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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.
The 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.
In 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.
The Choir’s problem 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.
I 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 broke.
Unfortunately there 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.
The 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.
Note to 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/