‘So Much Trauma’: Report Alleges Decades-Long Sexual Abuse at San Jose Catholic Girls’ School

1 min
Kathryn Leehane points to a photo of herself in a yearbook from Presentation High School in San Jose on July 15, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated with new information on July 20th (see end of article). 

Presentation High, a Roman Catholic girls’ school in San Jose, recently released a report by a Sacramento law firm reviewing allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct over 47 years, from 1970 through 2017. The report found credible allegations against three English teachers, a Spanish teacher, a religion teacher and an assistant water polo coach — none of whom work at Presentation High today. The Mercury News reported at least three of the faculty went on to work at other Bay Area educational institutions or with students.

The high school’s Board of Directors and its new school president hired the Van Dermyden Maddux Law Firm last fall, two years after allegations of past abuse surfaced in a 2017 Washington Post perspective by a former student, Kathryn Leehane.

A yearbook photo of Kathryn Leehane in 1990. (Courtesy of Kathryn Leehane)

She remembers her Spanish teacher at Presentation High teacher touching her inappropriately in 1990.

It had taken years for me to tell my story — of a gropey teacher who showed me pornography — to the police. And the well-meaning officer inadvertently confirmed what so many us who experience sexual assault have learned: We need to look elsewhere for resolution. We are on our own.

“You know, he put his arm around me. He brought my hand up to my breast. He kissed my hand,” she told KQED. Too scared to say anything at the time, she reported the teacher to school officials after she graduated in 1991; after she says, he assaulted her best friend. Leehane says she tried repeatedly to get the school to act — for a decade during her 20s. She sent letters. She met with the former head of the school, who she says “warned me to be careful with my words so as not to face a lawsuit.” Leehane says she wrote a letter to the Diocese of San Jose, but never received an answer. She eventually filed a police report, but was told the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution had run out. The teacher remained on staff for years.

Fast forward to 2017, after allegations about Harvey Weinstein emerged, launching the #MeToo movement. Leehane says her column in The Washington Post struck a nerve.

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Survivors with allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct at Presentation High, called “Pres” in the community, began stepping forward. Leehane started a web site, MakePresSafe.com as a launching pad for survivors to document attempts at accountability with the school and a place to find resources.

School administrators could not have failed to notice, either, when in late 2019 Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 218, the California Child Victims Act. The law expanded the statute of limitations for civil suits arising out of childhood sexual assault, extending the time claims can be filed beyond three years of discovery or age 26, and allowing for recovery of up to treble damages — triple the damages — against certain defendants.

Advocates for survivors of childhood sexual abuse say it usually takes decades for people to come forward and tell their stories, if they ever do.

Kathryn Leehane poses for a portrait in San Jose on July 15, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Leehane keeps a spreadsheet with the names of about 40 survivors on it that she knows about. She says not everyone on her list spoke with the investigators from Van Dermyden Maddux, but the firm’s investigators did find her Spanish teacher — now dead — abused at least 13 other girls. Leehane knows of one more the report missed.

“They could have prevented so much abuse. They could have prevented so much trauma, but they let him stay there for 20 years,” she said.

Investigators interviewed 75 people, including administrators, faculty, staff, former students and board members. No current students were interviewed, according to the report, “because none have raised concerns or were witnesses.”

Presentation High received the final report on June 30. The school’s spokeswoman, Cherie Britt, wrote in an email that the administration notified both the police and “current known employers of those who were named and believed to be working with children” the same week the report was released to the public, on July 9.

Allegations Ignored for Years

Teachers, doctors, therapists and clergy all have a longstanding legal obligation to alert authorities to suspected child sexual abuse. California's mandatory reporting law makes it a crime not to.

It would be up to the District Attorney and the Attorney General — who is running an ongoing statewide investigation into reporting and allegations of abuse by clergy — to prosecute former Presentation High administrators who failed to report such allegations to law enforcement, let alone parents, according to attorney Mike Reck with Jeff Anderson & Associates. The firm has sued extensively — including the Vatican itself — on behalf of those sexually abused by clergy.

“(Presentation High) didn't suddenly grow a conscience and decide it was wrong to hurt children. Those children grew up and those children became survivors and those children spoke to the media,” Reck said.

Reck draws attention to what’s not in the report: six staff members remain unnamed, for lack of evidence, say the report’s authors. He says the report was “carefully crafted such that it only trickles out the little bit of information that was required by survivors,” adding this is a “systemic problem with the Diocese of San Jose and with the Sisters of the Presentation.” They are the Order of nuns who established not just Presentation High, but multiple schools around California, including several in the Bay Area.

Reck says the allegations of abuse against the unnamed people in the report should be thoroughly investigated for public safety. “Where do they live? What communities are they being exposed to? Have those communities been warned?”

A Lawsuit is Coming

Jeff Anderson & Associates plans to file suit against Presentation High — and the Diocese of San Jose — on behalf of a client alleging abuse by a nun at the school back in the 1970s. Reck said the firm is interested in more than the one woman. Through the process of discovery, “the identities and the whereabouts and history of every alleged perpetrator will be sought,” he said.

Meanwhile, Leehane said she is satisfied with the way the new president of the school, Holly Elkins, handled the investigation. When Presentation High made the report public, Elkins and the Chair of the Board of Directors released a letter outlining its findings, along with the changes the school is making to ensure student safety moving forward. “To the survivors of abuse, we deeply and sincerely apologize. The stark truth is that our school did not live up to its commitment to protect you,” the letter said. Additionally, the entire board of the school resigned, writing “The time is right to step aside and make room for new oversight and governance."

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Update 7:00 p.m. 7/17/20: KQED contacted the Diocese of San Jose before publication of this story. The first statement, provided on 7/14, commended the Sisters of the Presentation and their high school for its independent investigation.  A spokesperson for the Diocese also wrote by email, "Please note that Presentation High School is an independent Catholic school and not part of our Diocesan schools. They have a Board of Trustees and Directors, as well as the religious order that make decisions and operate independently from the Diocese." 

New Investigation Announced (bold added): The Diocese of San Jose sent out a second statement at 4:26 p.m. on Friday, 7/17, saying it is "disheartened to learn of the findings presented in the investigative report...In reviewing Presentation's newly released report, the Diocese has confirmed that it previously employed two of the individuals identified therein. Marian Stuckey worked for the Diocese as its Superintendent of Catholic Schools between 1993 and 2009. In addition, Jeff House worked as a teacher at Archbishop Mitty High School, a diocesan Catholic school, between 1982 and 1999. 

"The Diocese of San Jose will, therefore, be initiating an independent investigation to ensure proper accountability of any complaints, allegations, or reported incidents that may have occurred during their respective periods of employment with the Diocese." 

"The Diocese encourages any victim/survivor to come forward and report any improper conduct either historically or currently at Archbishop Mitty High School or any diocesan schools by taking the following steps: First, contact their local civil authorities. Then, once a report is filed with the local civil authorities, the individuals are encouraged to contact the Diocese's  Office for the Protection of Children & Vulnerable Adults at 408-983-0113. Reports to the Diocese are also accepted by a secure third-party reporting service at opcva.ethicspoint.com or call 1-844-372-1619. "

Update 7/20/20: The Diocese of San Jose sent out a correction about Marian Stuckey's title when she worked for the Diocese between 1993 and 2009. "She was hired as the Assistant Superintendent in 1993 and was promoted to Superintendent in 1999." 

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