They had the kinds of experiences most elementary and middle school students can only dream about: national and international travel, audiences that included world leaders, they even made soundtracks for movies and television shows.
For 65 years, the students at the prestigious American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J. (formerly Columbus Boychoir School), have enjoyed the kinds of privileges available only to the very talented, the very lucky, or both.
But if the charges of several men interviewed by ABCNEWS' Nightline are true, the privileges for some came at a terrible price: repeated molestation over many months by the men who were charged with shaping their talent.
The story, reported by Nightline with the help of the New York Times, which published an extensive account on April 16, has echoes of the scandal engulfing the Catholic Church. There are allegations of extensive mistreatment of young people over a period of years that was apparently ignored by those with the power to stop it, and victims were too ashamed or too frightened to come forward until it was too late.
Many of the charges of abuse focus on the choir's director, Donald Hanson, who taught at the school from 1970 to 1982, when he was fired for sexual misconduct involving two different students, although the school did not disclose that fact to alumni and others until years later.
Alumni interviewed by ABCNEWS said numerous figures other than Hanson also had sexual contact with students at the school, which in turn motivated students to abuse each other.
‘He Was My Teacher’
"There was a tremendous sexualized environment in the school," says John Hardwicke Jr., who enrolled as a seventh grader in what was then the Columbus Boychoir School in 1969. Hardwicke says he remembers seeing a group of boys touching another little boy in his bed on his first weeks at the school but did not understand what it meant.
Teacher Donald Hanson arrived at the school in 1970. Hardwicke says within a very short period of time, Hanson became a friend.
"He took special interest in me and liked me a lot… And of course he was my teacher and I was away from home… and that's why I appreciated his attention," Hardwicke says. "… early on, he began to do things like put his hand on my shoulders … things that were probably appropriate but became fairly quickly inappropriate as he rested his hand there too long."
When they escalated, Harwicke says, things quickly went out of control, beginning with a weekend visit to Hardwicke's own house. With Hardwicke's parents asleep, Hanson invited the 12 year-old to join him in the guest room, where Hanson began licking him all over his body.
Upon return to campus, Hardwicke says, sexual contact with the choir master became a daily event, ending only when Hardwicke left the school after his voice changed. Through it all he says he never told anyone, in part because he believed school officials knew about and condoned the behavior.
"I think that I felt the friendship with Mr. Hanson was the most important thing," says Hardwicke. "I guess that in my mind I had determined that I had not been hurt somehow. I think we do everything we can, particularly boys, to feel as that we have not been hurt. We will make whatever mental manipulations are necessary to think that everything is OK. We don't like to call ourselves damaged or hurt in any way."
The choir director, moreover, was one of the school's most prominent figures, involved in everything from admissions to fund-raising to the decision — all-important to the students — over who was allowed to travel and where.
Although Hardwicke later married and started a family, he says lingering personal problems caused him to seek therapy, where he finally understood that Hanson's conduct was abusive. That motivated him to contact the school, he says, to seek accountability and find others who may have been abused and were in need of help.
A few months after Hardwicke's contact with the school, School President John Ellis issued a letter to alumni disclosing that Hanson — whom he did not identify by name — had been dismissed for sexual misconduct, not permitted to resign for health reasons as had been previously reported.
Hardwicke has since decided to sue the school.
A judge subsequently ordered a previously sealed lawsuit unsealed. That suit, brought by Jeffrey Samis and his parents Donald and Mona, also accused the school of permitting Donald Hanson to abuse Jeffrey Samis throughout the 1980 school year.
"He enticed the children up to his room in the evening hours and plied them with alcohol," said Donald Samis. "He got them to wash his clothes, and Jeff would spend a lot of time in his residence in the main building."
Samis says it was in those visits that his son suffered the sexual abuse, and it wasn't a secret: "The school knew about it; they covered it up," he says.
The Samis family says they settled their suit out of court in 1990 for approximately $875,000.
A third man interviewed by Nightline, Robert Byrens, was contacted by John Hardwicke as he sought more information about what had happened to him and other alumni. Byrens, who enrolled in the school in 1971, says he was abused by a houseparent named William Sargeant, who pulled him out of class as many as three times a day to have sex.
"Most of my 7th grade year, my day was waking up and having sex with him, going to school, coming back after school for more, going to rehearsal then going to dinner and then being with him again in the evening," he says. "It was just constant, all the time."
Byrens said that Sargeant made explicit threats to keep him in line.
"He told me he would have my scholarship taken away to the school, which his parents or grandparents were paying for," Byrens says. "He would talk to my teachers and have me fail all of my classes. And he said that I couldn't end it because he loved me and couldn't live without me, and so I couldn't do that because I would break his heart."
School Denies Liability
The school's president, John Ellis, who has served since 1990, told Nightline he was horrified when he learned of the allegations and wanted to reach out to alumni.
"We wanted to certainly to express compassion for anyone who might have been abused. I wanted to encourage those who wanted to be in touch with me to tell me of their experience," Ellis says. "And wanted to be open. I think that was the main thing."
But Ellis stood by the school lawyers' official response, which suggests that the school is immune from liability because the boys consented to the conduct.
In Hardwicke's case, the school contends that, "this plaintiff consented to the acts alleged in the complaint and is, therefore barred from recovery against this defendant."
Neverthelss, Ellis said the school has taken all available steps to make the school safe for students, including giving students explicit insutrctions on what to do if anyone makes them uncomfortable. He says he would be comfortable sending his own son to the school, when he is old enough.
But that's cold comfort to the men who say that their lives were marked by abuse that they cannot forget.
"He's the only person in my life that I hate," says Byrens, " And I would tell him just how much he has devastated me, even 30 years later. And that he should know it. I want him to know it."