The e-mail arrived unbidden four years ago, bearing the stamp of a sender whose name he didn’t recognize. All the message said was, “Are you the Lawrence Lessig who went to the Boychoir School?”
It had been a long time since anyone had identified the Stanford Law School professor that way. But it was true: From 1972 to 1976, Lessig had spent his sixth-through-ninth-grade years at the American Boychoir School in Princeton.
So Lessig wrote back, “Yeah, I’m the guy who went to the Boychoir School. What’s up?” And with that, he opened up a closed doorway to his past—and found himself swept right through it.
Now, on the last Monday of November 2004, Lessig has just arrived at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton, New Jersey. He is here to make an argument before the Supreme Court of New Jersey. His client, the plaintiff, is his e-mail correspondent. The defendant is their alma mater.
Since its founding in 1937, the nonsectarian Boychoir School has gained worldwide renown for producing a choir rivaled only by the more famous one in Vienna; its kids have sung for presidents, popes, and behind Beyoncé at this year’s Academy Awards. But now Lessig’s client, John Hardwicke, is claiming that in the seventies, the school was a ghoulish sanctuary for the sexual abuse of children. In his two years there, Hardwicke says he was repeatedly molested and raped—induced, as the brief on his behalf to the state supreme court puts it, to “perform virtually every sexual act that could conceivably have been accomplished between two males”—by the music director, the headmaster, the proctor, and the cook.
This is not the sort of case for which Larry Lessig is famous. At 43, Lessig has built a reputation as the king of Internet law and as the most important next-wave thinker on intellectual property. The author of three influential books on the intersection of law, politics, and digital technology, he’s the founder of Creative Commons, an ambitious attempt to forge an alternative to the current copyright regime. According to his mentor, the federal appellate judge Richard Posner, Lessig is “the most distinguished law professor of his generation.” He’s also a celebrity. On a West Wing episode this winter, he was featured as a character. “The Elvis of cyberlaw” is how Wired has described him.
I have known Lessig well, professionally and socially, for nearly five years. I’ve never seen him look as nervous as he does this morning. Dressed in a dark suit, his hair slicked back, tiny wire-rims perched on his nose, he moves slowly, ponderously, as if the weight of the stakes in the case is resting literally on his shoulders. The school (known until 1980 as the Columbus Boychoir School) has argued that, under New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act, a statute designed to shield nonprofits from negligence lawsuits, it can’t be held financially liable no matter how heinous Hardwicke’s abuse. If the supreme court agrees, Hardwicke’s case will be dismissed before even being heard by a jury. And scores of sex-abuse suits against New Jersey Catholic churches and schools will be rendered void as well. The church, not surprisingly, has weighed in on the side of the school.
During his work on the case, Lessig has been asked more than once by the press if he had experiences at the school similar to Hardwicke’s. And Lessig has replied, “My experiences aren’t what’s at issue here. What’s at issue is what happened to John Hardwicke.”
The answer is appropriate, politic—but it’s not entirely true. For Lessig has told me that he too was abused at the Boychoir School, and by the same music director that Hardwicke claims was one of his abusers. Lessig is by nature a shy, intensely private person. The fact of his abuse is known to almost no one: not the reporters covering the case, not the supreme-court justices. The fact of his abuse isn’t even known to Larry Lessig’s parents.
In taking this case, however, Lessig has cast aside his caution about a secret that haunts him still. And while his passion about his client’s cause is real and visceral, Hardwicke isn’t the only plaintiff here. Lessig is also litigating on behalf of the child he once was.
The Boychoir School sits on seventeen acres not far from the Princeton campus, surrounded by stands of evergreens and a scattering of suburban houses. You approach the grounds up a narrow drive, past a PRIVATE PROPERTY sign, until you come to a big grass oval in front of a handsome brick Georgian mansion. Three stories high, with 50-odd rooms, the mansion is known as Albemarle and was once the home of Gerard Lambert, the founder of the chemical company that morphed into Warner-Lambert.
In the late sixties, there were several dozen fifth-to-ninth-grade boys living in Albemarle. Every morning, a bell would ring to signal the start to their day, in which classes were interspersed with three one-hour rehearsals, along with private voice tutoring and piano lessons. “Music was in the walls of the school; it was everywhere,” a former student recalls. Decked out in uniforms of navy-blue pants and button-down shirts or turtlenecks, the boys sang Bach, Handel, Mahler, Copland, Bernstein, and American spirituals. All through the school year, they toured the United States, driving around in a big bus kitted out with desks and a lunch counter. In the summer, the best of the choristers were taken on tours of Europe; on one occasion, they performed for Pope Paul VI—who placed his hands on the head of a soloist, Bobby Byrens, and declared, “He has the voice of an angel.”
