When parents of students at St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo received a letter earlier this year informing them of an allegation of sexual abuse against a former teacher and elementary school principal at the Catholic boys school, shock waves rippled through the tight-knit school community.
The letter, dated Jan. 31 and signed by the current headmaster, Saburo Kagei, says: “In recent days, it has come to the attention of the school administration that an allegation of sexual misconduct has been made against Brother Lawrence Lambert by a former student. The misconduct allegedly occurred in 1965 when Br. Lawrence was a teacher at the first St. Mary’s campus in Sengakuji.
“After the school administration learned of the situation, we notified the local Japanese police authority and the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church in Tokyo. Both agencies are conducting investigations with the school’s full cooperation. While the investigation is ongoing, Br. Lawrence Lambert is prohibited from having any contact with students, staff or parents at SMIS.”
The following day, the letter regarding Lambert, who was the elementary school principal for around three decades from 1982, went up on the St. Mary’s International School Labor Dispute website, a blog started by an aggrieved former employee, and the news of a sexual abuse allegation at one of Japan’s most prestigious international schools started to circulate around the school community.
Shortly after, the letter was also posted on Sylvia’s Site, a well-read blog dedicated to exposing sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Canada and elsewhere. St. Mary’s is run by the Brothers of Christian Instruction, a Catholic order founded in France in the 19th century that has schools on every continent.
The reaction was huge, and soon comments were flooding in to both sites from concerned parents and alumni alike. For the first time, the issue of alleged sexual abuse of children at St. Mary’s was out in the open. Soon, allegations of sexual abuse by other Catholic Brothers at the school also began to surface and alleged victims began to come forward.
Teja Arboleda says he was sexually abused by another Canadian teacher and Catholic Brother at the school, Benoit Lessard, between 1974 and 1975, while he was in sixth grade, the last year of elementary school at St. Mary’s. At that time, the school held an annual nature camp at the Seisen-Ryo complex in Kiyosato, Yamanashi Prefecture, for sixth-graders. Seisen-Ryo, or the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project (KEEP), is a Christian faith-driven project established by American missionary Paul Rusch in 1946, and their accommodations in Kiyosato are still used by a wide variety of groups today.
As well as nature excursions, involving activities such as collecting insects around the rolling hills of Yamanashi, the camp also included a sex education component. According to Arbodela, this sex education program began with all the students attending a lesson together, which included watching a film about sexual reproduction. This was followed by one-on-one consultations with Lessard.
Arboleda says that it was during this private consultation that Lessard sexually abused him.
“The incident at KEEP is very clear to me,” Arboleda says. “I remember there was a kid who left the room before I entered and someone who came in after. It was kind of organized, I guess.
“This room was a smaller room which had some desks in it, and there was a section cordoned off with a curtain,” he says. “He was sitting on a stool or a chair and I was standing.”
Arboleda says that Lessard first asked him a few questions about the sex education class the students had attended earlier in the day.
“He talked about sperm and ejaculation and I didn’t know how to respond to that,” he remembers. “Then he asked me to pull my pants down and started to sexually abuse me. He was standing or sitting behind me at the time.”
Arboleda, now 52, says he had “no idea what was happening” at the time the abuse occurred.
“I think I felt something like, ‘I’d better comply because I don’t want to get anybody angry or upset,’ ” he says.
He adds that there were no overtones of threat or intimidation during the incident.
“I remember it being a very gentle voice. And probably the reason I never responded violently, in an accusing manner later on, was because it was done quietly,” Arboleda says. “I always remember him as being a very gentle person, but now that I look back, it probably was a strategy to get kids to feel comfortable with what he was doing.”
In a strange turn of events, Arboleda’s brother, also a St. Mary’s graduate, got married at the KEEP site in 1995. Arbodela and his wife flew over from the U.S. for the wedding and stayed there the night before the wedding.
“My brother didn’t know that I had been abused there,” he says. “I actually walked him down the hall to the room where some of this activity took place. And we both broke down when I told him what happened. He didn’t know, but it was important for me to visit that space.”
