Interview with Alan Hicks

Sept. 10, 2012

Alan HicksAlan Hicks, 59, was educated at the University of Kansas where he received his B.A. and M.A. in Philosophy. While at the university, Hicks was a student in the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, the celebrated but controversial Great Books program that was active in the 1970s and early 1980s. Because of the large number of conversions to the Catholic faith among its students, the program came under heavy fire by political forces both within and without the university. The success of the program and its ultimate demise as a result of these events are chronicled in Robert Carlson’s Truth on Trial: Liberal Education Be Hanged.

After his conversion to the Catholic faith in 1973, Hicks began a long and varied career in Catholic education, serving as teacher, director of religious education, academic dean, and principal. In 1993 he became the founding headmaster of St. Gregory’s Academy in Northeast Pennsylvania. Hicks was recently interviewed by reporter Kirk Kramer. In this interview, Hicks discusses his role in the founding of St. Gregory’s Academy, its unique educational approach, and the deleterious claims that were made in 2002 against the Academy and his leadership.

Talk about your role, Alan, in the founding and administration of St. Gregory’s Academy.

Alan Hicks:

Well, there’s a lot to say here, but I’ll be brief.

I was hired by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter as the headmaster and chief administrator of St. Gregory’s Academy in 1993, after submitting a proposal which served as the basis for the organizational structure and academic program.  I continued in the capacity of headmaster until the summer of 2003.

As the chief administrator, essentially all operations were under my direction. I recruited and hired the teachers and support staff, recruited students, worked with the teachers in developing our curriculum, set up the daily and yearly schedules, and directed all Academy fundraising. In addition to my administrative tasks, I also taught Natural History, Logic, and World History.

What can you tell us about the impact of St. Gregory’s upon the lives of its students?

Alan Hicks:

I think the impact was profound, in many ways. It was a unique curriculum with a strong classical orientation. Students studied four years of Latin, read lots of good books-including some of the classics of western civilization-learned to sing, memorized poetry, and studied Euclid, logic, physics, and more. In addition, there was a vibrant sports and outdoor recreation program, plus the Catholic liturgy was beautiful and profound. I can assure you, there aren’t many schools where a young man can sing Gregorian chant at a Sunday morning High Mass and then be bloodied in a hard-hitting game of rugby in the afternoon. But St. Gregory’s Academy was such a place. Such studies and experiences are formative and contribute to the development of a strong character.

How would you describe the spirit of the Academy, and how do its graduates look back on their time there?

Alan Hicks:

I believe there was a good spirit among the boys, with strong friendships that have continued into their adult lives. They had camaraderie—a spirit of goodwill, fellowship, and trust that exists among friends. The graduates are overwhelmingly proud of their association with St. Gregory’s and continue to think of themselves, even as adults, as “St. Greg’s boys.” They and their parents remain supportive of me and the school, and I have many written testimonies of their support and gratitude.

But surely not all students of the Academy were equally happy and equally supportive of your efforts?

Alan Hicks:

Of course not. It was difficult for some to make the adjustment to life at St. Gregory’s. There was no television or Internet access. Heck, we didn’t even let the boys listen to most contemporary or popular music, though they did listen to a lot of Irish and Scottish folk music—we were the “Highlanders”—and they even began to perform it themselves. By some standards it was a fairly restrictive environment, but it was a healthy environment and the boys found ways to entertain themselves with good music and good reading, sports, games, and outdoor activities. Sometimes we would put on talent shows, or have chess tournaments, and we even had boxing competitions. While we were strict, there was not a draconian spirit to the discipline. There were always a few boys who struggled with the rules, and some could not make the adjustment, but the vast majority did, and were very happy.

With which rules did the boys struggle the most?

Alan Hicks:

Well, they struggled with what teenage boys struggle with anywhere, going to bed on time, doing their chores—that sort of thing. In the early years, there was a lot of “smuggling in” of popular music, though that diminished considerably once they began to develop a taste for folk music and began to sing and perform it themselves.  Of course, with teenage boys there were instances of smoking and sometimes even drinking alcohol, though these were strictly forbidden.

How strict were you in the enforcement of rules and what were the penalties for infractions?