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.
Lessig had been a bright light at the school since his first year there. With a perfect-pitch soprano voice, he’d been a soloist next in line behind Bobby Byrens (“My idol,” Lessig says). And with a sharp and probing mind already in evidence, he soon emerged as an academic star and student leader, a striver, intensely driven. Now, in his ninth-grade year, Lessig was named head boy, which made him “in charge of taking care of the kids,” he says. “There was no proctor when I was head boy; I was discipline. And there were kids who were real shits—it was a Lord of the Flies–like experience.”
Being head boy also signified something else: He was Hanson’s favorite. And accordingly he was assigned a room next door to the music director’s, at the far end of a hallway on the third floor. By midway through the year, the two of them were essentially living together. “We put up a door in front of our rooms, blocking off the hallway, blocking out the rest of the world. We created a suite. And there was a classroom right next to it. So every day the teacher comes up, watches me come out of that door—which is also Hanson’s door—and walk into class. There’s no way anybody doesn’t know what the hell is going on. But nobody says anything.”
Lessig may have been head boy, but he wasn’t Hanson’s only prey. All along, Lessig says, he knew that Hanson was sleeping with “at least ten” other boys. “The weird thing about the sexuality was that there was no jealousy attached to it at all,” he explains. “It was totally recreational. It was just like playing squash. He’s playing squash with me, he’s playing squash with him. Who cares? What does it matter?”
Among the boys, Hanson’s promiscuity was well known, Lessig says. He would call students out of class to satisfy his cravings. The private voice and piano lessons he administered were especially notorious: “It was five or ten minutes of music, then it would turn into other things,” Hardwicke recalls. And while none of this was ever spoken of explicitly among the boys, there was ribbing, teasing, nodding, winking—constant signals of in-the-knowness. As for the teachers, Lessig says, “Hanson was the boss. What was going to be said?”
Sometimes on trips home, Lessig felt faint stirrings of unease. But it never occurred to him to tell his parents. His relationship to Hanson, unlike Hardwicke’s, was tender, sustaining; his parents would never understand. “Like all pedophiles, Hanson was really good at connecting with kids,” Lessig says. “You just felt you were together; there was no ambiguity about it. He was a friend. A deep, close friend. We talked about everything. He told me about music. He told me about the world … For a kid cut off from everyone else in this weird universe, to have the most important person in the world give you love and approval is the greatest thing you can imagine. What else is there?”
On some level, Lessig realized that the relationship was “fucked up and shouldn’t happen,” he says. But he also had a precocious 14-year-old’s exaggerated sense of his own maturity. “I felt that I could handle it,” he says. “That everything was under control.”
There were moments, however, when reality came crashing through. In Lessig’s final year, he found himself gripped by “an insane depression,” he says, over “the insanity of what was happening.” In his closet he’d found a hatch in the ceiling that led to a crawl space above. He climbed up there and crouched alone for hours in the dark.
One evening near the end of Lessig’s final year at the school, he went with Hanson for a walk around the grounds. As darkness descended on Albemarle, Lessig finally, tentatively, gave voice to his gathering misgivings about Hanson’s behavior.
“Is this really right? Should you really be doing this?” Lessig asked.
“You have to understand,” Hanson replied, “this is essential to producing a great boychoir.” By sexualizing the students, he explained, he was transforming them from innocents into more complicated creatures, enabling them to render choral music in all its sublime passion. “It’s what all great boychoirs do,” Hanson said.
After Lessig moved back to Williamsport for high school, he brooded on what had happened in Princeton. Two years later, he contacted the boychoir’s headmaster, Stephen Howard, and persuaded Howard to appoint him as the alumni representative to the board of directors. Then Lessig went and told Don Hanson that what he was doing was wrong—wrong for the kids, wrong for the school, even wrong for Hanson.
“It’s harmful, it’s destructive, you’ll get caught, you’ll get hanged,” Lessig said. “It’s really got to stop.”
Hanson didn’t argue. Instead, he told Lessig that he had a boyfriend now, a former student who’d left the school with whom he was carrying on. All of his needs were being met.
Lessig wasn’t satisfied. “You should recognize that I’m now on the board,” he said. “If it doesn’t stop, I’m going to out you.”
“You’re right,” Hanson said. “Absolutely, I promise, it will never happen again.”
