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The Choirboy

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Donald Hanson, right, with former Boychoir student Charlie Wilfong at Wilfong's wedding. Wilfong claims to have been a victim of sexual misconduct while at school.  

In 1968, the choir director, Donald Bryant, was fired over “a love affair with a little boy,” one of the school’s former board members later told the New York Times. (A number of such accusations would ultimately be leveled against him.) But Bryant’s departure failed to set things right. Instead, the Boychoir School hired his replacement, along with a new headmaster, on the recommendation of John Shallenberger, the wealthy scion of a Pennsylvania coal-mining family and a patron of boys’ choirs. Shallenberger also happened to be a chronic pedophile: Convicted over four decades on multiple charges related to child molestation, he eventually fled the country to avoid prosecution in his home state. (He died this February, at 87, in Mexico, where he was overseeing an orphanage.)

The following year, John Hardwicke arrived at the school as a 12-year-old seventh-grader. The son of a prominent Maryland lawyer, Hardwicke had no special love for choral singing; he enrolled in the school because his father encouraged him to do so. “What turned my dad on was that beautiful mansion, the idea of me associating with good families and touring around the world,” Hardwicke says. “A stupid decision, in retrospect, but he had my best interests at heart.”

One night in his first year, Hardwicke was visited in his room by a man he recognizes from pictures today as having been John Shallenberger, who was following the Vienna Boys’ Choir on a tour of America at the time. It was bedtime, Hardwicke recalls, and although Shallenberger did nothing untoward, he offered a piece of advice: “He told me that I really oughtta not sleep with underwear on.”

In the fall of 1970, the music director Shallenberger recommended, a Canadian named Donald Hanson, took up residence at Albemarle. In his late twenties, terrific-looking, with a thick shock of dark hair, he was just about the coolest adult the boys had ever encountered. He was a brilliant pianist, he drove a Jaguar, and the women who worked at the school all seemed to have a crush on him. “He was very charismatic, like a teen idol, a rock star,” says Hardwicke. “He was an incredibly charming master manipulator.”

About a week after Hanson’s arrival, the music director asked Hardwicke to lend him a hand washing his Jaguar. As Hardwicke remembers it, Hanson touched him suggestively on the shoulder—and from there the contact escalated into a horror show.

Over the next several months, Hardwicke says, he and Hanson had sex “two, three, maybe even four or five times a day.” Sometimes Hanson would masturbate on Hardwicke’s body. Sometimes he would urinate on the boy in the shower. Hardwicke says that Hanson read to him from pornographic books and showed him child pornography. Also that Hanson once had sex with him inside his parents’ house.

Nor was Hanson the only perpetrator, Hardwicke says. He claims he was fondled once by the headmaster and twice by a proctor. He claims to have been masturbated on by one of Hanson’s friends. And he claims that, during a spell the next summer when he was visiting Hanson at Albemarle, the school’s cook came upstairs and raped him in his sleep.

The morning Hardwicke awoke with his underwear off and the cook still in his room, Hanson drove him back to his family’s home in Maryland. Because Hardwicke’s voice had started to change, he wouldn’t be returning to the Boychoir School that fall. He said good-bye to Hanson, walked into the house, and thought, Nothing will ever be the same.

That same summer, Larry Lessig first came to Albemarle. He had just turned 10, a sweet-voiced kid who sung at his church at home in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He’d come to attend a summer camp that the school conducted for choirboys. And after auditioning, he was invited to stay and enroll as a fifth-grader.

Lessig’s father, who ran a steel-fabricating firm, was adamantly opposed. “There’s no way I’m going to send you away to school!” he thundered on hearing the suggestion. But Lessig was seduced by what the school promised, and the next summer, he asked again. His father was torn, but finally relented for the sake of his son’s future. “It was a kind of Billy Elliot moment,” Lessig says. “You could see him making this sacrifice—just hating the idea of losing me.”

Lessig’s first hint of Hanson’s proclivities came one day when another boy scaled a wall outside the mansion. Climbing down, the boy told Lessig he’d seen Hanson in bed with a student. Lessig’s response was total disbelief. “I remember thinking I could no longer trust this kid,” he says. “It was obviously so ridiculous.”

In the fall of his eighth-grade year, Lessig learned otherwise. On a Friday night, after Hanson had taken the boys shopping at the mall in Princeton, they all came back, as they often did, and gathered in his quarters to watch TV. As Lessig sat beside Hanson on the couch, the music director covered their laps with a blanket and proceeded to fondle him. Forever after, Lessig would remember the movie that was playing on TV: Run Silent, Run Deep.

The following June, on Lessig’s 14th birthday, after the choir had returned from touring in California, Lessig was preparing to head home for the summer when Hanson pulled him into his room—“to give me a ‘birthday present,’ ” Lessig says. “I remember feeling totally overwhelmed by him. It wasn’t forcing in the sense of violence . . . It’s not like I was afraid. But there was this recognition of, wow, there’s nothing I can do. Here I am. Bam. It’s over.”

And yet, of course, it wasn’t.


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