Alan Hicks:

With some rules, such as drinking or smoking, we were pretty strict. Once, for example, we admitted a boy in his senior year, something we rarely did. However, I admitted him, and he got in trouble for smoking. As he was 18, he thought he should be able to smoke, and he requested special permission to smoke outside in the evenings with no other boys present. Yet, regardless of his age, I didn’t make an exception and before long he left the school. As for drinking, we would come down hard and on two occasions I expelled a student for bringing alcohol to the school. With other rule violations it depended on the rule and the circumstances. We usually tried to give punishments of work that benefited the school. Mr. Clark, the assistant headmaster, would lead a “breakfast club” early Saturday mornings cleaning the refectory and kitchen for violations of rules. For more serious issues, I would have the boys help me plant trees or clean the stalls of our barn where we raised sheep. I really liked that one. It was one of our “Herculean Labors.”

Maybe this is the right place to bring up a subject that certainly must be unpleasant to you, the accusations that were made through Internet postings that you allowed for an “unhealthy atmosphere” where serious improprieties could occur. As I’m sure you know, a critic claimed that you turned a blind eye to boys drinking and that you were even warned by the police against underage drinking. He also claimed that there was evidence of homosexual behaviors at the school. For instance, he speaks of an incident where boys slept together at a campout. He even said that you told him that one of the chaplains at the Academy “had a habit of sleeping with boys.”

Alan Hicks:

Before I address this, let’s be clear about one thing. These claims originated from postings made by a man who had no involvement with the Academy either as a parent, a student or a staff member.

If this man was not involved with the school, why would he ever make claims of this sort?

Alan Hicks:

This guy had a major beef with a newly formed religious society of priests, the Society of St. John, for whom he was employed until he was let go. He was pretty upset about that. He thought that they had reneged on their word to him, and perhaps he was right, I don’t know.  It was then that he began making accusations, initially just against the Society. The Society had a previous connection with us, however; for two years prior to this they were housed in a separate wing of the Academy building where the Fraternity of St. Peter had their district headquarters. They had been invited to share this vacant wing of our building by the Fraternity while they looked for their own property, and they were appointed by the district superior as chaplains for the school during the second year. This man’s accusations were first and foremost against them. The Academy and I were brought into the orbit of these claims only after I began to challenge some of his allegations as they began to touch on the Society’s time at the school. I suppose his attack on us was also a way of supporting his accusations against them.

What, then, do you have to say about these claims?

Alan Hicks:

Well, in regards to his claims about us, some of them are laughable. In fact, I know that some of our graduates derived much mirth from the thought that either I, or my assistant, Howard Clark, would ever have turned a “blind eye” to boys drinking, or that we were ever complicit in any way with such violations of the rules. Good grief! We wouldn’t even allow boys to smoke, let alone to drink alcohol! All evidence from the school itself, including testimonials and records, indicate just the opposite. As I’ve already told you, I even expelled two students for bringing alcohol to the school. One of these boys was in fact the son of a good friend of the man who aired these claims and that fact was well known to him. Of course, he failed to mention that! As for any police warning, even the police denied that such a warning ever occurred.

As for any “homosexual behaviors,” that was never an issue at the school. Far from it. The claim that boys slept together at a campout, refers to a mid-winter survival hike that the seniors took one year on the Appalachian Trail. This was an arduous hike that we trained the boys to make when the conditions were difficult and cold. It was even snowing, as I remember. We’re talking about Pennsylvania in the winter! We purposely did not take tents but used tarps that they tied to trees for shelter, and then slept three or four together for warmth, as instructed, with bags and blankets laid flat. “Homosexual behaviors?” Give me a break! To take an event like that and to construe it into some kind of homosexual encounter is, quite frankly, delusional.

Finally, any claim that Mr. Clark or I would even suspect that a student was spending the night in the room of a priest and would do nothing about it is absurd and slanderous! The thought of the crimes that some priests have committed is revolting to me. I have three boys, and when I think of these crimes and the inaction of those who may have known about them, it makes me sick. If I thought that any student was spending the night with a priest at the school—and I don’t care who the priest might have been—I would have personally thrown the priest out of the school and would have alerted the civil authorities. Anyone who knows me knows that to be true. And why would I want to protect any priests of this Society? They weren’t the owners of the school and I had no particular loyalty to the Society or stake in their organization. To the contrary. I thought that they were rather full of themselves and as they began to grow in financial support they began to draw benefactors away from the school. You can bet I was unhappy about that.