Lessig believed Hanson utterly. He had yet to learn that pedophilia is an illness, an all-consuming compulsion. At 17, he was flush with the sense of his power to defuse such a delicate situation. “I knew all these things that nobody else did,” he recalls. “I was keeping the institution together. I really wanted it to succeed. And the picture of the institution succeeding with Hanson continuing as choir director was really what I thought should happen.”
But in the fall of 1981, Lessig got a call from Stephen Howard: Hanson had been accused of molesting two students. Lessig by then was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, studying economics and management with an eye to following his father’s path and going into business. Lessig drove up to Princeton for an emergency board meeting, where he learned that Hanson had tried to kill himself by putting his head inside a gas oven. Lessig thereupon told Howard everything he knew about Hanson’s history of abuse.
In March 1982, Howard sent a letter to the school’s parents, informing them that Hanson had resigned “for reasons of personal health.” Without mentioning the scandal, the letter lauded Hanson for his service: “He alone held the school together in the early seventies … hiring and firing staff, running the admissions and concert offices, from time to time driving the bus and even washing the dishes … His story at the Boychoir School is one of total devotion to the boys and dedication to the best interests of the School.”
After his dismissal, Hanson retreated to Canada, while Lessig gave up his seat on the board and got on with his life. His academic brilliance now unfurling in earnest, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied philosophy for three years before entering law school. For a time, his attitude to what Hanson had done, he says, was, “No harm, no foul.”
Then, at Yale Law School, Lessig took a course taught by arch-feminist Catharine MacKinnon and began to ponder his relationship with Hanson in a different, more sophisticated light. “There was this moment when I realized that I had been, in the traditional way, a woman in all relevant respects—totally passive, an object of sexual aggression,” he says. “I’d adopted this supportive, protective role with respect to him.” Among his many other afflictions, Hanson was an alcoholic. “There was this one time I literally saved his life,” Lessig recalls. “I came into his bedroom and he was passed out, vomiting, and I had to flip him over to stop him from suffocating. And this, I felt, was my role. I was his wife.”
Lessig had been involved with a number of women in college and graduate school. And he began to see self-destructive patterns in his relationships. “I remember throwing tantrums,” he says, “as I recognized how this thing had intruded in my life.”
After landing a plum professorship at the University of Chicago Law School, Lessig entered therapy. “The therapist was really great,” he observes with an ironic chuckle. “He said, ‘This is very significant, but you’re lucky—at least you didn’t become a homosexual.’ ”
What happened next is something Lessig refuses to discuss. But according to Hardwicke’s lead attorney, Keith Smith, Lessig sued the Boychoir School and received a settlement. Both the suit and the settlement are officially under seal, with a confidentiality agreement that bars either side from disclosing their existence, let alone any of the details. What Lessig can say, however, is that the school and its lawyers are aware of his abuse by Hanson. And that, in his interactions with them before the Hardwicke case, he thinks that “they behaved well.”
Hanson would call students out of class to satisfy his cravings. Piano and voice lessons quickly turned to other things.
In the next decade, Lessig had almost zero contact with the school, as his legal career went supernova and his personal life settled happily. From Chicago, he moved on first to Harvard Law School and then to Stanford. He married, had a son, and set up digs in a rambling Spanish house not far from the ocean in San Francisco. Soaking in the hot tub on his balcony at night, watching the fog creep in, Lessig believed, with good reason, that he had put the Boychoir School behind him.
And then one day in 2001 came the e-mail from John Hardwicke.
The distance from Lessig’s to Hardwicke’s house is vast in every sense. In deepest rural Maryland, not far from the Pennsylvania line, it’s a small Cape Codder with rickety shutters and a mudslick for a driveway. On the day I visit, in February, the front walk is covered with snow; horses graze in a pasture next door. Inside, John and his wife, Terri, pad around in stocking feet, smoking Marlboro Medium 100s one after another. There are stuffed toys strewn around the house—Terri’s creations. In the living room, a court jester sits amid a metric ton of bric-a-brac, next to a full-size harp.
After a while, the Hardwickes’ 15-year-old daughter bounces through the door in a pair of pink Chuck Taylor high-tops. Her father worries about her taste in music—the Velvet Underground—and the fact that she has a steady boyfriend. “When I hear her listening to ‘Heroin,’ well, I don’t know,” Hardwicke says. “There’s only two things that can ruin your life: drugs and sex.”
