Sex Abuse Scandal Haunts Harlem Boys Choir

March 29, 2006 -- -- The world-renowned Boys Choir of Harlem has been thrilling audiences around the world for more than 30 years.

It has performed at the White House, the United Nations and the Vatican. But last month, the choir was evicted from its home in a Harlem public school -- cash-strapped and tarnished by a case of child sexual abuse and an alleged cover-up.

A Unique School

The Choir Academy of Harlem was unique. Sean Watts, 18, traveled more than an hour on the subway to attend the school.

The school had an unusual arrangement. In 1993, Walter Turnbull, the founding director of the Boys Choir of Harlem, struck a deal with the City of New York. The choir would gain a home in a public school rent-free, and in exchange, Turnbull would provide first-rate musical instruction to more than 600 inner-city kids.

Students say the choir provided much more than voice coaching.

"It was the father figure, even though I had a father figure at the house," Watts said. "It was just that extra drive and that extra push."

For Watts, Turnbull was a wonderful mentor and role model.

Locked Out

But last month, the choir was locked out from the Choir Academy; its agreement with the city to work in the public school system withdrawn by the Bloomberg administration.

Citing financial mismanagement and a failure to provide musical instruction, city officials evicted the Boys Choir from the Choir Academy, locking out its staff and blocking its rehearsals on school grounds.

Turnbull, the choir's director, says he is bewildered by the city's reaction. "I don't have all of the answers of why the city wants to shut it down," he said.

There is another reason for the choir's soured relations with the city -- one that neither wants to discuss. City officials first called for Turnbull's removal from the school two years ago because of what had happened to one choir boy.

Crime and 'Cover-Up'

David Pinks, 20, literally grew up in the Boys Choir of Harlem. He called it his "second home." Pinks spent long hours rehearsing with the world-famous choral group, and for his effort, he traveled far and wide to perform.

"It was wonderful." Pinks said. "I have been to every place in like North America, and then you know outside of that, Israel, Europe, you know places in Puerto Rico."

But hard work was not the only price Pinks had to pay for choir life. In his first-ever public interview, Pinks said a sexual predator began to "groom" him for abuse, and, he says, a culture of silence in the organization let it go unchecked.

Song of Silence

The abuser was Frank Jones Jr., the Boys Choir of Harlem's director of counseling for more than 20 years.

He was also the choir's summer-camp director and its chaperone on tour.

"At the choir, on tours, wherever the choir was at, Jones was. So he was with us 24/7," Pinks told "Nightline."

It began, Pinks says, as a friendship when he was 12 years old.

"He was, you know, a mentor. He already gained my trust so I didn't think Jones was going to do anything to hurt me," Pinks said.

"From the hugs came kisses, you know, from the kisses led to other things."

Pinks said that his special relationship with Jones became an open secret in the Boys Choir's closely knit community and that he became the object of ridicule.

"People were saying that I was coming out of his room with my underwear on backward," he said. "So right there you know, you can't tell anybody."

For years, Pinks said nothing. The abuse escalated and the shame deepened.

"He took me to his house, and you know, he, um, he molested me, and this was the first time he licked my rectum and placed his finger inside. After this was done, he asked me did I enjoy it. I told him, 'No.'"

In police interrogation tapes, Jones said the incident was an "accident." He said that while he was rubbing oils on Pinks' back in his bedroom, his hand "slipped" under the boy's underpants and to his anus.

Jones was eventually convicted on 24 counts of child sex abuse and received a prison sentence.

Alleged Cover-Up

City investigators found the conduct of the choir's founder, Walter Turnbull, and his brother Horace during the incident deeply troubling. It may ultimately have cost the choir its relationship with the city school system.

At 14, after suffering sexual abuse for more than two years by Jones, Pinks had reached his breaking point. While rehearsing with a new pop group organized by the Harlem Boys Choir, he confided in the group's producer, Boys Choir alumnus, Tim Battle.

"He didn't want to say anything because he didn't want Jones to get in trouble," Battle told "Nightline." "He just wanted Jones to leave him alone."

"Tim was devastated," Pinks said. "His first response was to go to the police. But I didn't want that."

Instead of going to the police, in the spring of 2001, Battle and Pinks told the choir's two top leaders. They first approached Horace Turnbull, Walter's brother, who was then head of operations.

"Horace said, 'There are two options: We can either fire him or put him on leave pending an investigation,'" Battle said.

But Horace Turnbull did neither. According to a report by the Special Commissioner for Investigations for the New York City public schools, neither Horace nor Walter Turnbull ever reported Jones to authorities.

For 10 months until his arrest, they permitted Jones to remain in the school as a counselor, chaperoning choir members on eight separate trips, and sleeping in the same dormitory as children during the choir's summer camp.

The Boys Choir of Harlem even provided money to bail Jones out of jail, calling it a pay "advance."

Battle says when he told Walter Turnbull about Jones' abuse, Turnbull's response was startling.

"He said, 'Oh, this boy is gonna destroy us, Tim.' I said, 'It's not the boy.' I said, 'Jones is the problem.'"

In an interview with "Nightline," Walter Turnbull said, "I don't remember that discussion with Tim Battle. I don't."

Citing a civil lawsuit that Pinks has brought against the choir and New York City, Walter Turnbull did not elaborate on his handling of the reported abuse.

"Whether or not David came to me or did not come to me, I can't really discuss at this time, but I assure you that I and the Boys Choir of Harlem did our very best to address any issues that needed to be addressed," he said.

City investigators say Turnbull testified under oath that he knew about the abuse allegations 10 months before Jones' arrest. He now contradicts this testimony.

He also rebuts the conclusion of the special commissioner's investigation, which said: "Whether the Turnbulls' inaction was motivated by fear of damage to the BCH's reputation (and consequently, a decline in financial support from charitable grants and contributions) or deference towards a favored employee, they repeatedly placed dozens of DOE students under Jones' care in exactly the same circumstances in which he criminally abused Student A."

Walter Turnbull told "Nightline" he felt he had protected all the children in his care, including Pinks.

"I do not feel that I did anything wrong," he said.

Facing the Music

In 2002, after giving up on getting help from the Turnbulls, 15-year-old David Pinks, working with police, finally brought Frank Jones Jr. to justice. Wearing an undercover recording device, the teenager walked into Jones' office in the school, and taped an admission by his abuser.

The city's chief school investigator called for the Turnbulls' removal in 2004. Horace Turnbull resigned, but the city decided to allow Walter Turnbull to remain in the school.

Prominent leaders in New York's African-American community are now rallying to save Walter Turnbull and the Harlem Boys Choir. Former Mayor David Dinkins and Congressman Charles Rangel are raising money and their powerful voices to repair the relationship between the city and the choir.

Pinks says neither Dinkins nor Rangel has ever contacted him or his parents to hear his story.

"If it was their child, I think it would be a different story," Pinks said.

Given Jones' long and close association with the Boys Choir of Harlem and the Choir Academy of Harlem, Pinks believes there may well be other victims.

"There's always a kid," Pinks told "Nightline." "It's about that one little kid. It's about that kid, because it's that kid who's gonna suffer."

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