The Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal has stretched into one of the least Catholic countries in the world: Japan, where former students at a prestigious all-boys parochial school allege they were molested or raped by religious brothers who taught there decades ago.
Three former students at St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo told The Associated Press they were sexually abused by brothers there. One described “health checkups” in which a brother touched boys’ testicles. Another says he was raped in the chapel by two brothers at age 11.
That former student said he received an in-person apology from one of the men, Brother Lawrence Lambert, in 2014. The former student’s account of the meeting suggests Lambert might have initially confused him with yet another victim whose assault went unreported.
The former student said the school sent Lambert away after the 1965 attack, only to have him return to serve as elementary-school principal for nearly two decades.
Allegations from former students have been published in an English-language Tokyo newspaper, but otherwise have received little attention in Japan. There are only about 500,000 Catholics in the country of 127 million, and the school is aimed at foreigners like the three former students rather than Japanese.
Many sex-abuse victims choose not to come forward in conservative Japan. Unlike in the U.S., in Japan victims must press charges for sexual abuse cases to proceed. Japan’s statute of limitations is 10 years for rape, and seven years for sexual assault.
School officials say they reported the rape allegations to Tokyo police when the victim approached them in 2013. Yet Tokyo police spokesman Satoru Matsunaga said there were no records of the case in their files, and no investigation is ongoing.
Though the victim said his family made St. Mary’s aware of the attack in 1965, Saburo Kagei, who has headed the school since 2013, said he had been unaware of them.
In October 2014, St. Mary’s set up an investigative panel to look into sex abuse at the school. Their findings are not ready, and the head of the panel declined to comment.
Kagei acknowledged Lambert’s apology without confirming the attack or any other sexual abuse.
“The last thing we would want any child to go through is any kind of harm,” he said. “We want to uphold and take care of the children who are placed in our care.”
Founded by the Brothers of Christian Instruction in 1954, St. Mary’s runs from first to 12th grade. Its 900 students hail from 60 countries, and it boasts having 13,500 alumni. It bills itself as the “most prestigious international school for boys.”
The Archdiocese of Tokyo declined to comment, saying St. Mary’s is handling the matter. Conrad Lord, a lawyer for The Brothers of Christian Instruction, which runs St. Mary’s, said Lambert’s apology had been obtained by “coercion,” and that both brothers were wrongfully accused, but declined to comment further.
The Vatican does not get involved in specific cases.
Brother Albert Heinrich, who heads the brotherhood in the U.S. and taught at St. Mary’s in the 1980s, said he learned of the abuse only in recent years.
“I had no knowledge at that time of any alleged problems at the school,” he said in an email from Alfred, Maine.
Religious brothers are not ordained as priests, but take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and work in a variety of ministries, including education.
Teja Arboleda, 53, a former St. Mary’s student who says he was sexually abused by a brother in the mid-1970s, said students at the time “were told not to say anything. Otherwise, they would do something bad to us.”
Arboleda, a movie producer, is working on a documentary about sex-abuse survivors at Catholic schools around the world, including St. Mary’s, titled “Ring Around the Collar.”
“Most of them will not talk about it for the rest of their lives. Many of them are in denial,” he said in a telephone interview from Dedham, Massachusetts. “People, I think, often believe this only takes place in the United States because Americans are much more vocal.”
Arboleda says he was sexually abused by a brother who died in 1980. Ferdinand Stoer, another former St. Mary’s student, said he was abused by the same teacher.
Stoer, 56, said his class of about 30 students underwent a health checkup in which they were told to take off all their clothes; then the brother touched their testicles while they coughed. He was not a medical doctor.
“It was weird,” said Stoer, who lives in Sacramento, California, and like Arboleda agreed to have his name published. Some of the boys talked about it among themselves, but he did not tell his parents, and the checkup was not taken up as a problem at the school at that time.
In fall 2014, Stoer and some other alumni received an email in which Kagei acknowledged sex abuse allegations had been made against former teachers. Stoer assumed it was about the checkups.
In fact, the email was sent after the former student who said he was raped began reaching out to school and church officials and authorities in Japan and Canada. Police in Quebec, where the Brothers of Christian Instruction are based, said they have no jurisdiction over crimes in Japan.
No lawsuits have been filed over any of the allegations. Now 61, the former student believes he deserves compensation but has little hope that will happen.
“Nothing can be done,” he told the AP. “They decided to do nothing.”
The AP generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse who do not wish to be named.
The former student remembers many details of the rape, down to what his mother had made him for lunch that day: rollmops, or pickled herring held with wooden skewers. He is Jewish, and the school lunches served at St. Mary’s weren’t kosher.
He decided to eat alone, in the chapel. The two brothers walked in, making signs of the cross, and announced he had to be punished for eating there.
He was forced to face a table. His pants were pulled down. He was quiet. He thought maybe he was going to be spanked.
He didn’t know what was happening. All he remembers is the pain.
One brother raped him, and then the other man pulled his T-shirt over his head and raped him again.
When he was finally alone, he looked down and saw he had been clenching his fist so hard a rollmops skewer had stabbed through the skin of his palm.
He did not tell anyone, but his family’s maid found his bloodied underwear in the laundry. He initially refused to tell his parents who attacked him, but finally said he could not tell because “Brother Lawrence” might do the same thing to his 4-year-old brother.
The former student said his family did not pursue charges but demanded that Lambert be kept away from children. They were told he was reassigned to Canada after the rape.
Decades later, he learned that Lambert returned to St. Mary’s, serving as principal of its elementary school from 1982 until retiring in 2011. After that, he lived at a brothers’ residence in Japan.
The Brothers of Christian Instruction declined to reveal Lambert’s current whereabouts; Kagei said in his 2014 letter to alumni that he was no longer in Japan.
The AP found the second brother the former student accuses of rape, at a Japanese school in Yokohama where he continues to teach. He declined to comment.
The former student left Japan with his family back to his native Australia soon after the rape. He did not return until January 2014, when he met Lambert in Tokyo. The meeting was set in a synagogue with a rabbi present. The former student did not feel safe anywhere else.
Lambert, accompanied by a fellow brother, read two letters of apology aloud and signed them. The former student had seen both letters before in emails and had brought printed versions. The brother sent him the second after the former student demanded a fuller explanation than he had provided in the first.
The former student was also handed a letter from Kagei’s predecessor as school head, who apologized on the school’s behalf without confirming any specific allegations. That official, also a brother, did not come to the meeting and did not lead the school at the time of the alleged rape.
“The simple truth is that still today I cannot understand the fact that I raped you,” one of Lambert’s letters read. “It was the first time that I did that in my life, and I did not do that again. I was on my way to my bedroom upstairs when I saw you and saw nothing wrong with talking to you on the way. But then somehow passion suddenly took over…”
That account did not match the victim’s. An explanation might be found in Lambert’s reaction when he first saw the former student at the start of the meeting.
“Oh,” he recalled Lambert saying, “you were the one in the chapel.”