Hardwicke pours a cup of coffee and sits with his legs tucked underneath him on the floor of the TV room. At 47, he is tall and thin, with pale-pink skin, a snow-white beard, and watery blue eyes. He begins by telling me about the first time he discussed his abuse with a reporter. “I felt this incredible evil hovering around me that I just knew was going to kill me,” he says. “And then this evil communicated, ‘No, it’s not you, it’s your wife. We’re going to start with her.’”
If the effects of Lessig’s abuse were subtle and slow to emerge, for Hardwicke they’re glaring and have plagued him relentlessly throughout his life. After he met Terri at Catholic University, they were married and started a business together doing freelance PR, graphic design, brochures, and such. But Hardwicke, who was told repeatedly by Hanson that he was gay, has struggled for many years with confusion over his sexual orientation. Well into his marriage, he found himself engaging in anonymous trysts with men.
“It made me feel awful,” he says, pulling his knees up to his chest. “It became sort of this thing that I couldn’t control, and I’d literally want to throw up afterward … I was pretty convinced that it was some kind of demonic possession, almost. I mean, I can remember several times after the event where I’d get gas for the car and it would be, like, 16 dollars and 66 cents.”
At one point, Hardwicke concluded he was gay and announced he was leaving Terri. But a friend who knew of his experiences suggested he seek therapy instead. Because he felt complicit in the acts, he didn’t think of them as molestation. But his therapist, Dr. Emily Samuelson, a trauma specialist, disagreed with that assessment.
Within 24 hours after Hardwicke told Samuelson about being raped by the school’s cook, Hardwicke’s mother was killed in a car accident, propelling his paranoia to imponderable heights. His daughter was in the car, too, but she “walked out unscathed,” he says. “And I got to thinking later it was a metaphor for molestation. Some are killed, some are scarred, some are crippled. Others walk out untouched. It all depends where you were sitting in the car.”
After a few months of seeing Samuelson, in 1999, Hardwicke decided to approach the school and asked his father to help him do it. Hardwicke’s father, who by then had become Maryland’s chief administrative law judge, is a faculty member at Johns Hopkins. So they arranged to meet the school’s then-president, John Ellis, at the Hopkins Faculty Club. Ellis arrived with the school’s attorney. Up to that point, Hardwicke had never contemplated suing the school. “My intention was to have them apologize,” he explains. “I was trying to have somebody say, ‘It’s not your fault.’”
Hardwicke takes a long, deep drag on his cigarette. After several months of back-and-forth, he realized that no apology would be forthcoming and decided to explore a lawsuit. His father contacted some friends of his at Piper Rudnick, the largest law firm in Maryland, where he had briefly been an associate in the fifties.
Assigned to handle the litigation was an earnest, 33-year-old, chubby-cheeked associate, Keith Smith, who was startled by the depths of Hardwicke’s depression when they first met in late 2000. “I’ve never seen anyone as black as John was,” Smith tells me. “He couldn’t work, couldn’t get out of bed most days.”
Not long after the firm signed on, the school made a settlement offer of $200,000. Hardwicke considered the sum “insulting.”
I ask him if he can quantify the damages he’s suffered. His back stiffens, face reddens, voice rises an octave or two.
“This is what bothered me so much about filing a lawsuit. The first thing Piper Rudnick wanted to do was create a list of ways that I’d been damaged. And I’m just, like, fucking unwilling to do this. What do you mean create a list? I’m not going to give you a list … because I can’t. I know I’ve been changed, hurt unbelievably. There’s not a moment that goes by that I haven’t been affected by this. Mr. Hanson used to masturbate the stick shift in the car, so I get in my car and immediately that memory comes to mind. Mr. Hanson shaved my face one of the first times it was ever shaved. So I put on shaving cream and he’s there. Mr. Hanson drank brandy, so I can’t stand brandy. Beer tastes like his urine. I kiss my wife and Mr. Hanson’s tongue is in my mouth. How do you count damage like that?”
Obviously, I say, the damage is very real to you.
“It is real,” Hardwicke says. “There’s a snake that was put inside me, and it coils through my intestines and has become mixed up in my whole being. It’s alive and it talks and I can’t get it fucking out.”
Piper Rudnick filed Hardwicke’s lawsuit in January 2001. And around that time, Hardwicke started calling and e-mailing alumni from the school. He wanted to tell his story to people who might understand. He also wondered if there were others who had suffered similarly. It didn’t take long for him to discover that there were many others—several dozen by his current count. There was his classmate Robert Staab, for one. There was also Bobby Byrens. There were Chuck Clinton, Mark Goebel, and Doug Palmatier. And, of course, there was Larry Lessig, the famous lawyer in California.
