year prison sentence.
The New York City Department
of Education demanded the resignations of
Dr. Turnbull and his brother, Horace Turnbull, the Choir Executive
Vice President. Initially the Choir Board agreed that the Turnbulls
should resign. Dr. Turnbull had the good grace to admit in a
January 14th New York Times interview, “It happened; I handled
it badly.” It is early in the year but we may already have the
biggest under statement of 2004. In the interview Dr.
Turnbull went on to whine that the Choir should not be jeopardized “based
on one incident” and explained that he had not groomed a successor
and feared that the Choir could not continue without him.
is a familiar one in the Black community. Someone brings a brilliant
idea to fruition but can’t or won’t delegate authority and never
brings others into leadership positions. The Board of the Choir
and the New York City Department of Education are now faced with
the choice of doing the right thing and showing Turnbull the
door, but in so doing jeopardizing the future of a great institution.
give Turnbull credit for confessing, albeit lamely. Another
revered Harlem institution,
Hale House, was not so lucky. In 2001 it was revealed that its
president, Dr. Lorraine Hale, had charged market rents in an
apartment building given to her by the City of New York to house
low-income residents. As the charges of malfeasance multiplied
prominent leaders such as Rev. Al Sharpton and Congressman Charles
Rangel very publicly leapt to Dr. Hale’s defense. Of course,
every day another sordid shoe dropped. It turned out that the
person listed as the Hale House Treasurer was deceased, and had
been deceased for several years. Dr. Hale had borrowed money
from the organization both to renovate her suburban home and
to finance her husband’s theatrical production. I often wanted
to be a fly on Sharpton’s and Rangel’s walls when those stories
are still those who prefer melodrama to tough decision making.
The obligatory press conference was called to support Turnbull,
in this case by 100
Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. The group’s president,
Eric Adams, a New York Police Department lieutenant, rejected
any common sense he ever had and his law enforcement training
when he asked that Turnbull stay on at the Choir. I suppose we
should thank God for the small favor of only six Choir member
parents turning out for this show of support.
We might also be grateful
that Turnbull admitted wrongdoing and spared any would be supporters
the embarrassment of vouching for him, but his lame
apology is not good enough either. Turnbull showed the worst
judgment imaginable for someone who is charged with mentoring
and therefore protecting minors. Only Turnbull can tell us what
drove him to ignore such a serious charge and then put other
children in a position of possibly being harmed by the abuser.
On January 14th the
Board capitulated to
Turnbull’s tantrum and approved a proposal allowing him to remain
in a position that “addresses the important concerns raised by
the Department of Education.” Once again we see
the Black community beset by a lack of imagination when faced
with a crisis that should be confronted. There is little
doubt that the Choir would suffer a difficult transition with
new leadership, but it could survive if those who circle the
wagons were instead motivated to bring new ideas to a challenging
situation. Turnbull is obviously a very gifted man, but he can’t
be the only Black person in America who can teach children to
sing. Instead of defending the disgraced Director, the Board
should have begun searching for a replacement to undo the damage
that has been done.
abuse victim is now a college sophomore. He is suing Walter
and Horace Turnbull,
the Choir Academy, and the Department of Education for $30 million.
I do not envy those who must now raise money in such a poisoned
atmosphere. Bob Dole once asked about Bill Clinton, “Where is
the outrage?” The outrage is definitely not in Harlem, where
enablers of child abuse are excused, lauded, and kept in position
to destroy great institutions.
readers: On January 22, 2004 the board of the Boys Choir of Harlem
reached an agreement with the New York City Department of Education
requiring Dr. Walter Turnbull to resign his duties as executive
director effective February 17, 2004. He will then assume the
role of artistic director. Horace Turnbull will resign from his
position as executive vice president, also by February 17th.
Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in . Ms.
Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She
can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more
of Ms. Kimberley's writings at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com/