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John Monfredo's "teen-age accuser" takes her power back
“There are people who matter and there are people who don't, and I was someone who didn't”
Content warning: This story contains depictions of sexual assault which some may find traumatic. Caution is advised. Scroll to the end for a list of resources for survivors.
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Heather Prunier was nine years old, in fourth grade at Nelson Place Elementary School, when she tried out for a Joe Schwartz Softball League team coached by the principal of the Belmont Street Community School, John Monfredo. It was 1991.
To her surprise, Monfredo put her in as a catcher: “Making it as a first year player was unusual,” Heather explained. Unlike the rest of the team, pitchers and catchers practiced year-round with Monfredo in the Belmont Street gym on weekends.
That’s where the abuse began.
“It started just like... hugs and 'hello,'” Heather said. There was a locked door at the end of a hallway, adjacent to a set of stairs, that she’d knock on to be let into the gym.
“Underneath those stairs is where a lot of things happened,” said Heather. “I would have to bang on the doors to be let in. And when he would let me in, he would give me a hug hello. And then it progressed to kissing and touching.”
It went on like this, escalating, for three years.
Monfredo’s daughter was also on the team at the time. Heather would sometimes go over to their house. One time, it wasn’t like the others.
“At her birthday party, I got stung by a bee. He brought me inside to get ice. They had a couch in their basement...”
She trailed off, staring into the middle distance. Only her shuddering inhales and exhales broke the silence.
This was the third of several long interviews with Heather. In earlier conversations, we’d danced around the question of what actually happened between her and Monfredo. On this day, we were in her living room. She sat on the end of a sectional couch with a pillow in her lap. Her therapist sat next to her. Her friend and I sat facing them. Between us, a tray of snacks rested on an ottoman, untouched. As a quiet, sunny August afternoon carried on outside, the air in the room was heavy and still. In that moment she trailed off, her face said more than any string of words.
Even a casual Worcester news reader would know John Monfredo’s name. Several decades on the School Committee will do that. You’re most likely to know him from his annual book drive, graciously promoted as it is in the local press. Over the years, his name has become synonymous with books in the hands of needy children. “Worcester: The City That Reads” is the name of the campaign. His email sign off is “The Most Important 20 Minutes of Your Day....Read With Your Child.” For decades, this has been Monfredo’s personal brand. The “book drive” guy.
Between 1991 and 1994, the “book drive” guy groomed, abused, and repeatedly raped Heather Prunier.1 When she went to the authorities as a teen, the burden of proof fell on her. In the end, she was made to feel like her story didn’t matter. That no one would believe her. That there were people who matter and people who didn’t, and she was in the latter category. She attempted suicide multiple times. Monfredo went on to live the back half of his life as a respected public servant, and remains active in local politics.
For decades, Heather Prunier2 carried a quiet burden forced on her by a local political culture that wanted nothing more than to forget that her story—and she—existed.
Heather is telling her story publicly for the first time. What happened to her cannot be seen in the vacuum of one man and one victim. It’s also the whispers of the rumor mill, the inaction of the authorities, the politics of the school system and the sway a select few have over the public discourse. It was the whole of the power structure that forced Heather to carry what she did, alone, for decades. This is the story of a sexual predator, but also a local power elite that protected and enabled him with remarkable ease.
“Sometimes he gave me rides in his car,” Heather recalled. “And I would sit in the front seat...”
Another long pause.
“He would put his...” She cleared her throat. “He would put his hands down my pants. He was... he wore this really gross Velour tracksuit...”
I asked what he would say to initiate such contact. Heather hadn’t moved, her hands still locked together on top of the pillow, her eyes still in a haze.
“He told me I was special and that I should trust him and that my parents trusted him. That he wanted to do something fun with me... It started as something nice...”
I asked her to remember how it felt in that moment—what made it seem nice.
“That he was paying attention to me... That I got to do something other kids didn't get to do.”
I asked if he talked about the need to keep it a secret.
“Yeah. He said that other people wouldn’t understand. That there wasn’t a reason to tell anyone, that we had something special that was between us... It felt sort of like... this was grown up.”
I asked her to recall a moment it soured.
“When he didn't stop and I... said no. And I felt like I couldn't breathe and like...”
She trailed off again, silent for a long time. I interjected, as gently as I could, asking first what made her come forward, and then if what happened when she couldn’t breathe had happened multiple times. She seemed unaware I’d asked anything at all. A cell phone rang loudly. I jumped, chuckled nervously, then apologized. Heather didn’t react to the ring or my apology. Didn’t move.
After a few more seconds, I said, “It’s ok, it...”
She physically jostled and her eyes met mine. It had been two minutes and twenty seconds since she’d last spoken—I felt like I couldn’t breathe—I tried to ask another question but couldn’t. I apologized again, this time for crying.
Readers of an early draft of this story pointed out that the above passage described someone dissociating, a common protective response to trauma.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) defines dissociation the following way:
In very simple terms, dissociation is a detachment from reality. Most professionals believe that dissociation exists on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is an experience like daydreaming. At the other end is chronic and complex dissociation which may make it difficult for an individual to function in the "real" world.
