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Lawsuit settlement 'bittersweet' for man who accused Ken-Ton teacher of abuse

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Arthur Werner Child Victims Act Settlement

The Ken-Ton School District has agreed to spend $17.5 million to settle dozens of lawsuits accusing Arthur Werner, a former elementary school teacher, of molesting male students over a period of decades. Werner, shown in a picture from a 1987 News article, retired in 1993 and has never been criminally charged with abuse.

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At age 68, he has spent nearly six decades trying to forget what happened to him in the classroom of his fifth-grade teacher, Arthur F. Werner, in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District.

“It happened to me at least a dozen times that year,” recalled the man, one of 35 former Werner students who filed Child Victims Act lawsuits accusing Werner of molesting them in the school.

“We had this weird rule in the school that you couldn’t put your hands in your pockets. Every time Werner saw me reach toward one of my pockets, he’d call me up to the front of the room, in front of the whole class. He would literally sew my pants pockets shut,” the man told The Buffalo News in an interview. “While he did that, he would put his hand inside my pants, under the guise of protecting me from the sewing needle. He would touch me, molest me as I stood there in front of the whole class. Most kids would look down at their desks. A few would watch.”

Those incidents were humiliating and scary, the man said. Every bit as painful were the vicious beatings he said he got – on a regular basis – from school and neighborhood bullies who had either seen or heard about the encounters in Werner’s classroom.

“There was a group of them who beat on me every chance they got,” the man recalled, his voice breaking into sobs. “They made my life a pure hell. What Werner did to me destroyed my life. I still have flashbacks and nightmares about it. I’ve hated myself. I’ve thought of myself as worthless. I’ve had trouble with drugs, drinking and two heart attacks. I relate all those things to what happened to me back then.”

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District has agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle 35 Child Victims Act lawsuits filed by former students of a retired elementary school teacher. The lawsuits accused Arthur F. Werner, a longtime social studies teacher, of groping and molesting fifth-grade boys at Herbert Hoover Elementary School – sometimes in full view of other students.

The man acknowledges that his description of Werner’s actions in the classroom is hard to believe, but he told the story to attorneys in a pretrial deposition last year. And his attorney, Chris O’Brien, said the man is just one of dozens of Werner accusers who would have told similar stories as witnesses had the Werner CVA cases gone to trial.

“We also had witnesses, who were not victims, who were prepared to testify about the horrible things they saw,” O’Brien said.

None of that will happen, because the Ken-Ton district decided last week to settle all 35 of the Werner CVA cases, rather than oppose them at trial. The district will pay $17.5 million to the Werner accusers and their attorneys.

The 68-year-old man who spoke to The News said he had mixed emotions when he learned that his case had been settled.

“The settlement was a bittersweet moment for me,” he said. “I knew that getting up on the stand and telling my story to a room full of strangers would be terrible. But there also is a big part of me that wants this whole story to come out. I was fully prepared to testify.”

“Quite a few of my clients had mixed feelings” about the settlement “because they wanted to testify and have their stories told,” O’Brien said.

In a statement released about the Werner settlements, Ken-Ton district officials called Werner’s actions “reprehensible,” but the district maintains that school officials were never aware of any allegations that Werner molested students until decades after he retired.

The Werner accuser who spoke to The News said he finds that impossible to believe.

“Students all over the school knew about this. He was doing this in front of his whole class,” the man said.

On several occasions, while he was being fondled by Werner, other teachers walked into the room and then walked out, the man said.

He said he never reported anything to school officials or his parents. He said he was afraid his father would be angry at him for making such an accusation against a teacher.

“When something like that happened to you as a kid back then, it basically put you on an isolated island, where nobody ever wants to come anywhere near you,” he said. “That’s how I felt.”

O’Brien and attorney Steve Boyd, who also represented a Werner accuser, said they were prepared to present evidence that the school district had to know that Werner was molesting students.

“The school district protected a predator,” Boyd said.

Werner, now 89 and ailing, retired in 1993. He was never charged criminally and was never named as a defendant in any of the lawsuits.

Werner and his family have never responded to efforts by The News – through phone messages, emails, letters and visits to the Werner home – to obtain their side of the story.

A family attorney, Patrick Mackey, declined to comment on Thursday and said the Werner family does not wish to discuss the lawsuits.

Rather than suing Werner, attorneys for the accusers said they decided to aim their lawsuits at school officials who hired and supervised Werner.

The accuser who spoke to The News is “one of many people” who have spent decades trying to deal with painful emotions resulting from the reported molestations, O’Brien said.

“These people have suffered,” O’Brien said. “One of the television reporters asked me how the plaintiffs feel about the big financial windfall they’re getting. This is not a windfall. Every one of these people would much prefer that this never happened.”

The accuser who spoke to The News said he still struggles with his past, but he also has many good things happen in his life. He said he lives outside New York State and has served as a priest in the Episcopalian church since 1990.

“I met a wonderful woman who basically saved my life,” he said. “We’ve been married since 1976. We have three kids and seven grandchildren … In my work, I sometimes counsel kids who have been victims of sexual assault.”

The News asked if it bothers him that Werner – never arrested and never named as a defendant in any lawsuit – has not been punished in the courts for his actions.

“Part of me says, 'Yes, he absolutely should be punished,' ” the man said. “No matter what judgment he receives here on earth, the real judgment is what he will face later. That is between him and God."


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