Poly Prep Country Day School
Poly Prep Country Day School ()

Eric Lewis got a phone call from an old friend’s sister shortly after he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in 2013 detailing his time playing under a high school football coach who was also a serial sexual predator.

That call ultimately led Lewis to take a turn this week as a journalist—a departure from his busy career as a prominent lawyer handling international fraud disputes, including representing Bernie Madoff’s investment firm in its liquidation—at his nearly 40-lawyer firm Lewis Baach in Washington, D.C.

On the other end of the line was Pamela DiBenedetto, who had read Lewis’ piece in the Times about the decades of sexual assault perpetrated by Philip Foglietta, the head football coach for decades at the Polytechnic Preparatory Country Day School in Brooklyn, New York. DiBenedetto’s twin brother, Robert, had committed suicide in 1984 by jumping in front of a subway train. His sister wondered if Robert was one of Foglietta’s many victims. Court records indicated he was.

Lewis told the DiBenedettos’ story—and that of many others—in an Esquire magazine story released Thursday. The article asks why nobody stopped Foglietta, who died in 1998, from preying on young boys despite a general understanding among students that a predator was in their midst. Lewis’ story also shows that Poly Prep administrators were warned multiple times about the abuse, citing recently unsealed depositions from a suit that resulted in a settlement for some victims.

Lewis said he received around 300 calls from people in his old Brooklyn neighborhood after his Times op-ed nearly four years ago. Some were victims, who asked if he could put his law degree to use by examining their cases. Lewis helped two victims that way, but decided against filing suit on their behalf.

“I thought the way I could best help them was to tell their stories,” Lewis said.

After years of litigation, in late 2012 Poly Prep settled a suit brought by 12 alumni, including now retired Simpson Thacher & Bartlett partner Philip Culhane. The plaintiffs alleged that the private school covered up Foglietta’s abuse over a 25-year period. The recent expiration of a gag order in the case allowed Lewis to mine court documents and depositions previously kept out of public purview. (Tax records show that O’Melveny & Myers, which represented Poly Prep in the litigation, received $498,717 from the school in 2012-13 and another $297,430 between 2009 and 2011.)

Lewis writes that Foglietta’s abuse was sort of an open secret among the boys at Poly Prep, which began admitting girls in 1977. He tells the story of boys who resisted Foglietta’s advances—and paid the consequences—and of others who witnessed the football coach assaulting classmates. And Lewis struggles to answer why he never said anything.

“Preoccupied with our masculinity, in thrall to the turbocharged culture of football, and bound by a nearly religious devotion to our coach, we were all, I suspect, deeply afraid that we might be accused of being less than a man,” Lewis writes.

Lewis, pictured right, demurred when asked if writing the story was a way to make peace with his inaction.

“It was important for me to try and make sense as an adult about what was going on as a child,” he said.

Lewis added that he hopes his article helps raise support to erase statutes of limitation in New York and elsewhere for prosecuting sex crimes against children. High-profile sex abuse cases have made headlines this past year at private schools in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. In Illinois, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert was convicted on money laundering charges related to his admitted sexual abuse of children, leading the state’s Attorney General Lisa Madigan to advocate for legislation that would abolish such statues of limitation.

“I feel very strongly that we can use this [story] to maybe change some statutes and raise awareness so that people understand there’s a reason why sexual abuse cases are not reported by children and become stale,” said Lewis, whose firm adopted its current name in 2011.

Lewis said he viewed the Esquire story along the lines of pro bono work, and he donated his fee for the story to Darkness to Light Inc., an organization aimed at reducing the prevalence of child sex abuse. Lewis himself has a long history of pro bono work, including representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay and handling cases involving military drone strikes.

He is currently representing Ahmed Abu Khatallah, who U.S. authorities allege is the ringleader of the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Lewis also serves as U.S. chairman of Reprieve, an international organization that investigates extra-judicial killing and detention.

Lewis said he plans to continue writing for news outlets. He said his latest research is on how Donald Trump’s presidency might impact the human rights legacy left behind by President Barack Obama.

“It’s not a happy endeavor,” he said, “but a necessary one.”