Dissociation is one of the many defense mechanisms the brain can use to cope with the trauma of sexual violence. It’s often described as an “out of body” experience where someone feels detached from reality. It may be upsetting for someone to realize that they have dissociated, but it is a natural reaction to trauma.
In a follow-up interview a few weeks later, Heather described what she felt in those silent moments. The feeling, she said, hasn’t changed since childhood.
“I felt small. I didn’t have the words, literally. Because I was 9 or 10. I didn't know what the words were for what happened.”
Trying to recall those moments triggered an instinctive response, she said. Not fight or flight so much as freeze.
“That’s what I was doing and I’m still doing it,” she said. “I feel like there’s a wall in front of my mouth. Like I can’t see the words or hear them. I can’t push them out. Literally couldn’t breathe to get words out.”
It manifests as physical pressure. “Something or someone sitting on my chest,” she said.
A recent story in New York Times Magazine, headlined “What People Misunderstand About Rape,” reports on “freezing” as a common but under-examined response to sexual assault. The immobility, psychologists believe, can leave victims unable to confront their own memories.
“If we can understand how our brain responds to threat or attack,” said [Jim Hopper, a clinical psychologist and teaching associate at Harvard Medical School], “we can help validate victims’ responses to and memories of sexual assault with the credibility of science.”
According to research described in the article, police typically have “a very poor understanding of victim behavior.” For this reason, the vast majority of sexual assault cases die during police interviews: “They regularly dismissed rape reports because they didn’t understand common physiological responses to trauma and assumed victims were lying. Cases were dropped before they were ever fully investigated.”
Heather recalled a female police officer confronting her at some point after she disclosed the abuse. The officer showed her a picture of the stairwell where the abuse had started and told Heather it couldn’t have happened there—it was too open, too visible. And Heather remembered being unable to counter the officer’s claim. The weight was too heavy on her chest. The words wouldn’t come out.
In our interviews, there were likewise certain things left unsaid—firmly behind that wall. We came to the conclusion that rather than try to say it out loud, Heather should write it down—away from the pressure of a tape recorder and reporter. In a breach of established journalism “ethics,” I allowed Heather to write what she couldn’t bring herself to say, and allowed her to review the way it appears in this story before publishing. Handwritten, in a notebook, she finished the story about the birthday party and the basement couch.
“I heard the door close or the lock. A click. I remember being face down on the couch—one from the 70s—big, bold, orange flowers. Turning my head and trying to push a pillow away so I could breathe. He was on top of me. Having sex with me.”
A week or so after Heather had written this down, we met. She described an incident under the stairs outside the gym, this time out loud.
“I feel like they didn't have the heat on but that was probably untrue. It was cold in that gym in the winter. I was lying on the linoleum floor under the stairs. Under the stairs where ‘nothing happened.’”
The memory was triggered by one of several childhood photos Heather gathered for this article—a picture of herself and her family at the peak of Gap Mountain in New Hampshire.
“Seeing that picture reminded me how little I was,” she said. “I was on the floor and he put his legs on either side of my arms, and sat on my chest. Not sitting sitting, but I felt like I couldn't breathe. And... then he put his penis in my mouth. And... I couldn’t breathe some more. And that's why I feel like I can’t breathe.”
I asked her whether now, looking back, she saw any intent from Monfredo in the choice of location.
“You would have heard someone come down the stairs, you would have heard someone open the door to the gym...”
And it was a weekend, anyway, Heather said. Nobody was coming down the stairs.
Toward the end of those three years on Monfredo’s team, she tried to leave multiple times.
“I told my parents that I didn't want to play anymore. I just didn't feel like it. I just didn't like it.”
Her parents, unaware of what was really happening, told her she should see it through. It was, after all, a select group of gifted young athletes.
When she turned 12, she aged out of the junior team and opted not to continue to the next level. Monfredo asked her to stick with it. When that didn’t work, he appealed to her parents, asking them to sign her up. They didn’t. Heather went on to junior high in 1994 having left the team—and her abuser—behind.
Along with the relief, however, came a nagging thought: “If I wasn't there, he was probably doing it to someone else. And I didn't want someone else to go through that.”
In the spring of 1996, she finally told a social studies teacher what Monfredo had done. She was fourteen, an 8th grade student at Forest Grove. The teacher told the assistant principal, Maureen McCullough, and the principal, Joe Murphy. Administrators met with Heather's parents and told them. One of the administrators filed a complaint of child abuse with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, naming Monfredo. DSS investigated. The department substantiated the allegation, and sent their findings on to the District Attorney’s Office. District Attorney John Conte had the police investigate. Meanwhile, Heather finished the year at Forest Grove, then, after summer break, went on to Doherty High School.
Several times that fall, Heather recalled, she spotted Monfredo idling his car outside Doherty after dropping off his daughter, his eyes locked on Heather in an icy stare.