In all fairness, I should also add that the district superior of the Fraternity of St. Peter at the time, Arnaud Devillers, would also have never sought to protect these guys whom he didn’t even like that much. I may have had a few administrative issues with Fr. Devillers over the years, but we would have been in complete agreement over this.

I’d like to go back to a statement you made earlier, that these claims of negligence were “made by a man who had no involvement with the Academy either as a parent, a student, or a staff member.” However, isn’t it true that these accusations—from a man who as you say had “nothing to do with the school”—were followed by a letter from a parent of a former student claiming that his son had engaged in a practice of heavy drinking throughout the night in the room of one of the priests of the Society of St. John?

Alan Hicks:

Yes it is. Such a letter was received several months after the claims we’re discussing began to be made. However, this letter did not claim that I knew about or was in any way complicit in any inappropriate, abusive, or criminal behavior on anyone’s part. No one associated with the Academy ever made that claim.

I don’t want to brush over this letter, which is a very serious matter, and I mean to return to it. But just now you said that no one who was associated with the school ever claimed you were complicit in any inappropriate behavior. But the man who made the original Internet claims of your negligence did allege that a former dorm father, Mr. Jude Huntz, reported to him that you and Mr. Clark knew of boys drinking, that you were once even drinking beer with the boys, and that you were warned by the police about underage drinking. Furthermore, he claimed that according to this same Mr. Huntz, Huntz complained of inappropriate conduct between the Society of St. John and students to both you and Mr. Clark.

Alan Hicks:

Yes, it was alleged that Huntz reported these things, though I have never actually seen this report. However, I have an affidavit, executed by Jude Huntz on June 22, 2002, after supposedly making these claims. In it, he denies any knowledge of the police ever being called, while confirming that we had a strict policy against drinking by the boys and that violations were punished appropriately. He also denies knowing that we ever drank with the boys or that he ever reported to Mr. Clark or me any inappropriate behavior between the Society and the students. So I suppose, to be strictly accurate, a former staff member may have said these things, but if he did, he soon after retracted them in a sworn affidavit.

Let me just add here that if Mr. Clark—who is one of the most morally upright and prudent men that I know—if he or I was complicit in drinking with the boys, that would have made us not only negligent, but idiots as well. It would have been absurd for us to make an effort to keep boys from drinking or bringing alcohol to the school and then to turn around and drink with the students as if it were really OK. I’m sorry, but we were simply not that dumb.

Let’s return to the letter from the parent of a former student. This was a serious complaint. What can you tell us about it?

Alan Hicks:

Briefly speaking, that letter alleged that at least three nights a week during his junior and senior years, his son was given large amounts of liquor by a priest of the Society of St. John, who would then convince his son to sleep in the same bed with him in his priestly quarters.  No claim was made of any sexual act occurring during these alleged encounters. Further allegations were made in this letter of encounters with this same priest after his son graduated and outside the school.

So this was a complaint against the Society of St. John, which was completely unconnected to the accusations by the man whom you say was uninvolved with the school. This was a letter from an actual student from the school.

Alan Hicks:

To be precise, it was from the father of a former student, but yes, it was an accusation from someone who was directly involved in the Academy. However, I don’t know how unconnected this letter was from the accusations that were already floating on the Internet.

What do you mean by that? Was there a connection?

Alan Hicks:

Well, I know that there was contact between this student and the man who made the original accusations before this letter was written, but I can’t say for sure what complicity there might have been. There certainly was a prior acquaintance between the two.

What was your response to this letter?

Alan Hicks:

Honestly, our immediate response was skepticism, at least regarding the allegations relative to St. Gregory’s. It simply did not seem credible that over the course of two years, several nights a week, a student could have been gone from our dormitory while engaged in heavy drinking, and then could have snuck back to the Academy wing of the building for the 7:00 AM roll-call without ever being caught. We had controls in place. One of the duties of the dorm staff was to check on the rooms at night to make sure the boys were there. To leave the dormitory during the night was a serious offense. Furthermore, the teachers of the school were experienced men whom I believe would have detected a student who was drinking through the night, especially to the extent claimed. It’s very hard to hide such a thing. A 16 or 17 year-old boy could not drink large quantities of alcohol at least three nights a week for two years and not show some effect, especially over such an extended period. Yet this student went about his business like the other boys, which included Mass and morning clean-up before classes—his grades were actually fairly good—and he also played sports after school. What is more, we spoke with boys who shared his room over this period who denied that he was absent from his room during the night, and there exists written testimony to this effect.

