NEW YORK — For underprivileged boys from rough-and-tumble New York City neighborhoods, the Madison Square Boys Club stood as an oasis — a home away from home where they could shoot hoops, swim laps, and learn skills, like cooking and photography.
But behind the well-known club’s doors, some men who attended as boys in the 1950s through 1970s say, they were sexually abused.
Some say they were molested by Dr. Reginald Archibald, a renowned endocrinologist who volunteered to perform annual physical exams on teenage and preteen members. Others say they were fondled by the coach of the club’s championship-winning basketball team, Nicholas “Lefty” Antonucci.
The allegations, detailed Monday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 20 men, are in the same vein as those made against other prominent institutions where adults entrusted to care for vulnerable or disadvantaged children have been accused of violating them.
“It was kind of an open secret,” said Jennifer Freeman, one of the lawyers bringing the case under a recent change in New York law that opened a one-year window for victims to sue over abuse they say happened decades ago.
James Sullivan, a retired New York City police lieutenant, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that Archibald started abusing him in 1958, when he was 11. Sullivan said he kept it to himself for nearly 60 years, until Rockefeller University last year started looking into allegations Archibald abused hundreds of boys there.
“This thing has affected me in all facets of my life — whether it’s married or professional, whatever it is,” said Sullivan, now 72 and living in Florida. “It affected decision-making. It just creeps into everything. It tears at your self-worth and your self-image. You feel less of yourself.”
The AP generally does not identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they consent to being named, as Sullivan has done.
Archibald died in 2007. The AP was unsuccessful in finding Antonucci or his relatives, but lawyers for the men suing the club say they believe he is also dead.
The club said in a statement Monday that while it cannot comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit, it “applauds the courage of those who have come forward to describe their painful experiences at Madison between 1950 and 1980, which strike at the very core of our organization’s values.”
“Nothing is more important to Madison than the safety and well-being of the children we serve, and we have strict policies in place to make sure our club members are safe at all times and that our staff is trained to identify and report any signs of abuse,” the organization said.
Another man, who did not want to be identified, told the AP that Archibald started abusing him when he was 6, in 1958 or 1959. Children were required to be examined by Archibald each year in order to use the swimming pool, and he was known around the club as the “pool doctor.”
On one occasion, the man said, the doctor took him into a club exam room that was essentially a closet, fondled his genitals and attempted to sodomize him with a finger.
Sullivan said Archibald grabbed his genitals during an exam and persuaded his mother to allow him to participate in a growth study at Rockefeller University, during which the doctor abused him further and made him pose for nude photographs.
Sullivan and the other man said Antonucci had a reputation as a “hands-on” coach. He had a habit of going around the gymnasium, grabbing boys on the back of the thigh, exclaiming, ‘Gotcha!’ and then putting them in a bear hug.
On one occasion, Sullivan said, Antonucci took him out to dinner alone and fondled him. Sullivan said he left the club after playing one season of basketball and eventually gave up the sport to play football, culminating with a stint on the University of Connecticut’s team.
Antonucci was convicted of molestation in the 1960s and did not return to the club after prison, lawyers for the men said. The Manhattan district attorney’s office said it could not immediately locate records on the case.
According to the lawyers, one of the men now suing the club testified at Antonucci’s trial about his alleged abuse, including one episode in which the coach allegedly squirted ketchup and mustard on a boy’s genitals.
The club, founded in 1884 and known since 1984 as the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, is New York City’s oldest Boys and Girls Club. Over the years, it has attracted support from some of the city’s wealthiest benefactors.
The duality of the club tears at the man who said he was molested starting at age 6.
On one hand, the club was a welcoming refuge, keeping youths off the streets, treating them to a haunted house at Halloween and giving them bags of goodies at Christmas. On the other, for many of the boys, the alleged treatment by Archibald and Antonucci made it a source of immense pain.
“It is such an unbelievable institution that it breaks my heart that they’re coming under the spotlight now for this,” the man said, “and not for all the good they’ve done.”