The devastating damage inflicted by one of history’s worst pedophiles began to emerge Thursday as parents in London were informed that a serial sex offender from the U.S. had targeted boys in their school.
William Vahey, an American teacher, is believed to have drugged and abused at least 90 students in his care during an unprecedented wave of attacks at schools from Nicaragua to Indonesia. Child-protection experts told The Daily Beast that he had been taking advantage of lax international standards that left thousands of American children vulnerable to attack.
An education official in Britain has confirmed that students at the Southbank International School in London were among the first known victims of the teaching veteran, who authorities say committed suicide last month in a Minnesota motel when he discovered he was being investigated by the FBI. Sir Chris Woodhead, the chair of governors at the Southbank school and formerly Britain’s chief inspector of schools, said he “felt physically sick” when he was informed that one of his most popular teachers had been responsible for decades of abuse. The images found on Vahey’s thumb drive, which was uncovered in Nicaragua, suggested scores of teenage boys had been drugged and then molested, often without their knowledge.
“This is the worst thing that I have been involved in,” Woodhead told Sky News. “We simply know that there are images of Southbank students that have been found on Vahey’s computer. The names of those students are being investigated by the police.”
That confirmation came as a devastating blow to parents who gathered at the school gates in one of London’s most expensive neighborhoods on Thursday, hoping to hear that their children had not been among the victims.
One of the parents, who gave her name as Maria, told a group of reporters that her son, 13, had been taken on overnight trips by Vahey. “I couldn’t sleep for worrying about it… Mr. Vahey also took my son on a field trip abroad and this is a big concern for us,” she said. “I know there are pictures that police have of boys, but if my son is on the list, I don’t want to know and I don’t want him to know.”
“He was a very popular member of staff with both parents and students which is perhaps an index of his sophistication and cleverness as a deceitful man who abused children.”
Scotland Yard told The Daily Beast on Thursday, however, that officers were working in conjunction with the FBI to identify Vahey’s victims in his four years working in London. Investigating officers believe the boys involved were aged between 10 and 14.
Vahey, 64, from New York, was first arrested in 1969 on six counts of molestation while working as a swimming instructor in California. He pleaded guilty to one count and was jailed for 90 days. He was required to sign up to the California sex offenders’ registry, but instead skipped town and embarked on a new life—teaching, coaching, and supervising the children of diplomats and military families in far-flung parts of the world.
His jobs included 20 years at the Jakarta International School in Indonesia, three European schools, stints in the Middle East and South America before he was caught with indecent images again and fired by a school in Nicaragua last month.
Woodhead said the school in London, where Vahey worked until last year, had carried out the criminal-records checks required by British law and spoken to previous schools, which gave him glowing references. “He was a very popular member of staff with both parents and students, which is perhaps an index of his sophistication and cleverness as a deceitful man who abused children,” he said.
“You would have thought that within America itself the fact that he had a conviction for child abuse would have prevented him from becoming an accredited teacher in the United States—it is a complete mystery as to how he taught from 1970 onwards in international schools throughout the world with this conviction behind him,” said Woodhead.
Bharti Patel, chief executive of ECPAT, an organization that campaigns against transnational child exploitation, said there’s no effective global database that allowed international schools to check teachers’ history of child abuse.
“For a long time, repeat offenders have got away with this,” she said, emphasizing that parents using international schools have no idea what kind of checks are being carried out on the people caring for their children. “There has to be a universal database that applies equal standards across the globe—we are talking about children. There is a need to do this and it needs to be done urgently.”
An official from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center in London said it had set up a database for international schools to check the records of British teachers traveling overseas, but it was left to individual countries to make that information available. Individual international schools are then often under no obligation to check in with multiple countries to see whether any crimes have been recorded.
Vahey was teaching ninth-grade world history and geography at the American Nicaraguan School in Managua when his employer came across the abuse images. The FBI applied for a warrant to examine a thumb drive containing the explicit pictures two days before Vahey killed himself.
The files, which officials say included images of at least 90 boys, were carefully catalogued with the dates and locations of field trips on which they were taken, dating back to 2008. He is believed to have been coaching sports teams and leading field trips for more than 30 years before that, which may mean there were hundreds of previous victims.
In a statement released by the FBI, veteran child-abuse investigator Patrick Fransen said the scale of the abuse was unprecedented: “I’ve never seen another case where an individual may have molested this many children over such a long period of time.”