On December 31, 1996, a uniformed male police officer—“with a gun and handcuffs”—interviewed Heather for several hours. Heather remembers being alone in the room with the officer. Behind a one way mirror, her parents, her therapist at the time, and an assistant district attorney watched, she recalled.3
After the interview, while Heather was in the bathroom, the therapist pulled her mother aside.
“My therapist told my mom to watch me because she thought I was going to try to kill myself.”
The therapist was right to be worried.
That evening, the family had plans to go to a movie theater for a New Year’s celebration. While her parents were distracted, about to leave, Heather sneaked pills from a neighbor’s house and put them in her pocket. Later, in the theater, she sat next to her aunt and took dozens of ibuprofen and acetaminophen tablets. After the movies, they stayed at her grandmother’s house. She woke up the next morning, vomiting. She told her brother about the pills, and he told their parents. They took her to the emergency room. Her stomach was pumped. Shortly after, she moved out of the house.
“I went to live in a therapeutic... place.”
The place was Burncoat Family Center, and she lived there for a year or so. She never went back to Doherty. On Jan. 9, 1997—a little more than a week after Heather talked to police—Monfredo was put on leave from his principal job for some 14 weeks while police investigated.
For most of that time, nobody followed up with Heather or her family. “I don’t remember hearing from them about it, not for a long time.” When she finally did meet with police again, investigators suggested that maybe it wasn’t Monfredo who had perpetrated the abuse—maybe it was someone closer to Heather.
“They thought that it was too hard for me to remember who it really was,” she said.
But Heather intuited the subtext.
“I understood it as them telling me that people were not going to believe me and that my understanding of reality was not true,” she said.
She felt like she’d gone through the ordeal of coming forward to authorities for no reason. “I felt like all of it was just...” She let out a deep sigh. “That it didn't matter. I felt like I didn’t matter. I felt like... there are people who matter and there are people who don't, and I was someone who didn't.”
In April, Monfredo returned to his office at Belmont Street. Police had designated the investigation “inactive.”
Heather and her parents requested a meeting with the District Attorney’s Office to ask why they were not pressing charges. The conversation did not go well.
“The last question I asked was why they weren't going to go forward, in their own words” Heather said. “And John Conte's second-in-command person was there, and he sat forward and looked at me and said ‘because I just wasted three hours of my time with you and I don't have any more of it to waste.’”
Heather’s parents then appealed to state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. The office looked at the case and thought there was enough to press charges, Heather recalled. An employee of the AG’s Office got in touch with DA John Conte and both Heather and her parents recalled representatives of the AG’s office saying they believed the case should be prosecuted.
Heather shared a copy of a signed letter from the AG’s office, dated March 23, 1998, from Frances McIntyre, assistant Attorney General and chief of the Criminal Bureau. McIntyre wrote that she had spoken to the DA’s Office and would “attempt to be of assistance.” (Read the letter here.)
That November, Harshbarger lost his bid for governor to Republican Paul Celluci, and Thomas Reilly took his place as Attorney General, sworn in on January 7, 1999. Without any contacts in the new office, Heather’s family would have had to start fresh. Instead, they chose to drop it and move on.
It felt to Heather, and to her parents, that every time they took a step toward justice, the rug got pulled from under them. And each time, Heather said, she’d spiral.
“Around that time, or shortly thereafter, I tried to kill myself again,” Heather said. “It was like... we're trying so hard and it's not going anywhere. How much longer do we do this? When all it's doing is harming me?”
From that point on, Heather carried the added weight of knowing no justice would come. Monfredo, on the other hand, seemed to move on with ease, having been exonerated in the court of public opinion by a dutiful local press.
There were only a small handful of newspaper articles written at the time, and the coverage was slanted toward Monfredo in a way that’s startling with a quarter century’s hindsight. This was the late 1990s, well before the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation into child abuse at the Catholic Church. But even after the Globe’s Spotlight team opened new terrain for reporting on child sex abuse, there was no re-examination. Not after all the years of reckoning that series ushered in. Not at the height of #MeToo. Not until now, really. Just one Telegram article in January 1997 announcing the investigation and two covering his return in April.
The first article, by Dianne Williamson, hit the Telegram’s front page on Jan. 9. It was titled “Principal subject of probe: Monfredo on leave after assault claim.”
Williamson reported that Monfredo was placed on administrative leave while police investigated an allegation that he “sexually assaulted” a “12-year-old girl.” And that’s all essentially accurate, but it was colored by the inclusion of a spurious, unsourced line:
“She made similar allegations last spring, but then refused to speak to DSS.”
Reading this line recently, Heather was bewildered. She didn’t make “similar allegations”; it was the same allegation. And she did speak to DSS after disclosing the abuse the previous spring. Much worse than the inaccuracy, though, was the way the line made Heather appear unreliable—maybe this girl is just making stuff up.
Monfredo got the first quote in the story:
This is a nightmare. All I’ve done my whole life is reach out to kids … I feel sorry for this girl and my heart goes out to her family, but this is my life, my reputation. This just breaks my heart.