For a long time Arboleda remained silent about the abuse he says he suffered at St. Mary’s, only telling a few close family members, but he has now decided to go public and use his real name, something victims of sexual abuse rarely do. He says part of the reason for this is that he has decided to make a documentary film about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
Arboleda is the owner and creative director of Entertaining Diversity, Inc., a Boston-based media company. The film, titled “Ring Around the Collar,” will look at sexual abuse within the church from an international perspective, telling the stories of victims from a range of countries. It will also address the accusations of abuse at St. Mary’s and his own personal experience.
“I think in making this documentary, if I don’t put myself out there, people aren’t going to trust that,” Arboleda explains. “I’m telling the story in the way I need to tell it, so I think I need to be brave enough to use my own name.”
Approximately five years after Arboleda’s alleged abuse at KEEP, in the summer of 1979, 12-year-old Fredrick Smith started at St. Mary’s.
Smith’s family had moved to Japan from Europe in 1976. His father worked as an executive for a large European industrial firm with operations in Japan.
As St. Mary’s was the international school with the best academic reputation at the time, his parents decided to send him there. His home room teacher was Brother Lessard.
Lessard was a “soft spoken, caring and forgiving” teacher who had the best interests of his students at heart, says Smith, now 47, who asked that his real name not be published.
Smith quickly adjusted to life at St. Mary’s, and nothing untoward happened until he attended the KEEP camp in the autumn of 1979.
“There was a lot of hush-hush around KEEP,” Smith says. “We were told that we would be instructed about sexual matters and that not all parents would approve of this, but that the school still thought it was their obligation to teach young boys concerning this matter.”
Smith believes it is “highly unlikely” that parents knew about the sex education component of the camp, and says the boys were discouraged from telling them.
His account of events at KEEP is strikingly similar to Arboleda’s. Smith says that in his year, the class also attended a group lesson about sex education, and then had one-on-one sessions with Lessard.
According to Smith, before the private consultations, all the students in the class were sent to the Japanese-style communal bath to wash and soak. Lessard entered the bathing area fully dressed, sat on a chair and watched the boys as they bathed.
At the start of the consultation session, Smith says, after reassuring him that he could talk freely and in confidence, Lessard asked if he had any questions related to sex education.
“After some time, he informed me about his private study: He was measuring penises in different states of excitement,” Smith explains. “He checked for pubic hair. He measured up and asked me to masturbate.”
Smith says the experience felt very “scientific” and “clinical” at the time — like a doctor-patient kind of scenario.
“He had, as far as I can remember, a notebook where he made notes,” Smith says. “I don’t really remember him fondling me in any sexual way, though I do remember him touching me while measuring. I don’t remember Brother Lessard showing any signs of excitement during this session.”
Smith says the session probably lasted 20 to 30 minutes, and then it was the next student’s turn. He estimates there were about 30 boys who had these private consultations that day. Although he doesn’t know if all of them had the same experience, he is sure that some did.
“I shared a room with three other classmates,” Smith says. “We all had similar experiences with Brother Lessard and I believe that the older and more mature of us had actually masturbated to ejaculation, but my memory is a bit foggy on this subject.”
Smith says that he could only guess what Lessard’s motives were in carrying out his “scientific experiment,” but, with hindsight, it seems obvious they were sexual.
He also says that, to his knowledge, Lessard didn’t commit more serious forms of sexual abuse, such as rape.
“My take is that the whole scientific aspect of it was just a facade,” Smith reflects. “There is no doubt that he was a religious man. . . . I can imagine there was some kind of guilt. If he got his kick from watching young boys naked, maybe he settled for that. Stepping the game up would definitely put the whole venture at risk.”
On March 24, 1980, just five months after the KEEP camp, Lessard died at the age of 64. Despite the abuse he alleges occurred, Smith was shocked and saddened by his death.