When Hardwicke first telephoned Lessig, the call did not go smoothly. Hardwicke asked about Lessig’s experiences with Hanson, promising he would keep the information confidential. But Hardwicke had already mentioned the names of some former students he’d spoken to. Lessig, agitated and deeply wary, told Hardwicke, “You’ve already revealed other people’s secrets to me. I don’t know why I’d trust you to keep my secrets confidential.”
Lessig, however, did agree to talk to Hardwicke’s lawyers. But when Keith Smith called, Lessig said, “I’d love to talk to you, but I can’t.” The implications of Lessig’s phrasing were plain to Smith: “It tells me right away there’s a contract, a settlement agreement, that says he can’t talk.” Smith was interested in deposing Lessig as a potential witness. Now he knew that he would have to subpoena him—overriding any past confidentiality agreement.
Lessig had few doubts about the merits of Hardwicke’s suit. “Sometimes he described the sexual acts in sadistic terms that were hard for me to credit,” Lessig says. “But there were certain signposts that were totally credible to me,” ranging from Hardwicke’s description of Hanson’s brazenness to the special handshake he used—a little tickle on your palm with his middle finger—to signal his desire for sex.
Lessig wished the plaintiff well, hoped he’d win, would be compensated. But Lessig didn’t want to be deposed. He worried about having the seal broken on his past, about having these furtive scenes from his boyhood recounted in a court proceeding. Besides, his mind was elsewhere: on an epic copyright case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, that had become his abiding obsession. But Hardwicke continued badgering Lessig with a stream of calls and e-mails. Finally the lawyer told Hardwicke, “John, I’m in the middle of an extremely important battle—and this is not it.”
In January 2003, three months after arguing Eldred v. Ashcroft before the U.S. Supreme Court, Lessig read a story in the New York Times about Hardwicke’s case. Earlier, the school’s lawyers had moved to have the case thrown out on the grounds that the Charitable Immunity Act provided the school blanket protection from such a lawsuit. Now the trial-court judge, Jack Sabatino, had sided with the school. “The Act insulates charitable organizations from liability for any degree of tortious conduct, no matter how flagrant,” Sabatino opined. “Accordingly, plaintiff’s contentions that employees and agents of the American Boychoir School acted willfully, wantonly, recklessly, indifferently—even criminally—do not eviscerate the School’s legal protection.”
Lessig was floored. Enacted in 1958, amended in 1995, the Charitable Immunity Act, as he understood it, was designed to shield nonprofits from being sued for negligence. But Hardwicke’s suit had nothing to do with negligence—his injuries had been inflicted intentionally. Thus Sabatino’s ruling was “flagrantly wrong,” Lessig says. “Here was this innocent who was being doubly screwed—first literally by the Boychoir and now by the legal system.”
Angry as Lessig was at the opinion, he was angrier at the school. “It’s like, what the fuck?” he says. “You know this happened. You know this was pervasive. Why do you force people to hire lawyers to fight all these bullshit claims when you know you’re guilty? You ought to be figuring out ways to make people whole again. It’s this failure to take responsibility for what they did that just began to make me furious.”
Six days after reading the story in the Times, Lessig received the news that he’d lost the Eldred case. Crushed, despondent, and perhaps in need of a new obsession, he called Keith Smith and volunteered to argue Hardwicke’s appeal. Hardwicke was thrilled; Smith, conflicted. He had devoted thousands of hours to the case, but now Lessig was going to get the glory of making the argument in the higher courts. Smith was aware that Lessig’s track record as an appellate lawyer was limited to two arguments in the Eldred case, both of them unsuccessful. But Smith was swayed by Lessig’s legal stature and his biography. “I felt Larry could approach the argument from a standpoint that I can’t,” Smith says. “He experienced this.”
For the past two decades, Lessig had kept the story of his abuse a closely guarded secret—especially from his parents. By plunging into the Hardwicke case, Lessig says, he understood that it was likely he would “be forced to confront this with my family; people are going to look at me differently.”
The argument before the New Jersey appellate court took place in November 2003. Its essence was straightforward. To Lessig’s knowledge, there was no prior case in the history of New Jersey in which the courts had ruled that charitable immunity applied to intentional wrongful acts. And the acts at the school in the seventies, he said, were not merely intentional: The sexual abuse that occurred was “pervasive and institutionalized.” If the supreme court granted total immunity in such cases, Lessig concluded, New Jersey could become “a haven for sex abuse by charitable institutions.”