So you dismissed these claims?

Alan Hicks:

Far from it. In point of fact, this letter was given to the district attorney for Lackawanna County with a request for an investigation of these claims to uncover anything that might have occurred. Furthermore, a letter was sent to all the parents of the boys living at the Academy during the time in question asking them to speak with their sons and to report any improprieties during these two years to either the chancellor of the diocese or the district attorney. I’m glad to say that no negative claims came forth as a result of this.

So there was no attempt at a cover-up?

Alan Hicks:

The letter was turned over to the district attorney! How could we be accused of a cover-up?

And what was the result?

Alan Hicks:

The district attorney’s office conducted an investigation, which included talking to former students and staff and looking at records. Ultimately, the district attorney closed the investigation after finding no evidence to justify any charges. Let me emphasize this. We turned this complaint over to the D.A. and asked for an investigation, and they closed the investigation for lack of evidence. That is a matter of public record. Of course, that is never mentioned in the Internet screeds against me, just like it isn’t mentioned that I expelled boys for drinking.

Was that the end of the matter? Wasn’t a civil lawsuit filed?

Alan Hicks:

Yes, a civil complaint was filed by this boy and his family against the Society of St. John, the Fraternity of St. Peter, the Diocese of Scranton, the Bishop of Scranton and two priests of the Society. This dragged on for some time, as such things will, until it was eventually settled, with no admission of guilt.

Were you named in the lawsuit?

Alan Hicks:

No, I was never personally accused of any negligence or even mentioned in either the original letter or the subsequent civil suit. I want to emphasize this. No one actually involved in the Academy ever accused me of neglect except perhaps Jude Huntz. And he retracted any such negative claims in a sworn affidavit. In addition, I have a letter from the auxiliary bishop of Scranton, John Dougherty, who served as the liaison between the diocese of Scranton and the Fraternity of St. Peter during this time. It states that neither he personally, nor the Diocese of Scranton, found any fault with me in my capacity as headmaster.

Was your separation from the Fraternity and St. Gregory’s Academy related to these accusations or events?

Alan Hicks:

Not at all. It was well known that I had some issues with the role of the new district superior of the Fraternity vis-à-vis the Academy. You might call it a “power struggle” for control of the Academy. But the Fraternity never found any fault with us relative to these accusations or offered any criticism of how we handled this affair. Howard Clark, my assistant and right-hand man during this whole time, was even given the headmaster position after I left. I have continued to have a successful career in administration, first at a position for which I was recruited in St. Louis and now in Southern California. Because of the public nature of these accusations, I have been closely vetted twice by potential employers who subsequently hired me after they were certain of my vindication of any wrongdoing.

Are there any closing remarks you would like to make?

Alan Hicks:

Just that, despite all the negative attacks broadcast on the Internet, the overwhelming response of the Academy parents, all of whom knew me and Mr. Clark personally, was supportive, as their many letters gave witness. I don’t believe we lost even one student as a result of these claims, which speaks to their confidence in us. I should also add that during this time, Mr. Clark and I met and communicated regularly with an advisory group of experienced legal and educational professionals to seek their guidance in how to proceed. This board was chaired by Dr. Thomas Foster, an official at the Kansas Department of Education, and included an associate district judge from Oklahoma, Robert Reavis; the dean of faculty at Hillsdale College, Dr. David Whalen; the current auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver, Monsignor James Conley; a member of the U.S. Department of Justice, Mr. Scott Bloch; and Marc Kuemmerlein, who was the legal counsel for Farmland Industries. Except for Bishop Conley and Mark Kuemmerlein, all of these men had boys at the school and therefore had a strongly vested interest in the truth, far more than our accuser who never had a son at the school. These men will all attest to the appropriate disciplinary policies of the school, to my integrity and the integrity of Mr. Clark, and to our handling of this entire situation.

Kirk Kramer is a freelance writer who has worked as a reporter for daily newspapers in Oklahoma and Arkansas.