“Brother Lessard passed away during the school year, and I remember that I cried, as I felt that he was a very caring teacher.”
Thirty-five years later, his feelings are more complicated.
“Yes, he abused his position and my trust in him,” Smith says. “He abused the students’ dependence on him as a teacher.”
Smith says that although he has come to terms with what happened, he would like to see more accountability and better protections put in place for children in the future.
“I have forgiven Brother Lessard in my heart a long time ago,” he says. “We all fail, and even though one of the worst things you can do in this world is to hurt children, he was no more than human.
“There were too many kids involved for the school or Brotherhood to not know about it,” Smith says of the alleged abuse. “The Brotherhood should, in my opinion, remove the temptation for all of its members that display these tendencies. They should simply be removed from any access to children.”
It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of students Lessard might have sexually abused while at St. Mary’s, but testimony from alleged victims suggests that it may have stretched well into the hundreds, spanned years, if not decades, and occurred at multiple locations.
Accounts from former students and photos taken at the camp and the school indicate that up to 60 students may have attended KEEP each year — two sixth-grade classes of approximately 30 students per class — although it appears that some years the number was significantly lower.
It is not clear for how many years Lessard ran his camp at KEEP, but it has been established that it was running from at least the early 1970s until 1979. The Japan Times has received one confirmed report of another student who was sexually abused by Lessard at KEEP in 1972.
The majority of students who attended camp participated in one-on-one private consultations with Lessard, those who attended have confirmed, where it is known abuse often occurred. No further KEEP camps are believed to have been held after Lessard’s death.
However, former students have alleged that Lessard also abused boys at the St. Mary’s campus in Tokyo. Reports from ex-students allege Lessard was carrying out one-on-one “counseling” sessions with students in a small private office tucked away on the top floor landing by the entrance to the roof of the school in the 1960s. These sessions were apparently conducted along similar lines to the “sex education” consultations at the KEEP camp, with students asked to masturbate in front of Lessard, and seem to have been a precursor to the more systematic abuse that occurred at the camps.
Allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic Brothers working at St. Mary’s have been circulating online and within the alumni community for some time now. In total, allegations have been leveled at five different Brothers who worked at the school, including Lessard, as well as two lay teachers, although it is not yet clear how much of this is established fact.
St. Mary’s is not the only high-profile international school in Tokyo to face allegations of child sexual abuse. Earlier this year, The Japan Times ran a series of stories about historical allegations of sexual abuse of students at the American School in Japan by Jack Moyer, a renowned marine biologist and teacher at the school who committed suicide in 2004.
Although St. Mary’s acknowledged the allegation against Lambert in the letter issued earlier this year, the school has declined to comment further on this case, or on the allegations leveled against Lessard. The Catholic Archdiocese of Tokyo also declined to comment for this article. Neither gave a reason for their decision.
Storied Tokyo school run by Catholic order with global presence
St. Mary’s International School, located in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward near Kaminoge Station, is one of Japan’s most prestigious international schools.
The school is made up of an elementary, middle and high school and is structured differently to regular public schools in Japan, having grade years running from 1 to 12. There is also a kindergarten that the school calls “pre-first grade.”
The private Catholic boys school was established in 1954 by the Brothers of Christian Instruction and boasts of having more than 1,000 students from around 60 different countries.
The Brothers of Christian Instruction, also known as the De la Mennais Brothers or the Mennaisians, are a Catholic order that was established in France in 1819, dedicated to the education of youth across the globe. They first came to Japan in 1951, and the opening of St. Mary’s in 1954, then located in Sengakuji, was one of their first major achievements in Asia.
Within the Mennaisian hierarchy, Japan and the Philippines form a “vice-province” that is administered by the Province Jean de La Mennais in Quebec, which is why many of the Brothers teaching at St. Mary’s, including Lessard and Lambert, originate from Canada.
The Mennaisians also administer two other schools in Japan: Seiko Gakuin in Yokohama and Shizuoka Seiko Gakuin in Shizuoka.