When the argument was over, the school’s litigator, Jay Greenblatt, told Lessig the performance was “one of the best oral arguments I’ve heard in my career.” Four months later, the three-judge panel sided 2-1 with Lessig and Hardwicke, prompting the school to appeal to the state supreme court.
Lessig was in Washington when he learned the news, about to board a train for New York. Ten minutes later, his first victory as a litigator notched in his belt, he was in the bar car, beaming, babbling, buying drinks for everyone.
After hearing so many awful things about the Boychoir School, I drove down to Princeton to hear what its officials had to say in its defense. The school’s current president, Donald Edwards, gave me a tour of the grounds. We stopped at the rooms that once made up the Hanson-Lessig suite. “He lived here? You know more than I do about that,” Edwards said in a tone of mild shock.
Bearded and bespectacled at 63, Edwards feels beleaguered by the case. “This is the only litigation I’ve ever gone through, and it’s the only one I will ever go through,” he said in his genial, soft-spoken way. “It’s an adversarial process, and I’ve built a 40-year career on being nonadversarial.”
Edwards joined the school’s staff as head of fund-raising and publicity in 1999, then was elevated to president in 2002. In the spring of 2000, a few months after Hardwicke surfaced with his allegations, the school sent out a letter informing the parents and alumni for the first time about the reasons behind Hanson’s firing (though it didn’t name him). The school encouraged former students to come forward with information about past incidents of sexual abuse (though it didn’t disclose that it had, in fact, settled several other lawsuits in the eighties and nineties). And it hired an expert for advice on its child-protection policies.
In April 2002, the New York Times and Nightline, fed leads by Hardwicke, broke the story in tandem. Hardwicke then set up a Website that further spread the details. The fallout for the school was harsh. Concert bookings evaporated; recruiting students became an uphill slog.
Edwards’s frustration with all of this isn’t hard to comprehend. The abuse took place long ago; today, the school is safe and ever-vigilant, he says. “The irony is, probably the one person who will never bear any burden if there is a judgment against the school is Donald Hanson,” Edwards notes. “The people who are bearing the burden now are our students, faculty, parents, and trustees, none of whom were around in 1970 and 1971.”
All of that is true, of course. But one of the legal system’s central functions is to allocate responsibility for harms that occurred even decades ago—thus creating incentives for sound behavior in the future.
In any event, it would be easier to sympathize with the school had its fight against Hardwicke not been so vicious—and, at times, so ham-handed. When, for example, the lawsuit was filed, the school’s lawyers submitted an official reply that argued that Hardwicke had no case because he consented to the sex with Hanson—and that by not revealing it sooner, he was more negligent than the school. (To be precise, the term the document used was “fraudulent concealment.”) Both statements were leaped upon by the Times and Nightline.
“That was very unfortunate,” Jay Greenblatt, the school’s litigator, tells me one afternoon in his office in Vineland, New Jersey. Greenblatt was appointed to the case by the school’s insurance company, which also pays his fees. He came aboard after the reply was written. “It was a boilerplate-type pleading,” he limply explains. “I don’t even know if it was reviewed.”
Greenblatt is a past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. At 68, he’s got a rumbling voice, close-cropped gray hair, and wears a big gold signet ring. He tells me the school would have preferred to settle with Hardwicke, if only to avoid the flood of adverse publicity. But, Greenblatt goes on, “this isn’t just a matter of money. His goal is to close the school. I think that he along with his id wants to do it. He’s looking to punish someone for what unfortunately occurred to him at the hands of a man 35 years ago.”
In the absence of the prospect of a settlement, Greenblatt says, the school turned to charitable immunity, which, he maintains flatly, “doesn’t apply only to negligence.” Besides, he argues, the school can’t be held liable for Hanson’s private behavior—which he equates with an employee’s stopping in a bar after work and slugging someone in the mouth. “Is the company responsible?” he asks. “No. Why not? Because they’re not acting within the scope of employment.”
If the case does go to trial, Greenblatt clearly intends to wage an assault on Hardwicke’s credibility. “I don’t know where fact ends and fantasy begins with John,” he says. “I believe he was molested. I believe that molestation took place in private and that no one knew about it or reasonably should have known about it. However, of course, if he was being molested fifteen times a day in half of the rooms of the institution, it could create the implication that somebody should have known … So the more notorious it was, the better for his case.”
Yet despite Greenblatt’s assertions to the contrary, what shines through all the school’s dealings with Hardwicke is a stark unwillingness to countenance that the plaintiff might be telling the truth. “I don’t know a lot about what the school was like in 1970 and 1971,” Edwards says. “I do know that the kind of schedule we live with today doesn’t leave enough time for what John Hardwicke describes happened multiple times a day. That sort of thing—I just find it very hard to believe.”
