Pushing for stronger safeguards at St. Mary's in wake of sex scandal
Claire Willett had a front-row seat to a drama unfolding before her and she didn't even know it.
The Portland author and playwright has known for years the former St. Mary's Academy teacher and her former student now accusing her of statutory rape, in a case sending shockwaves through the prestigious private school and wider Portland community.
English teacher Francesca Cronan has lost her Oregon teaching license, but vehemently denies these accusations, saying she never had sex with former student Ariana Garay. Cronan does admit to exchanging flirtatious and explicit messages with Garay that she says she felt manipulated by her student into providing.
The competing narratives were detailed in the April 5 Portland Tribune, and the school has since received a flood of emails and hosted several meetings with stakeholder groups to discuss the story and next steps.
Regardless of whose story you believe, Willett says, stronger safeguards need to be put in place to prevent inappropriate teacher-student relationships at the school.
Willett was the director of an outside Catholic confirmation program in 2008, wheen 15-year-old Ariana Garay and 26-year-old Francesca Cronan became close. At the time, Garay was a sophomore at St. Mary's Academy and Cronan was her English teacher.
Garay, now 24, says it was during this program that Cronan started to groom her for a sexual relationship that lasted two years.
Willett has known both women for a very long time. Garay's mother was her kindergarten teacher and she's known Ariana since she was a baby. Willett also attended St. Mary's with Cronan in the late-1990s. She thought they would be a great match for Catholic confirmation, in which a guide supports a follower's recommitment to the Church.
Willett says she believes Garay's side of the story, and her philosophy is to assume allegations like these are true until proven otherwise.
But, even if Cronan's version is true, Willett says, she feels St. Mary's has work to do.
"Even if you just accepted the version of the story that they are telling, it is full of huge red flags that were missed by many, many people, and I think that the school can't dodge having to confront that," Willett said.
Student Safety Task Force
After Garay's story came out, Willett sent a letter to push her alma mater to do more to protect LGBTQ students. St. Mary's Academy has been forming a Student Safety Task Force in light of the allegations and Willett wants to be on it.
She admits that she was one of those people to miss the red flags. As an openly gay Catholic woman who had known both women so well, Willett wonders what she could have done to prevent the alleged abuse.
"I spent so much time racking my brain," Willett said. "Did I see things? Did I know things?"
Willett first heard the story of abuse when Garay reached out to her for advice and support after the Tribune contacted Garay — several weeks before the story's publication. (The Tribune discovered their friendship later, through another alumna.) Willett said Garay's account was shocking to hear.
"Part of that was because — even as a gay woman and a feminist — I also have that ingrained cultural heteronormative picture of what abuse looks like," she says. "I'm not immune to that sort of cultural messaging, either. They don't all look like Harvey Weinstein."
Willett worries that St. Mary's commitment to change will wane after the media coverage ends. She also sent a letter after a 2015 controversy at St. Mary's when it rescinded a job offer to a gay woman who intended to get married. Willett said she got a quick response to that, but then nothing came of the school's vows that it would launch some sort of LGBTQ advisory group.
However, she says she has reason to hope things will be different this time. The school hired a director of equity and inclusion and a dean of leadership and activities this school year — both of whom have already been organizing the school's response.
Gina Rau, a spokeswoman for St. Mary's, says the prep school is committed to long-term change.
"Over the last several weeks we have learned a lot, and we acknowledge that we have more to learn," Rau said in a written statement.
Rau did not directly confirm rumors of demands by St. Mary's parents and alumnae for Principal Nicole Foran or other school leaders to resign in the wake of revelations that they may have dismissed the signs of an inappropriate relationship between Cronan and Garay.
"While there have been some critics, the overwhelming response has been supportive from members of our community, who want to be part of how we move forward and work to ensure we are providing the right supports to all of our students," Rau said in a written statement. She added that no one has resigned and the board of directors is supportive of the current administrators.
In May, the school will host a parent education night from experts on the topic of "Stranger danger is a myth: Why it's important to understand grooming and how to prevent childhood sexual abuse."
In addition, the school has moved forward in its Green Dot abuse and assault awareness training. School staff are also working to implement new technology for confidential incident reporting and for monitoring the school's teacher-student communications.
"There were a variety of reactions to the news — sadness, fear, anger, confusion — but all were rooted in a deep care for our students," Rau wrote of the school community's response. "As we move forward, our community members are reporting feelings of hope, strength, awareness and a renewed purpose to help us construct an even better school and a commitment to walk with us as we implement new strategies in an ever-changing world."
Safety and trust
It may be difficult to find the new balance between safety and trust.
St. Mary's is known and sought out for its strong sense of community and teachers who go above and beyond in supporting their students. Many alumnae and administrators say they are concerned that fear might tamp down the deep connections that are generated in healthy relationships.
"One of the things that makes St. Mary's what it is, is because (I) had really strong, close relationships with my teachers," Willett says.
She will be waiting to see if St. Mary's changes and grows in positive ways.
"I believe everyone's emotions are sincere, that everyone's intentions are good," Willett says. "But my question, that only time will tell, is how policies are going to really change.
"There aren't any easy answers. There's no magical switch," she adds. "This is something where it really has to be a marathon, not a sprint."