The second quote is from Ray Mariano, then the mayor (and, as mayor, the chairman of the School Committee) and now a Telegram columnist. The two were close. Monfredo worked on Mariano’s mayoral campaign in 1994. His involvement became a political issue in itself, drawing a sternly worded Telegram editorial (“Monfredo's actions certainly are inappropriate and may be even illegal.”) In Williamson’s article, three years later, Mariano had Monfredo’s back in no uncertain terms:
I personally have a great deal of confidence in John Monfredo … Nothing I’ve heard would make me doubt his integrity. But any time a child makes an allegation, it indicates there’s a problem somewhere. My heart goes out to her family because either way, there’s a problem that has to be dealt with.
With these words—there’s a problem somewhere—the mayor dismissed completely that the problem could have been his friend, and instead left between the lines all manner of insinuations about Heather and her family.
Mariano went on to say he would trust Monfredo with his own daughter, which Williamson took as opportunity to transition to a list of Monfredo’s various accolades:
Considered a devoted and enthusiastic educator, the high-profile Monfredo has been honored several times for his offbeat but effective efforts to instill a love of reading in students. To turn pupils and parents on to books, he has flipped pancakes, flown in hot air balloons, ridden elephants and allowed himself to be dunked in water tanks.
Heather’s mother, Gretchen, remembered calling Williamson after this story.
“She said ‘I didn’t volunteer to do it, the editor asked me to do it.’ So I called the editor and I said ‘why did you put this person in charge of the article.’ And he said ‘I didn’t put this person in charge, she asked me if she could write it.’ So I don’t know who to believe. One of them was lying, obviously.”
A few months later, the Telegram published two more articles. First, on April 18, a relatively straightforward item on Monfredo’s return by Clive McFarlane, then, on April 29, Williamson wrote a more colorful account, headlined “Principal welcomed back on job: Anguish still lingers from rape allegation”:
A steady stream of well-wishers flooded his office–parents, teachers and children delighted to have their principal back. Bouquets of flowers adorned his desk. Smiling pupils shyly tiptoed through Monfredo's door to offer crayon-scrawled cards of welcome.
"We missed you all the time you were gone," wrote 10-year-old Terrell Clark. "We are glad you are back. On Discovery I saw a wolverine. Miss Moynihan told us you were coming back so we all cheered. I went to the circus. Welcome back!"
It was an emotional homecoming, one that came 10 days after Superintendent James L. Garvey was notified that no charges would be filed against Monfredo in connection with a young girl's claim that he raped her three years ago in a school hallway.
Williamson gave a lot of space to the backlash elicited by the decision to publish the initial story in January, including criticism from Monfredo himself:
For example, was it fair that the principal was placed on leave while police investigated him? Monfredo argued that it was not–that it was tantamount to judging him guilty.
"Constitutionally, it's telling people that you're guilty until you prove yourself innocent," he said. "The superintendent was very supportive, but he didn't have any choice. I really think the city needs to re-examine the process."
Some time, though considerably less, was afforded to advocates for the “teen-age accuser,” as Williamson put it.
“Many callers believed we had done an injustice to the girl and helped discourage other potential victims from coming forward,” she wrote.
That the case became “inactive” was not an assessment of Monfredo’s guilt or innocence. But over time, through these narratives in the press and the comments of public officials, “inactive” became synonymous with “exoneration.” The “community,” at least the one recognized by the paper, was apparently more concerned with Monfredo’s reputation than they were with the truth of the allegations. There was a problem “somewhere,” but as far as Monfredo was concerned, it was “case closed” because the community wanted the case to be closed. Monfredo was someone, after all, and in the public record, this girl did not even have a name.
The last section of Williamson’s article, headed “HUGGER,” read:
Yesterday, it was clear that Monfredo is a hugger. He threw his arms around parents and children alike, with an abandon he partly attributes to his Italian heritage.
But the allegations have tempered his physical nature and made him more cautious, he said. And while those who support his accuser say the outcome of this case will have a chilling effect on victims of sexual abuse, Monfredo said it serves as a grim warning that educators could face unfounded accusations.
"I find it sad," he said. "But I will never refuse a hug from a child, because they need it. I told my staff today, "Life can be understood backwards, but you need to live your life moving forward. That's what I intend to do. I need to move forward."
And that’s it. That’s all the press attention this got. The last word on the issue was a quote from a credibly accused child rapist, saying he will “never refuse a hug from a child.” And it was presented as a moment of triumph. He’s just Italian, the newspaper explained.
The “anguish” behind him, Monfredo went on to enjoy a long career in school administration and politics. He eventually left Belmont Street Community School and won a seat on the School Committee in 2005. There, he wielded his power to prevent the district from teaching sex education, working with Superintendent Maureen Binienda and others through back-door channels to kill proposals for evidence-based curriculum that taught students how to navigate sexual situations safely. It’s a grim irony: this man who had repeatedly raped4 a child went on to make sure Worcester students were not taught the basics of consent.
