Cate School – Who is Responsible?

By Wendy Ward Hoffer   |   April 19, 2022

When my daughter started high school, I stopped sleeping. I spent nights awake curled like a dog against the cold, trying not to remember my tenth-grade history teacher’s thick hands on my thin thighs, the way he looked at me with his mouth half open, everything he gave me and all that he took. I had known for decades it was wrong but kept my story to myself – until the reality of my own child’s vulnerability jumped my nervous system. The thought exploded: what happened to me could happen to her. To any of our children. 

Over the past several years, two California boarding schools – Thacher in Ojai and Cate in Carpinteria – have reckoned with faculty sexual abuse. Thacher commissioned an investigation by Munger, Tolles & Olson (MTO); completed in ten months, the report spans decades, extends 91 pages, and describes six named and two unnamed abusers. Meanwhile, Cate hired Oppenheimer Investigations Group (OIG) who, fourteen months later, delivered 35 pages describing the crimes of seven named and ten unnamed perpetrators. While Thacher has been forthcoming with their findings, proactive in establishing a therapy fund, and collaborating with law enforcement, Cate modelled obfuscation. 

I contacted Cate’s Head of School Ben Williams in 2019 to report my abuse there as a student; he acted shocked and reassured that there were no other improprieties between teachers and students. Under California AB 218, which temporarily removes the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse survivors, I made a claim against the school. Then, with friends on the Cate Organizing Team, I lobbied for the independent investigation, a survivor therapy fund, and other reforms. Cate’s long-awaited report revealed how not to respond to faculty sexual abuse. Let’s learn from Cate’s errors:

Don’t Diminish Student Concerns

As described in the OIG report, in November 2019, one courageous student reported that faculty member Da’Jon James had played a “would you rather” game with her while driving to an off-campus activity; the teacher asked, “Would you rather… or drink a bucket of semen?” School administrator Jay Dorion asked the reporting student to continue driving with that teacher until he found a replacement driver. Student complaints against James’ inappropriate physical contact were disregarded by administrators for months. In February 2020, James was released. He moved to Dawson School in Colorado, where his criminal misconduct with high schoolers continued, and he was subsequently arrested. Cate’s inaction enabled a sexual predator to abuse children, not only at Cate, but also at Dawson.

Do listen to students, act promptly, and seriously. 

Don’t Provide Abusers Ongoing Access to Students

Four former faculty members and seven alumni reported 15-year Cate faculty member David Mochel for his inappropriate behavior with students, including “kissing and touching intimate body parts.” Though an open secret at the time, one survivor formally reported his abuse to the school in 2012; Cate conducted a private, undocumented investigation. As a result, Mochel resigned, but Williams allowed him to remain living on campus until last year, valuing an adult’s lifestyles over student safety. This same flagrant cronyism raised eyebrows at Harvard – until faculty withdrew their blind support for alleged perpetrator John Comaroff

Do prioritize student safety over abusers’ comfort.

Don’t Dismiss Survivors’ Memories

My own abuse at Cate was perpetrated by a young faculty member, Kirk Phelps, and enabled by a colleague with whom he shared an on-campus apartment. In the OIG report, I am initially described as a “very credible witness.” Yet, pages later, investigators quote this enabler describing my memory as “absolutely not true.” As with Mochel, Cate, with its money, power, and privilege, protects its people, breeding a culture of permissiveness. 

Do believe survivors.

Though the county sheriff gathered numerous reports and investigated, the district attorney has taken no visible action, and the Cate Board’s December 2021 letter to the community provides a full endorsement, “After reviewing the report, the Board continues to put its complete trust in Ben Williams and the School’s faculty and administrators.” This lack of humility, remorse, or consequences is shocking in today’s climate of accountability. Two Rialto high school administrators were recently charged with felony child abuse for failing to report student-on-student sexual assault. Cal State Chancellor Joe Castro resigned promptly over his mishandling of a single case of faculty sexual misconduct, and the entire board of the USA Gymnastics departed after Nasser’s abuse scandal. Meanwhile, Cate glides above Title IX and laws protecting children. 

On March 18, Thacher’s current Head of School, Blossom Pidduck, a Thacher alum who has led throughout their sexual abuse investigation and response – came forward as a Thacher survivor herself, shedding light on that school’s thoughtful responses. Pidduck is taking a leave of absence for self-care. March 23, Cate’s Head, Williams, announced his departure from the school – 14 months from now. Neither the tone of his letter, nor the timeline, suggest culpability or responsibility. I still wonder who at Cate will be held accountable, and, more importantly, what are we teaching children if we allow administrators with unchecked power to flout moral duty with impunity?  

Wendy Ward Hoffer is an educator, author, and host of the CSA Survivors Speak podcast.
@wendywardhoffer @csasurvivorsspeak


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