By Kathy Rowland
(930 words, 8-minute read)
On Tuesday, 21 February, the Boston Globe published an article headlined “Ex-teacher molested pupils, Milton Academy says”, linking Rey Buono to sexual abuse of minors in the US in the 1980s. By the next day, the news had spread to Singapore and Malaysia, causing shock and alarm amongst theatre practitioners and educators. Buono has, since 1989, lived and worked in Southeast Asia and is a well-known theatre educator and sometimes director.
In a letter from Milton Academy to its community of alumni, students and parents, the elite private boarding school said that an investigation beginning in May 2016 had found that Buono had been involved in “abuse involving at least 12 male students”, all minors, during his tenure there from 1973 – 1987. Three other male teachers were also reported for sexual misconduct – each with a single victim, all female, all underage. Only Buono was named in the report. Given the allegedly serial nature of his behaviour, naming Buono could have been an attempt to encourage other hereto-unknown victims to come forward. At the same time, according the heterosexual abusers anonymity leaves the report open to criticism of bias against homosexual teachers.
On Thursday 23 February, The Star Online in Malaysia carried a report, “Local colleagues surprised over revelations of American lecturer’s sexual misconduct”, which reported that Buono’s former colleagues in two tertiary institutions in Malaysia were stunned by the news. Each reported that there had been no complaints from students leveled against Buono during his time with them. The report quotes Sunway Education Group and Sunway University senior executive director Elizabeth Lee as saying “I checked with the staff who worked with him then and those with us now and found no student complaints were ever received about him.”
Speaking of their personal and professional experience with Buono, several educators and artists noted his commitment as a teacher and director. The deep disjuncture between their experience of Buono and the revelations from his past was clearly expressed in one commentator wondering if it was perhaps two different people with the same name. In the Singapore press too, reports have noted his exemplary record and the lasting legacy of the program he helped establish in 1989, Victoria College’s theatre studies and drama program.
The Milton Academy letter is explicit that Buono, “admitted to sexually abusing a student and his employment was terminated” in 1987. On Friday 24 Feb however, several media outlets, including Singapore’s Straits Times, in “Former Victoria Junior College teacher denies sexual abuse allegations in the US”, reported that Buono had refuted the allegations, via a statement issued by his Malaysian lawyer. The statement notes that the allegations were 30 years old and that no criminal complaints had been filed in that time. However, the nature of sexual abuse of minors – where it may take years for the abuse to surface – renders the time-lapse meaningless (as recognized by the suspension of the statute of limitations in such cases). The deflection in the statement is clearly part of a legal strategy in anticipation of charges in the US. It did little to quell the deep dismay and confusion amongst those who knew him.
On Sunday, 26 Feb, a Facebook post by a Milton Academy alumni, “a victim … also a survivor” of sexual abuse, began spreading on social media. It gives a face, name and disturbing details to the news reports. While it does not name the abuser, the details – a male drama teacher, a young male student, the school and the time frame – all implicate Buono. The victim was a child of 13 at the time, and the abuse continued for months. The poster reveals that he underwent years of therapy to deal with the abuse. Most heartbreaking is the complicated knot of power, trust and abuse tied in the phrase he uses to describe his abuser, “a beloved … teacher”.
This has been a developing story, with information emerging in bits and pieces over the past five days. The ripples through the arts communities in Singapore and Malaysia have been building with private, and public conversations expressing devastation, sadness, fear and fury.
The foremost question for many is if the alleged abuse continued during Buono’s time in Southeast Asia. Buono, in his statement, has cited the “unblemished record” of his professional career in SEA. At the time of writing, there have been no official complaint or reports of abuse in Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand. Buono deserves the benefit of this fact as it stands.
However, sexual abuse is a crime that shames its victims into silence. The power relations between student and teacher (or director and actor) is a further deterrent to disclosure. All the institutions where Buono came into contact with minors, or was in a position of power over young adults, should launch professionally conducted investigations that empowers and enables potential victims to come forward. To be credible, these investigations must also allow Buono access to due process and avoid disintegrating into a trial by public opinion.
If there were victims here in Southeast Asia, Buono must be held accountable. Members of the arts and education communities will also have to ask some very difficult questions of themselves. If not, then it will at least offer a sense of relief that there were no incidents of abuse amongst members of the arts communities in Singapore and Malaysia. It will also aid the narrative that Rey turned his life around after leaving the US.
Regardless of what is uncovered in the region, the allegations by his former students in the US, which are, to put it mildly, damning, will need to be addressed in order for the truth, and justice to prevail.
Addendum: To report any form of sexual abuse or seek support, you may contact the following NGOs:
Sexual Assault Care Centre has safe, free and confidential services for people who have faced sexual assault, need help, or feel unsure about a sexual encounter and just want to talk.
Oogachaga is a community-based counselling, support and personal development agency for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) individuals, couples and families.
Counselling and Care Centre (CCC) is a non-governmental, non-profit organisation dedicated in providing quality counselling and psychological counselling services, psychotherapy training and consultation to professionals in the mental health and social services
P.S The Children is the only social organisation in Malaysia that focuses solely on the prevention, intervention and treatment of Child Sexual Abuse.
Women’s Aid Organisation is one of Malaysia leading women’s rights organisations, and provides support for victims of sexual abuse
Projek Layang-Layang is a group of Malaysians from various backgrounds dedicated to empowering adults with the knowledge and skills to create safer spaces for children in order to protect them from child sexual abuse.