Monfredo retired from the School Committee in 2021, but has not retired from public life. He remains active in the campaign to elect ousted superintendent Maureen Binienda to School Committee. A candidate for City Council has recently called Monfredo his mentor. He still holds sway in Worcester politics, as do many of the people who helped suppress Heather’s story.
A Childhood Derailed
While Monfredo was quickly exonerated in the court of public opinion, Heather suffered in the half-silence of being generally known via the rumor mill, but invisible in the public record.
After her time at the Burncoat Family Center following her first suicide attempt, she attended a therapeutic day school at the Lipton Center in Leominster, where she stayed for about a year. She spent the last year and a half of high school at Tahanto Regional High School in Boylston, and graduated in 2000.
Before coming forward in 1996, Heather’s social life was that of a typical teen.
“Just normal, I don’t know. I had friends. I went out and did things. I went to the movies. I went to the mall.”
Robin Foley, a friend of the family, recalled Heather being more than typical.
“She was amazing,” Foley told me. “She was the young person that you hope your children will be. That they’re confident, they’re clever, they’re funny, they’re strong, they can hold their own with adults and have a great conversation. I just remember saying wow, you know, I hope my girls can grow up to be like you.”
But disclosing her abuse to the authorities changed that.
“I lived in a locked therapeutic house,” Heather said. “I had a completely unhealthy relationship with a male staff member who hit me. I got into a relationship with a boy who told me he was going to kill himself when I told him I didn't want to do anything with him.”
Her isolation was made worse by the whispering. Just because she wasn’t named in the public record, didn’t mean she wasn’t known. People were talking.
“There were stories that went around that my mom was an alcoholic, that it was my dad who perpetrated the abuse. There were people who just didn't talk to us anymore… It felt very much like everywhere I went, people knew, and I felt horrified and I felt super embarrassed because it was not something I wanted everyone to know about,” she said.
Heather also heard stories through the whisper network—stories about teachers at Belmont Street Community School who talked about feeling uncomfortable around Monfredo, or found his behavior with them inappropriate. She heard that some teachers even came forward with allegations of their own and were either shot down or quietly shuffled around the school department. Off-the-record conversations I had with people who worked in the school department—and one who worked at the school itself during that time—confirmed at least one such incident was widely known, and there were rumors of others.
“It just felt like if anyone could come forward or did come forward to sort of stand up for me or to say that they had similar stories, they were just sort of shot down,” Heather said. “And that's how I felt, generally.”
Living in this milieu, Heather said, her life “went off the rails.”
“I tried to kill myself four times. I cut myself a ton. I felt like no one and nothing cared,” she said.
She did have a few adults outside her family who offered support. “There was this teacher I had in 5th grade and I had stayed in touch with her. I felt like she believed me. I felt like she was someone I could trust,” Heather said. In 1996, she wrote this teacher a series of letters grappling with the abuse.
Another teacher from her past provided similar comfort, she said. If any of these supporters were willing to be vocal about it, however, they weren’t provided a public forum. But the people who believed her still worked to get the message out. Robin Foley and her husband, Jack, himself a former School Committee member, were chief among them.
“Jack and I have always believed Heather. And we have told people for years that we believe her and that John did this to her,” said Robin.
Ultimately, with no legal recourse, and no control over the local court of public opinion, Heather saw no option but to draw inward—even with her family.
“I was so ashamed and I was so embarrassed and disgusted and I did not want to talk to them about it. It felt too hard.”
**If you are a survivor of sexual abuse in the Worcester Public Schools, or have any information relevant to instances of such abuse, and want to share your story, fill out this form.**
Unearthing the Trauma
As the years passed and Heather grew into adulthood, the trauma, however unresolved, became less acute.
She met her future husband, Shane, in the mid 2000s. A decade had passed since she had first come forward, and by that time she’d given up on the idea of any justice or reckoning. How she met Shane, though, was itself a legacy of the abuse. She was participating in a long-term study of non-epileptic seizures she experienced, believed to be a lasting effect of her trauma. Shane was her neurodiagnostic technologist. In 2009, they got married.
“I would say after we got married, I just stopped. It was like, talking about it's not getting me anywhere and didn't get me anywhere, so I’m just going to pretend it didn't happen.”
And that worked—for a while.
In 2012, Heather became pregnant with their first son. She made a birth plan and hired a doula for support. But nothing went as planned during labor and delivery. Heather hemorrhaged; she and her baby both nearly died. She returned to therapy to help her process the experience. About a year into those sessions, the old trauma resurfaced.
“I was like, I’m here for this very specific thing. I'm here for this birth trauma. And then I was like, ‘Oh, also there was this other thing that... maybe I should talk about again.’”
With her son growing up and, eventually, a little brother on the way, Heather was forced to confront the prospect of putting her children into the same school system that threw her life into disarray.
“The idea of entrusting my kids to a school department that had so utterly failed me was terrifying. The idea that this perfect person could enter a school system like Worcester and... I couldn’t do it. I couldn't serve him to them.”
At that time—and likely to this day—Monfredo was someone who could walk into any school as he pleased. He was still involved, still known to everyone, still powerful in that political arena.
