WEST WHITELAND — Does the Church Farm School have “institutional weaknesses” that fail to provide adequate protection for its students against male sexual predators?
Does it have such lax oversight of the relationships among and contact between adult teachers and staff and young students that sexual grooming and eventual abuse is made easier to accomplish? And what has it done recently, if anything, to guard against such behavior in the future?
Those questions had been posed earlier this year in a lawsuit against the century-old school, playing out currently in federal court, concerning the sexual abuse suffered by a former student there by a teacher who lived on the campus in Exton more than a decade ago.
But they arose again this week with the announcement by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office that a onetime dorm parent at the school was facing charges of molesting a teenager there over a period of several years under the nose of school officials.
District Attorney Deb Ryan said local police had filed charges against Daniel Rowley, 70, of Ft. Meyers, Fla., for the alleged sexual abuse of a student between 2003 and 2007 when he was a houseparent and coach at Church Farm.
The abuse, authorities said in a complaint, took place on the campus at the Pew Cottage, where the alleged victim and the teacher both lived. The youth regularly would visit the teacher in his apartment, and the abuse occurred there or in the cottage’s basement boiler room.
Rowley is said to have acknowledged his abuse of the student, who is now an adult, in an interview with police. He has been was charged with 10 counts each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and statutory sexual assault, and an additional 20 counts of indecent assault of a person less than 16 years old, and related offenses. He is being held in Florida awaiting extradition back to Chester County.
“The sexual abuse of students and children is pervasive and needs to stop now,” said Ryan in a press release announcing the arrest. “My office will root out any adult, wherever they live, who abuses or has abused children. It took many years for this victim to have the courage to reveal what had happened to him, and then more years to have the fortitude to speak with law enforcement. His bravery should be an example for other children and adults to come forward and seek help.”
West Whiteland Police Chief Lee Benson said, “Thank you to Florida Department of Law Enforcement for their assistance in apprehending the defendant. Inter-agency collaboration such as this shows child predators that no one is out of our reach.”
His arrest comes just over one year after West Whiteland police filed similar charges against the former teacher for abuse of an 8th grader at the school at a cottage apartment there over a period of months between 2008 and 2010.
Marc V. Spera, who was living in St. Petersburg, Fla., when he was arrested in May 2020, was sentenced in March to a state prison term of 15 to 30 years in jail, plus a lifetime registration in Pennsylvania as a sex offender. The 58-year-old pleaded guilty to three counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
The student who was the victim in Spera’s case, now living in North Carolina, filed a lawsuit against the school in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia asking for damages of more than $50,000 on counts of negligence and sexual abuse. The litigation was later transferred to U.S. District Court in Philadelphia and is now in the process of discovery, according to one of the attorneys representing the victim.
The Daily Local News does not identify the victims of sexual crimes unless they give their permission.
“The discovery of yet another child predator employed by Church Farm School is heartbreaking, but unfortunately not surprising, said attorney Charles P. “Chad” Maloney IV of the West Chester law firm of Goldberg, Goldberg and Maloney, a former county prosecutor.
“As we pursue justice against Church Farm School in federal court for the victim of Marc Spera, Rowley’s arrest further demonstrates the institutional failures at Church Farm School that caused students to be sexually abused,” Maloney said in a statement Friday. “Failures by Church Farm School to institute sound hiring, training, and supervising policies for their residential staff allowed sexual predators unfettered access to children as young as 12 years old, in a boarding school far from their families.”
The suit contends that Spera, who is not named as a defendant, was able to “exploit (the school’s) institutional weaknesses to sexually abuse and sexually assault” the victim at least 40 times at Spera’s school apartment. Church Farm’s “organizational culture and physical environment” facilitated Spera’s abuse of a “vulnerable” teenager, it states. The school failed, according to the lawsuit, to have proper policies in place to identify the patterns that might have led to his conduct being exposed and notification to law enforcement for prosecution. It was not until police received a tip through the ChildLine anonymous tip service in December 2018 that an investigation began.
Church Farm School was founded in 1913 as an Episcopal private school for young boys with an attention to farming and agricultural work. It has continued to serve as a Christian private school but has largely abandoned its agricultural past.
Maloney said that he was aware of others who are working with police concerning allegations of abuse of students at the school, but that no other arrests have been made beyond Spera and Rowley. In addition, the school has hired a security consulting firm to investigate the incidents that led to Spera’s arrest.
But Maloney said that actions by the school administration led him to question how serious they are about prosecuting other current or former staff accused of sexually assaulting students.
“Our firm is actively working with other victims who are cooperating with law enforcement regarding additional Church Farm School employees who sexually abused children in their care,” Maloney said. “Unfortunately, we believe there are more victims who have not yet come forward.”
Maloney pointed to a letter sent by the Head of School, Rev. Edmund K. “Ned” Sherrill III, who took over in 2009, when Spera’s crimes were taking place, to the school community last week. In it, Sherrill praised “the courage of this former student, now a young man, for bringing such a matter forward as painful as that must be,” in the Spera case, and also announced news of Rowley’s arrest.
He said that the school had hired T&M USA, formerly T&M Protection Resources, to “independently investigate” Spera’s behavior, and “encouraged all former students and employees to come forward with any information” about such conduct. But he noted that Rowley’s arrest came through work by West Whiteland police, not the school’s investigators, and asked those receiving the letter to contact the agency directly with any other information.
“I appreciate this former student contacting authorities and deeply regret that another student may have suffered sexual abuse while attending the school years ago,” he said of the student who reported Rowley’s misconduct. “We are cooperating with the authorities on this case.”
Maloney, on the other hand, urged possible victims to go to the police, rather than the school’s investigators. “We encourage those young men to contact law enforcement directly. Our firm believes Church Farm School has done enough harm and it is time for law enforcement to investigate these horrific crimes. We are encouraged by the strength of the victims and by the continued hard work of Detective Michael Buchmann of the West Whiteland Police Department in bringing these crimes to light.”
An attorney representing the school in the federal litigation, Joseph Connor of the Tredyffrin law firm of Connor, Weber and Oberlies, could not be reached for comment.
The allegations in the complaint against Rowley are as follows:
West Whiteland Police received information in November 2018 about a former CFS student who was sexually abused by a houseparent during the student’s freshman, junior, and senior years between 2003 and 2007. Earlier in 2018, the victim revealed the abuse to his guidance counselor – a mandated reporter – when he was at CFS; the victim, however, was not ready to speak with law enforcement about the abuse at that time.
In January 2021, police were able to speak with the victim, who related that he lived in the cottage where the defendant was a houseparent when he was a freshman at the school, the 2003-2004 school year. Houseparents are adults who live in residence halls with students and oversee their day-to-day living.
During that school year, Rowley brought the victim into his living area three times a week, where he orally and anally sexually abused the victim.
The victim did not attend Church Farm as a sophomore but returned in 2005-2006 as a junior, where he, again, lived in the same cottage as Rowley. That year Rowley sexually assaulted the victim in his residence and as many as 20 times in the cottage’s boiler room located in the basement.
The sexual abuse continued during the victim’s senior year. In total, authorities contend Rowley abused the victim hundreds of times while he was a student at the school. Rowley left the school in 2010 after an internal investigation.
The D.A.’s Office has filed criminal charges against two other former teachers at area schools in the past month.
Anyone with information about the latest case is asked to call Detective Michael Buchmann at 610-363-0200.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan at 6100696-1544.