A veteran Foxborough police detective has been assigned the full-time job of reaching back into the town’s past to see how a former teacher and scout leader was able to sexually abuse dozens of children over decades without being stopped or reported.
At least 28 men have come forward since September to accuse Willieam E. Sheehan, 74, of rape and sexual abuse from 1961 when he began teaching to 1981, when the well-known resident left town abruptly for a job in Florida. A handful of men say they also reported the alleged abuse to Foxborough police in 1998.
Some of the victims came forward at an emotional meeting of the Foxborough selectmen Tuesday night to tell their stories of abuse, as many in the audience cried openly.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it happened ... and it turns my stomach,’’ said Selectmen Chairman James DeVellis, visibly shaken by the stories he heard. “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 find answers: “How did we let that happen?’’
Foxborough police Det. Thomas Kirrane will investigate the case. And, following an impassioned plea Tuesday from the self-described victims, 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 Tuesday’s meeting, Kevin Corliss, 56 and a 30-year school maintenance employee, was comforted by members of a survivors group as he choked out a wrenching story of abuse that began at age 8 in Sheehan’s classroom in the former Lewis School, and extended to scouting meetings and events, 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,’’ Corliss said. “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 lives in a Fort Myers, Fla., nursing home in the late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Because of his advanced illness, the elementary and middle-school teacher who also directed the swimming program at the former Cocasset River Park may never be prosecuted.