Likewise, the community that rallied to Monfredo’s defense back in 1997 was still present—along with it, the same whispers and rumors and aspersions that made Heather feel like a pariah as a child. She had to confront it again, this time as a mother. She had to worry about how it may affect her children and their education and the way they were treated at school. It’s still a concern. At a recent funeral service, a neighbor who’d once worked with Monfredo approached Heather, apropos of nothing, to say that she was “going to pray for her.”
“And I was just like, this is 25 years later, what are you praying for me for? Like that I just suddenly wake up and... what? That I stop talking about it? What are you praying for me for? The disbelief and the animosity was like... it almost killed me.”
Wake Up Worcester
In the fall of 2018, Heather decided it was time to make a stand. Christine Blasey Ford had just testified before the Senate about her memories of being assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Buoyed by Ford and all the public outcry of the #MeToo moment, and with the encouragement of supporters like Robin Foley, Heather rallied a group of friends, family, and fellow survivors of abuse. They began showing up to School Committee meetings to put pressure on Monfredo. At that time, Maureen Binienda was superintendent and had the support of a strong old guard majority on the School Committee, which included Monfredo. It was 2018, but the power structure was much the same as it was in 1997.
In July, 2018, Heather’s therapist, Lisa Archambault, sent an email to Binienda saying her client was abused as a child by Monfredo, and felt it was essential that Binienda be aware of this and take precautions to ensure the safety of other students.
As you may know, the subject of the concerns outlined in your correspondence does not report to me as the Superintendent of Schools. Moreover, your letter purports to recite allegations on behalf of an unidentified patient of yours, which allegations are extremely serious in nature. These allegations are, essentially, anonymous and leave me with little I can do in response. Despite this, you have suggested that I can somehow “exercise” my “power in ensuring the safety of our children.” I can assure you that as Superintendent of Schools, I am ever vigilant about protecting the safety of students within the Worcester Public Schools. I am also cautious about reliance on anonymous information on any subject, and especially when such information has the potential to impact an individual’s reputation.
With all of this in mind, I am willing to determine if there is anything I am able to do to address the concerns you have raised. However, I am not comfortable doing so without hearing directly from the individual who is making the allegations. While I can appreciate your efforts to advocate on behalf of a patient, I wonder if your patient would be willing to identify herself to me and to speak to me directly about her allegations. However, I do understand that she may not choose to come forward. If she is willing to come forward and talk with me, I will be in a better position to assess the nature of the information being provided and to determine what course of action I may take. It is possible, too, that depending upon the nature of the allegations and the timing thereof, there is no role for me to play as Superintendent of Schools.
If Binienda knew Heather’s story—likely, given her long tenure in the schools—she wasn’t saying so. Regardless, the message was clear: She had no intention of doing anything. Still, the administration felt the pressure. Showing up to the meetings “made Monfredo uncomfortable,” Heather said.
Some months later, Heather’s story resurfaced in the press for the first time since 1997 (at least as far as I could discern from archival research). It was a cursory mention, but telling, tucked at the bottom of an April, 2019 column by then-Telegram columnist Clive McFarlane headlined “Dear John: It's time for the career educator to become educated.” The column focuses on Monfredo’s assertion that he’d never seen any racism in the Worcester Public Schools, which he made to defend Binienda against ongoing student protests.
Toward the end of column, McFarlane wrote:
And remember, John, when a 12-year-old girl who played on your softball team in 1996 accused you of sexually assaulting her three years earlier in the school hallway? In its probe, the Department of Social Services found the complaint met its threshold to warrant further investigation, and you were put on paid administrative leave while the district attorney's office and Police Department looked into the allegation. Even though the DSS threshold for evidence is much lower than that required by the courts, remember how you were given a vote of confidence by then-Mayor Mariano even before the investigation began? How friends and colleagues rallied to your side? And how school officials welcomed you back with open arms, when the district attorney's office concurred with the police sexual assault unit to drop the case because police could not find “sufficient evidence” to make a case.
The next day, then-Worcester Magazine editor Walter Bird, Jr.—now campaign manager for District 5 City Council Candidate Jose Rivera—provided a platform for Monfredo to respond, in an article headlined “Worcester School Committee member John Monfredo addresses comments on racism, sexual allegation from past.”
Monfredo gets the first word, again:
“I was cleared. It never happened. I was never alone with the girl. It’s so disconcerting of [McFarlane] to bring up something like that. I’ll get over it, but what about my family? And what does that have to do with anything?”
Monfredo said he brought in groups of kids to play softball in the gym at Belmont Street Community School. He said he was never alone with the girl who alleged the sexual assault, adding he used to drive her home with his daughters (sic).
“I thought it was a non-issue. It was 22 years ago,” Monfredo said. “It was a traumatic time in my life and a traumatic time that my family had to deal with.”
It was early 2021 when I first met Heather and started working on this story, shortly before Monfredo announced he wouldn’t seek reelection to School Committee. That September, the committee voted not to renew Binienda’s contract. Monfredo was the only dissenting vote. (He subsequently created a change.org petition to support Binienda, calling the decision a “slap in the face.”)
