Don't Ask, Don't Tell

For 40 years, the Episcopal Church of Texas turned a blind eye to a priest who was sexually molesting male students.

In 1993, Bob Haslanger received a letter from his high school alma mater, St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin. It seemed that Haslanger, who was living in Seattle, had been designated a "never-giver," which, as the label suggests, is a category of alumni who have never donated to the school. Why was this, the school wanted to know.

"I wrote them back a letter and said, 'Is this a bullshit letter or is this something that you're actually interested in?'" Haslanger says, 16 years later. "Because if you're actually interested in why I'm a never-giver, I will tell you.'"

So, Haslanger says, he flew to Austin and sat down with an administrator named Jim Woodruff. Haslanger proceeded to give what he felt was an understandable explanation for his unopened pocketbook: Between the years 1964-1968, when he attended St. Stephen's, a faculty member came into his dorm room about once a month, after lights-out, and molested him. Haslanger told Woodruff that he told the school's headmaster about that person, and the headmaster called him a liar. Now, according to Haslanger's account, here's where it got weird.

Although the diocese states that Tucker (pictured circa 1968) abused boys at St. Stephen's in Austin, and possibly St. James in Houston, he has never been charged criminally.
Courtesy David Evert
Although the diocese states that Tucker (pictured circa 1968) abused boys at St. Stephen's in Austin, and possibly St. James in Houston, he has never been charged criminally.
As school chaplain, Tucker was an important part of graduation ceremonies, such as this one from 1968.
Courtesy David Evert
As school chaplain, Tucker was an important part of graduation ceremonies, such as this one from 1968.

"I became too emotional to say anything when he asked me who had molested me," Haslanger says from Seattle, where he still lives. "And he asked me — he asked me — 'Was it Jim Tucker?' I didn't provide Jim Tucker's name. He provided Jim Tucker's name."

It blew Haslanger away that Woodruff would immediately bring up the name of the school's wildly popular chaplain, the Reverend James Lydell Tucker.

Haslanger says he asked Woodruff if he was the only one who had ever alleged such abuse. According to Haslanger, Woodruff said the school had no information on that matter.

"Well, how the hell did he know that Jim Tucker was the person I was talking about?" Haslanger says.

Still, Woodruff made a note of Haslanger's story and stuck it in his file. Haslanger flew home, figuring he'd explained fairly well why he was a never-giver. He didn't expect to hear from the school again.

But, of course, he did, about two years later. And this was the letter that sent him over the edge. This was the letter that would disturb him so much that he took a leave of absence from his six-figure job as chief operating officer of a manufacturing company, which wound up being a permanent leave. This was the letter that unraveled all the effort that had gone into kicking self-medication with drugs and drink, and wiped away all the help he had received in therapy: The school wanted Haslanger to contribute to a new scholarship in the Reverend Jim Tucker's name.

Before he started spiraling, Haslanger wrote letters to St. Stephen's and to the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, here in Houston.

"I wrote them a letter, and I said, 'That's a big mistake. You guys are going to get bit in the ass for starting a scholarship in Jim Tucker's name,'" Haslanger says.

This warning was summarily ignored. A single accusation of child molestation was not going to gum up the gears of the fund-raising machine.

But about ten years later, another accusation surfaced. And another. And then another, this one from the Episcopal church and school in Houston where Tucker worked after St. Stephen's.

That's when the Episcopal Diocese of Texas went back and looked at Woodruff's notes from his 1993 talk with Haslanger. And that's when diocesan officials figured they had a problem on their hands: It looked like, for the past 40 years, a series of diocesan and school authorities had conspired to cover up allegations of sexual abuse. Now the school and diocese are facing a $45 million lawsuit for that cover-up. And now, say Haslanger and the other two plaintiffs, the diocese is abusing them all over again.
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Although the area is now fairly well developed, when St. Stephen's opened its doors in west Austin in 1950, it was fairly isolated.

"The school site eight miles from Austin was chosen because of its proximity to the University of Texas and the seat of state government, as well as its remoteness from the corruption of city life," according to the school's Web site. "A look at vintage photos reveals the wilderness quality of the sparsely populated Hill Country location in the early years. When the founders purchased the 400-acre tract, they took on the daily struggle of living in a no-frills rural setting. Their neighbors were goats, cattle and a variety of critters. Water was pumped from a 1,017-foot well. The only telephone was a mobile unit in an old car. When incoming calls caused the horn to honk, someone had to go outside to the car to answer."

When the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit came to St. Stephen's in the mid-to-late '60s, the area hadn't changed much. You could walk for a mile before you bumped into a farmhouse. Once or twice a week, students could catch a ride with a faculty member, or maybe take a school bus, to town. Being out in the sticks reinforced the sense of family. And for many students, there was no more beloved family member than the school's chaplain, the Reverend James Lydell Tucker.

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