by Pete Mazzaccaro
Clark Hinderlang, an Atlantic City school teacher, had what he calls a difficult life after he graduated from Chestnut Hill Academy in 1973.
“Over a 20-year period, I was diagnosed as a drug addict, with post traumatic stress disorder because of the death of my dad at age 12, depression, clinical depression, neurosis, manic depression, anxiety disorder,” he told the Local last week. “I also spent a week at the Caron Foundation in Reading, Pennsylvania for co-dependent issues.”
In addition, Hinderlang said, was his alcoholism, which destroyed two of his three marriages and made relationships with his three children difficult. But it wasn’t the alcohol that drove his self-destructive behavior.
He has been sober for 20 years now, and part of his personal healing, he said, has been coming to terms with being sexually abused several times by a Chestnut Hill Academy teacher between 1969 and 1973.
Hinderlang approached his former school, now known as Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in 2011, when he first began speaking about the incident with a therapist. Those visits, he said, were triggered after he was hospitalized following several panic attacks in 2010. He says he had repressed the abuse for all those years.
“With my therapist’s guidance, I sent an email to [then head of school] Frank Steel in December 2011,” Hinderlang said. “Frank emailed me back about a month later and said that the school would look into and investigate my allegations and get back to me. That email was signed by Steel and [current SCH president] Priscilla Sands.”
This month, SCH acknowledged Hinderlang’s story in the form of a letter to its school community, prompting both Hinderlang to share his story and for many more to admit that they, too, had been abused by a CHA teacher many years ago.
Clark Hinderlang grew up in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. He enrolled in Chestnut Hill Academy in 1967, the year his father died. He was 12-years-old. Two years later, at the age of 14, he was first raped, he says, by teacher Michael Clifford, a man then in his 20s.
Clifford died in 2001 at his home in Provincetown, Mass. He was apparently an inn manager at the time of his death.
Hinderlang told the Local that after he was abused, he told three teachers at the school. He’s not sure what those teachers did with the information he gave them. All, he said, are now also dead.
The times were a lot different, Hinderlang acknowledged.
“There was not a great awareness of sexual abuse of children back in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said.
Furthermore, the mores of the time and what was acceptable for middle- and high-school-aged children was a lot different.
“Underage drinking was encouraged,” Hinderlang said. “Parents used to sponsor keg parties. Chestnut Hill Beer Distributor would deliver cases upon cases of beer to houses, and the kids would pay the bill or simply charge it to their parents accounts.”
Hinderlang said it was not unusual for teachers to be part of these “parties.”
Hinderlang was apparently not the only victim of Clifford. Following an allegation by a student in 1974, Clifford was fired by Head of School Gerrit Keator, who was not even a month into his position at the time.
Hinderlang said that he has been contacted by 11 former CHA students, nine of whom said they were also victims of Clifford. Two said they were abused by other teachers. Hinderlang forwarded four emails he received to the Local, with the names of the senders omitted.
“Dear Clark Hinderlang: Your letter brought tears to my eyes,” reads one email. “I am too a victim of Mike Clifford. After I graduated in 1971, I went to his house unannounced that summer. He was there entertaining 2 of my CHA friends and I warned them flat out right then and there. They were both so high and Cliffford was dead drunk. I went there to confront him with his abuse of me one night when he talked me into sleeping over his house. I too never said a word to anyone until about a year later.”
One of the emails Hinderlang received is from a former teacher who apologized for failing to do more at the time.
“I don’t think any of us were appalled enough by such stories,” the email reads. “We were all (I include myself) guilty of a kind of passivity that now strikes me as a moral failure.
“Your willingness to come forward [will] help ensure that such actions will be less likely to occur in the future. For that we should all be grateful.”
After investigating the allegations by Hinderlang, SCH decided to send a letter to all families of current and former students to acknowledge Hinderlang’s claims. That letter, dated May 7, 2015, and signed by SCH board president Dick Hayne reads in part as follows:
“Sadly, we learned of inappropriate sexual conduct on the part of a CHA faculty member from the late ’60s to early ’70s. This faculty member was terminated in July 1972 and is now deceased. We reached out to our alumni to inform them of this situation and to offer our support. Since our communication last week, additional members from our alumni community have come forward to corroborate this intolerable behavior and, to them, we offer our deepest sympathies.
“As a school and a community, ensuring the safety and well-being of all of our students is our highest priority. Today, as you know, our faculty and others who work with our students undergo background checks and participate in training related both to mandatory reporting obligations and to appropriate boundaries with students. We are confident that our students know that they have unfettered access to anyone in the School if they believe they are victims of any type of inappropriate conduct. We are unwavering in our commitment to student protection.”
Contacted by the Local for this story, Caroline Colantuno, senior director of communications for SCH, acknowledged Hinderlang’s story and that the school had also been contacted by victims after they received Hayne’s letter.
Colantuno said she could not speak specifically about what the school did to inform authorities of accusations made by Hinderlang and other students at the time, but that that the same would not be true today.
“While we don’t have any additional information as to what the school did or did not do over 40 years ago,” she said, “today we are unwavering in our commitment to student protection.”
Hinderlang told the Local that a lot of good has come from coming forward. His brother Joe Hinderlang, a former Penn State University head baseball coach and member of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame for a standout baseball career at both Lincoln High School and Temple University, has been “101 percent supportive.” His current wife and three step children have also been supportive, he said. The only difficulty has been in trying to discuss the matter with his three children from his prior two marriages.
“They are having a difficult time absorbing this,” he said. “ I understand.”
Hinderlang has been vindicated by coming forward and pushing SCH to acknowledge what had happened to him despite the great expanse of time. The letters and emails to him and to the school demonstrate that what he was hoping to accomplish has been accomplished.
“I want to make it perfectly clear that by coming forward, my hope is that any person who suffered at the hands of pedophiles or other victims of sexual abuse can get help in order for them to lead a better life,” Hinderlang wrote in an email. “I have come clean with my past and hold no grudges. I’ve really never had it so good.”