Foxborough 11/14/12- Photo of child molester William Sheehan who taught at the Ahern Middle School. Photo provided by Foxborough School Dept. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki (regional)
William Sheehan in a school photo taken when he taught at Ahern Middle School. (Foxborough School Dept.)
The Boston Globe

A veteran Foxborough police detective has been assigned the full-time job of looking into the town’s past to see how a former teacher and Boy Scout leader was able to sexually abuse dozens of children over decades.

At least 28 men have come forward since September to accuse William E. Sheehan, 74, of rape and sexual abuse between 1961, when he began teaching, and 1981, when he left town for a job in Florida. A handful of men say they also reported the alleged abuse to Foxborough police in 1998.  

Some of the men came forward at an emotional meeting of the Foxborough Board of Selectmen Tuesday night to tell their stories, as many in the audience cried openly.

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“There is no doubt in my mind that it happened . . . and it turns my stomach,’’ said James DeVellis, the selectmen chairman. “If people at that time were trying not to embarrass the town, or their friends,” by not reporting Sheehan, “it was an incredible misstep.”

The job now, DeVellis said, is to determine “how did we let that happen?’’

Foxborough police Detective Thomas Kirrane will investigate. And, following an impassioned plea Tuesday from accusers, selectmen pledged to hire an outside assistant for Kirrane, if needed, to avoid potential conflicts because some current town police officers and their relatives were involved with Sheehan’s now-defunct Boy Scout Troop 70. 

At the meeting, Kevin Corliss, a 30-year school maintenance employee, was comforted by members of a survivors group as he shared a wrenching story of abuse that began at age 8  in Sheehan’s class in the former Lewis School, and extended to Boy Scout meetings and a summer swimming program.

“At the park he would take you off into the woods and rape you, and if you were able to get away he would chase you down,’’ said Corliss, 56. “He always seemed to come out of nowhere and attack you. There was no way to get away. After a while it was quicker and less painful to just let it happen.”

Sheehan now lives in an unidentified Fort Myers, Fla.,  nursing home and is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Because of his illness, the former elementary and middle school teacher who also directed the swimming program at the former Cocasset River Park, may never be prosecuted. Foxborough police have filed multiple felony charges against Sheehan, but have been unable to arrest him because of his health.

A relative has declined to say whether Sheehan has legal representation.

Sheehan was stripped of his Florida teaching license and scouting certification in 1990 after allegations of sexual abuse over three summers at a scouting camp there were found credible, but no criminal charges were brought against him.

The Rev. Bill Dudley, the informal head of the group Survivors of Bill Sheehan, submitted a list of demands to selectmen during the Tuesday meeting, including the call for an independent investigator. Dudley, of Foxborough’s Union Church, also asked that police and prosecutorial records be released from the 2001 era – three years after several men say they went to police — to learn why the case didn’t go forward then.

There are now at least 30-plus people who have come forward, Dudley said.

At least six of the accusers have hired Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who said he is exploring a civil case.

Those men want to know who knew what and when, Dudley said. They are also demanding to know what happened to Sheehan’s town and school personnel files, which are missing.

Corliss and the others, including Dave Lutkus, 47, who now lives out of state, said the town has a responsibility to survivors and their families after turning a “blind eye” to the safety of young children.

DeVellis told the men that Sheehan’s health status may preclude prosecution, but that selectmen will allocate resources to find answers.

“It’s a shame you won’t get the satisfaction of seeing him suffer the consequences,’’ he said.

Lutkus replied that suffering isn’t the goal.

“There has been plenty of that over the last 30 or 40 years,’’ Lutkus said. “It really looks, though, like somebody gave [Sheehan] an ultimatum to get out of town. That’s who I’m looking for.”

Selectmen have scheduled a Feb. 26 executive session with Police Chief Edward O’Leary to discuss progress and options, according to DeVellis.