The night before the state supreme-court argument, over dinner in Philadelphia, Lessig tells me he intends to describe obliquely, before the justices, the years-ago conversation in which Hanson said he needed to sexualize the boys for the sake of the choir’s splendor. “It shows, however ridiculous it is, that Hanson believes he’s doing this for the benefit of his employer,” Lessig explains. “So it makes the abuse within the scope of employment.
“Now, we don’t yet have that conversation in the record,” Lessig goes on, “and I’m in this weird position of knowing it. So we’re just going to simply say, look, we will establish at trial that fact. And they could say, how do you know you’re going to establish it at trial? And then I’m in this very awkward position of having to say why.”
And how do you intend to resolve that awkwardness? I ask.
Lessig says, “I don’t know.”
The next morning, at the supreme court, a windowless modern space with walls of marble and frosted glass, Greenblatt argues first. He is peppered with questions and seems at times unfamiliar with his own brief. After 35 minutes, Lessig rises to take his turn. At the podium, he reaches down for a paper cup; his hand quivers so violently that water spills en route to his lips.
Lessig speaks for only twenty minutes. He is rarely interrupted. The judges’ eyes widen when Lessig says that “between 30 and 50 percent of the boys at this school were sexually abused or harassed.” And they squirm in their chairs when Lessig—emboldened by the fact that a Piper Rudnick associate has found something in the record to support the Hanson revelation—announces, “It was the perversion of this music director … to believe that sexual abuse was part of producing a wonderful boychoir.”
When Lessig is done, Greenblatt, clearly irritated, stands up and offers his rebuttal. Of the Hanson revelation, he says, “How convenient … I know of no such fact.” And of the 30 to 50 percent figures, he continues, “[T]hat might be personal knowledge of Mr. Lessig, but it hasn’t been in the record of this case.”
Sitting in a high-backed chair, Lessig cringes as if he’s been stabbed in the stomach, glares at Greenblatt, and shakes his head. He’s just been outed in open court.
Afterward, Lessig, the Hardwickes, and the legal team drive to Princeton for lunch. While everyone believes that the argument went well, they are stunned by Greenblatt’s indiscretion. Walking into the lobby of the restaurant, a French place off Nassau Street, Lessig turns to his companions and says softly, “Hanson took me here for dinner.”
Later that afternoon, Lessig flies home to California, where he receives a barrage of vituperative faxes from Greenblatt—which the school’s lawyer has helpfully cc’d to the press. Greenblatt insists there’s nothing in the record to support Lessig’s surprise assertions. He makes repeated insinuations about Lessig’s “first-hand knowledge.” And, hurling charges of “mendacity,” he says that “Hanson surely would have been fired years earlier” had Lessig spoken out during his stint on the board.
A few weeks later, Greenblatt elaborates to me. “He had a responsibility not only to the children but to the school,” he says. “And if he had that knowledge, didn’t divulge it, and any child was injured thereafter by Hanson, then he bears that responsibility—and perhaps, just perhaps, that plays some part in his role in this matter.”
Lessig’s reaction to Greenblatt’s gambit is disgust mixed with shock and rage. In faxes of his own, Lessig calls his outing a “breach of a basic sense of decency” and professes to be “astonished” by Greenblatt’s “ignorance of the facts in this case.”
I ask Lessig about Greenblatt’s charge that by failing to expose Hanson earlier, he bears a measure of guilt.
“I do feel that,” Lessig says. “But I don’t suffer that feeling, because very quickly I recognize what it is to be a teenager.”
To Lessig, Greenblatt’s charge is a tawdry attempt to score points at the expense of his reputation. “Before this case, I never would’ve had a desire that the Boychoir School close,” Lessig says. “It’s an interesting place, it’s a great experience, it teaches kids to work hard. But the way I feel about it now is, fuck it. If they have to shut down because of this case, I don’t care.”
Everyone connected to Hardwicke v. American Boychoir School assumed that the supreme court would have ruled long before now. Every morning, they check the Web to see if the opinion has been posted.
For Don Edwards, victory would mean the school could bury its lurid past, at least legally speaking. A loss would open the door to suits from other boys whose alleged abuse Hardwicke has dredged up. Edwards says, “It’s not like I wake up thinking the case will destroy the school—but it’s not impossible that it could.”