In October, Heather’s group, calling themselves “Wake Up Worcester,” held a vigil outside City Hall, surrounded by signs reflecting stories told on the Racism Free WPS Instagram, which documented anonymous reports of sexism, racism, and abuse in the Worcester Public Schools. In a release ahead of the vigil, they wrote:
As Worcester prepares to hire a new superintendent of public schools, we must reject a power structure that for decades has protected itself at the expense of our city’s students and children ... As Monfredo retires from the School Committee, committee members must act to ensure that the culture that allowed an accused child molester to sit in a position of power retires along with him.
Back then, I had a story about Heather ready to go. She and I talked at length about the pros and cons of using her name in the story, knowing there is still a level of inconvenience at which the maxim “believe women” becomes moot for a good number of people, especially those with a vested interest in maintaining a power structure from which they personally benefit. To risk reliving the personal trauma and inviting scorn by going “on the record” was not a gamble Heather was willing to make then. I held the story.
In that draft, which was never published, I wrote that I trust Heather (calling her “this woman”) and was willing to stake my credibility on that trust. A press attorney I asked to review the story told me I could get sued for defamation precisely because of that line. To state outright that I personally believed Heather opened me up to legal risk in a specific way. It was perhaps the biggest reason why I didn’t run with the story. Afterwards, I thought about it often—how saying you believe a victim exposes you to the financial ruin of civil court procedure, whereas saying you don’t believe them is well protected.5
The risk identified by that lawyer back in 2021 still applies to this story, but now to me and Heather equally.
It’s been two years since that first meeting with Heather. During that time, she’s arrived at a new resolve to come forward. Over the past two years, power has shifted—particularly in the schools—in a more sympathetic direction. Heather said she had several conversations recently with women who hold new positions of power that emboldened her.
“It made me feel more comfortable,” Heather said.
In 2021, Binienda was superintendent and Monfredo was on the School Committee. It didn’t feel as if anything had changed at all. But the vote against extending Binienda’s contract signaled a shift in public sentiment.
“I feel like the political class that was in power in the 1990s is slowly fading away,” Heather said. “I feel like that kind of came to a head when John Monfredo himself left the School Committee. It’s not the good old boys club as much anymore.”
This shift helped Heather feel comfortable sending her kids to school. But the old guard hasn’t completely faded away. Maureen Binienda is currently running for one of the new at-large School Committee seats. Monfredo is active in Binienda’s campaign, holding signs, knocking doors, and showing up at candidate forums. For Heather, the Binienda campaign is a testament to the enduring influence of Monfredo and those who supported him.
On August 17, Monfredo wrote an op-ed in support of Binienda for the In City Times headlined “📚🎒🇺🇸💻Meet Maureen Binienda, Worcester School Committee candidate!📣🚸🥦🎈👗👟🏵” (Since the article was published, it appears the entire website is down.)
A few weeks later, on September 1, Ray Mariano—so instrumental in defending Monfredo back in 1997—added Monfredo to a list of those he considered the city’s finest public officials in his Telegram column. He noted that Monfredo “personally visited hundreds of families at their homes to introduce himself and the school, to inquire about a student or to bring good news.”
Through the years, Monfredo, Binienda and Mariano have been committed to bolstering each other’s public personas. But it’s not just them. David Peterson, candidate for District 1 City Council, cited Monfredo as a “mentor” on a recent episode of the Activate Worcester cable access program (around the 21 minute mark), saying, “He’s the one that’s really guiding me on how to get out and to meet people.” Mayoral candidate Donna Colorio recently posted a group photo from a campaign event featuring Monfredo, Sheriff Lew Evangelidis, former School Committee member Dianna Biancheria, and current School Committee candidate Kathi Roy.
Monfredo has never operated independently. He is part of a deeply embedded and interconnected political class.
No Longer Her Story To Bear
That Heather’s story has existed as an open secret, passed along in whispers and vague allusions for decades, should stand as a deep indictment of a culture—one that assigned more value to a powerful and connected man’s reputation than the prospect he had raped a child. But, ultimately, this story is not about Monfredo or anyone else in that power network. Not Binienda. Not Mariano. This is Heather’s story. This is a violence she was made to bear in a cruel solitude for decades, unsupported and fearful of retribution. She spoke up as a child and she was found guilty for doing so. To this day, she feels the punishment.
“It's been a long 25 years,” Heather said, choking up. “It took me a really long time to go places in public and not be afraid that I'd see him. And I still get anxious. I still sit facing the door in restaurants. Things like that. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of this huge weight. I'm sick of this secret. I just... I want it over.”
The psychic weight of carrying such a trauma in a world that didn’t want to hear it is a cruelty that ripples across the entire social order. Of course the police “lacked evidence.” Of course the DA wouldn’t press charges. Of course the local newspapers would take it upon themselves to say “not guilty.” Of course they quietly punished the victim and loudly lionized the assailant. Of course people like Heather should be extremely wary of challenging that dynamic. And the fact her name was omitted from the newspaper did not prevent it from entering the rumor mill, where people were all too willing to pick up on the insinuation the mayor put down. There’s no reversing that damage.
