The Children’s Center at Park Hill United Methodist Church has long served as a pillar of its community by providing childcare to thousands of neighborhood kids since 1980. But in August 2010, the center was hit with allegations of child sex abuse that could go down as one of the worst cases in state history. What many people don’t know: It wasn’t the first time.
There are four inches of slushy snow on the ground outside, but inside the warm pre-K classroom 14 four- and five-year-olds are sitting in a tight clump at Peter McInerney’s feet, their faces looking upward reverently. Today is Pajama Day: There are Buzz Lightyear pajamas, Spider-Man pajamas, and even a little girl dressed in what appears to be a Cinderella costume. The 58-year-old childcare instructor, who is legendary in the neighborhood for not only his love of kids but also for his signature mismatched knee-high socks, fits right in with a pair of green flannel pajama pants. In his arms, he holds Superman, the four-year-old version. Only this superhero has had a rough morning, and tears stream down his cheeks. “Everyone, please listen,” McInerney says, his face showing concern. “Superman here has hurt his wrist. You can’t see it, but it’s right here and it’s still tender. Let’s be gentle, OK?”
For 30 years, McInerney himself has been the Superman of the Children’s Center. Parents have enrolled their children at the center specifically because of him—they want their kids to experience his special brand of magic. McInerney has that intangible something all great teachers have, and he’s helped raise thousands of kids, teaching them to say please and thank you, feigning surprise and wonder each time a child does something silly or new, and putting together puzzle after puzzle after puzzle. When he reads aloud, he makes funny faces and uses different voices. He hands out hugs and kisses and lets kids climb on him like he’s a human jungle gym. He is unfailingly patient, even when a child melts down over an empty cup of Cheerios. But McInerney too is suffering from an invisible wound. On McInerney’s watch, his teacher’s aide Benjamin Janicki may have assaulted the same children the teacher holds so dear.
Months after the allegations surfaced, McInerney still has difficulty speaking about what happened. In a barely audible voice, McInerney says when he learned of the alleged assaults, the charges were so unbelievable he couldn’t process them. He tries to elaborate, to explain what’s going on inside his head, but the words escape him. “I’m not very good at this,” he says. Although he never had children of his own, McInerney cares for his students so sincerely that few would question he felt like a parent would’ve that day. He wasn’t just flattened at the thought of one child suffering abuse—he had 25 children to think about. And he was astonished and disturbed about how he could have not seen what was going on in his own classroom.
Others are less surprised and less concerned about McInerney’s failure to prevent the alleged molestation. He may be the center’s Man of Steel, but he is still human—his powers do not include X-ray vision or an ability to be in 10 places at once. And if he does have a weakness, it is an easily exploitable one. “Peter has an unwavering faith in the goodness of people,” says Christy Bouchard, 35, whose sons attend the center. “In this case he was wrong. But the fault lies with Ben.”
McInerney says in 30 years of teaching at the center he had never been asked to take a sex abuse prevention seminar. He attended three in the weeks after Janicki’s arrest. He wanted to know how to respond if students asked about Janicki’s absence. “The first day we were back a kid looks at me and asks, ‘Ben’s in jail?’ ” says McInerney, who nodded yes in response. “You want to be honest, respect their curiosity, but they don’t need to see a police report.”
For McInerney, the hurt doesn’t end with the children who were allegedly victimized. McInerney has to come to terms with the possibility that the Children’s Center may not fully recover from the allegations—and that the place to which he has given nearly three decades of his life may ultimately close for good. What would he do if that happened? McInerney shakes his head. He’s not sure. Probably the same thing someplace else. The idea obviously pains him, and his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows form an uncharacteristic frown. But only for a moment: The CD player in the corner blares the first few notes of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” McInerney jumps up from the child-size table where he was molding playdough and shouts to his tiny pupils, “Who wants to dance?!?!”