For John Hardwicke—and for all the potential child-sex-abuse litigants against the Catholic Church in New Jersey—a negative ruling by the supreme court would be a devastating blow, if not a mortal one. He is currently among a group of campaigners working on a parallel track to persuade the state Legislature to amend the Charitable Immunity Act so that it clearly exempts cases of child sexual abuse. At the same time, a ruling in his favor would mean that Hardwicke is only one step closer to putting his case before a jury. “I’ll actually be in the position where I thought I was four years ago,” he says. “I think I’ll be 95 years old going, I think we’re just about done.”
Yet even if Hardwicke does collect a monumental payout, it’s far from clear that money will make him whole again. As he sits in his living room, talking about his high-achieving siblings—one brother a partner at a large law firm, one sister an executive at Ernst & Young—his ravaged expectations for himself are never far from the surface. If not for what took place at the school, he says, “I think that I actually could have been a leader of my fellow people. I could’ve gone on to be a lawyer or politician or something really helpful to society.”
Lessig, of course, is exactly that, and the disparity between his and Hardwicke’s lives suggests that the metaphor coined by the latter may in fact be true: When it comes to consequences of child sex abuse, it really does depend on where you were sitting in the car. It affects different people in profoundly different ways.
“This thing happened to me,” Lessig says, “and I can see how it changed me. But to be too angry about it would require me to kind of hate myself. Now, there are certain things I did hate about what it did to me: the way I would destroy relationships and the pain I would inflict on people when I did. But there are other parts—the weirdness of me and my relationship to the world. Being deeply reflective about institutions, responsibilities, and my role. Spinning deeply from the age of 14 about issues. And it’s like, well, if this hadn’t happened to me, who would I have been? Maybe I would have gone to work with my dad and run the steel plant and become a Republican congressman from Williamsport. I would have been a totally different person.”
Lessig’s sense that the effects of his abuse have been less than cataclysmic is among the reasons Donald Hanson has never been his bête noire. A few years after being fired by the school, Hanson decamped for England, where Lessig ran across him one day in Cambridge—and went punting with him on the Cam. (Since then, Hanson has been hiding out in France, or in Switzerland, or in Canada; no one is certain where.)
“I’ve never felt angry, or really angry, at Hanson,” Lessig says. “Hanson’s sick. He’s got a disease. The real evil isn’t the Hitler. The evil is the good German. The evil is all those people who could’ve just picked up the goddamn telephone and stopped it.”
For Lessig, the Hardwicke case is a chance to battle the good Germans he sees as still inhabiting the Boychoir School and other, similar institutions: “I’m not trying to punish them,” he says. “All I’m trying to do is get them to pick up the phone.”
But Lessig’s participation in the case (and in this story) is about something more, I think. All along, Lessig has gone to great lengths to keep his parents from learning that he was working on the Hardwicke litigation—and thus confronting his abuse with them. The question, though, is how far in the dark Lessig’s parents actually are.
Lessig once told me a story about the summer after he left the Boychoir School. Hanson invited him to take a trip to the Hanson family compound in Canada. Lessig badly wanted to go. But his mother said no, and when Lessig asked why, she said, “I don’t know, there’s something weird about this.” Lessig threw a titanic fit. “I screamed, slammed the door, walked out of the house,” he said. “I came back three hours later, and we never said anything about it ever again.” Lessig paused. “They knew.”
So if they knew—that is, they know—isn’t keeping it from them a charade?
“You underestimate the power of the human mind to ignore things that aren’t placed right in front of you,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be such a successful charade to succeed in not forcing them into this deeply depressing, painful recognition of not taking steps to protect your kid.”
What has brought all this into focus for Lessig is the birth twenty months ago of his son, Willem. Lessig recalls his father’s tirade when he asked to go to the Boychoir School. “It wasn’t until I became a father that I understood,” he says. “I can’t imagine sending my son away to school. I can’t imagine how they could do it.”
Willem has also afforded Lessig an insight into his deliberations over whether to reveal his abuse to his parents: “I think to myself, My God, I would never want my child not to tell me something like that.”
But Lessig and his parents remained locked in a silent impasse: the parents too fearful, and perhaps too guilty, to press him about what happened; the son too angry with them to volunteer the information.When Lessig saw his mother and father at Christmas, at their home in Hilton Head, they told him they’d received a card from a friend that mentioned his latest legal adventure: We saw Larry’s name in the paper, the card reported. We see he’s fighting a lawsuit with that boychoir in Princeton.
His parents inquired, What lawsuit? Lessig refused to tell them. Now he doesn’t have to—and they don’t have to ask. For better or worse, the impasse has finally been broken.