I asked Heather what, for her personally, the publishing of this story could accomplish—absent any consideration of Monfredo or Worcester or anything else. Just for her, as a human being.
“To not look over my shoulder all the time, wherever I’m going,” she said. “I feel like I might not be terrified to go places in Worcester for fear of seeing him. I feel like... I can take my power back, maybe. That my story doesn't have to be something that I'm scared to share. It can be him who's scared of me sharing it. And that feels like a huge shift, feeling like it's not my secret to keep and that it's possible to get past this and move on. That would be huge.”
The story is no longer hers to bear alone. It’s ours now. It’s Worcester’s story. That leaves us with a consideration: If what happened to nine-year-old Heather happened today, would we handle it differently? Is the Worcester of 2023 a different city than the Worcester of 1997?
It’s an open question.
This story was edited by Gaylen Williams Moore. The reporting, production and writing process were advised by Cara Berg Powers. Photos by Christine Peterson were credited. To the many others who contributed in various ways, you know who you are. Thank you, from all of us.
Resources for Survivors
Pathways for Change is a service provider for survivors of sexual violence.
The Equal Rights Advocate provides a student survivor tool kit.
I Have the Right To is an organization for survivors and parents of survivors.
For a comprehensive list of resources, visit the VICTIM/SUSPECT website.
And again, if you are a survivor of sexual abuse in the Worcester Public Schools, or have any information relevant to instances of such abuse, and want to share your story, fill out this form.
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In a legal sense, any language like this should be cushioned with “allegedly.” Monfredo has been on the record with his story, claiming he was never alone with Heather Prunier. Heather has never told her story publicly. This is her story. These are allegations that have not been proven in a court of law, where the burden of proof is extremely high, and structural biases make sexual assault and rape exceptionally difficult to prosecute.
To protect the privacy of Heather’s children, she requested this story use her family of origin name instead of her married name.
Interview protocols for child abuse cases have evolved over time. Several people who have worked in various DA’s offices were surprised by this memory of the interview, but one person with knowledge of protocols at the Worcester County District Attorney’s office at the time of the investigation acknowledged Heather’s interview have taken place prior to the implementation of more modern protocols, and was handled by the police exclusively, without trauma-informed forensic interviewers.
See note 1.
It’s worth considering this reality in the abstract.
Just a few weeks ago, on September 25, Reveal News published a long and extensive investigation on the debilitating effects of sexual assault on memory and the failures of the criminal justice system to prosecute sexual assault crimes. Headlined “‘If the Police Don’t Believe You, They Might Prosecute You’: How Officers Turn Victims of Sexual Assault Into Suspects,” the story focuses on the particularly galling examples of victims being themselves prosecuted by the police after coming forward. But even when a case doesn’t result in such a reverse prosecution, it rarely results in justice. The article’s author, Rachel de Leon, writes:
By some estimates, more than half of women and nearly a third of men in the U.S. will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes. Most of those crimes go unreported. Of the cases that make it to law enforcement, the least likely outcome is an arrest of a perpetrator. The vast majority of complaints to law enforcement end with no trial, no conviction and, for victims, no closure – instead, they leave with a deep mistrust of the legal system, while some predators go free and attack again.
In police departments, a deep pattern of rape denialism is well documented. A 2010 study for the National Institute of Justice quoted in the Reveal story found that among inexperienced officers, between 40% and 80% of all reports of rape were considered false. Recently, police reform advocates have pushed for more training on the effects of trauma as it relates to reporting abuses.
In recent decades, a large body of research has emerged showing the debilitating effects of sexual trauma on memory and behavior. Assault victims often can’t recall details of their attack, even in the immediate aftermath. They frequently omit important information – like the fact that they performed a sexual act because they were too afraid to fight back – out of embarrassment or shame or fear that they won’t be believed.
That this is still cause for reform in 2023 should help explain the way authorities handled Heather’s case in 1997.The basic facts are this: Heather came forward. The case was substantiated by a state agency and passed to the police. The police investigated. They interviewed Heather. Still, citing a lack of evidence, the police deemed the case “inactive” and, in a practical sense, dropped it.
If “new evidence” surfaced, they said they would re-open it, but what such evidence was there to find? Heather’s word was not enough, as demonstrated by the efforts police made to poke holes in her story. You’ll remember that, in the follow up meeting, the police suggested to Heather it may have been someone else. Or the picture of a staircase in the Belmont Street Community School a detective took for evidence. Or the assistant DA telling Heather she’d wasted his time. The “new evidence” would never come, and both the police and District Attorney’s Office moved on.
The alleged perpetrator, on the other hand, did not have to prove anything. With the help of the local press and political class, he successfully framed the “inactive” designation as an exoneration. In a practical sense, Monfredo was cleared. But he was cleared by the narrative, not by the investigation.