Sexual abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: St John’s College (Part One)
About two in five boys in South Africa are sexually abused before the age of 18. Of those boys, 20% are abused by teachers. Those reporting traumatic childhood experiences such as sexual and physical abuse are 2-5 times more likely to attempt suicide, with early onset of trauma an even stronger predictor. Given those statistics, we should not be asking why Julio Mordoh died, but rather how his abuse occurred at the elite boys' school tasked with safeguarding him.
On 5 November 2022, Teresa Mordoh received a phone call that’s every parent’s worst nightmare. She was told that her son, Julio, had attempted suicide.
She and her family were en route to see him, bringing a cake to celebrate his father Marcio’s birthday, when the heart-stopping call came.
During the frantic trip across town, Teresa tried to cling to hope – it wasn’t the first time Julio had tried to take his life.
Desperate for news, she called again, only to be told that paramedics were unable to resuscitate him and that Julio had been pronounced dead.
In a Facebook post paying tribute to her son, Teresa described how she wished they could have “flown over the traffic on Saturday to get there just a few mins earlier to save you and tell you again how much we love you”.
She explained how, when they finally arrived, her son’s body was lying lifeless on the floor. He was still warm when she hugged and kissed him goodbye.
While they couldn’t intervene on the day Julio’s life ended, the family had done everything possible to support and save him.
When Julio Mordoh died just two months before his 21st birthday, he had been assessed by six psychiatrists, treated by eight psychologists, spent over 12 months in treatment as an inpatient, and been hospitalised 12 times for mental health-related conditions, including complex post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidality.
On the day he hanged himself with his belt, he was in a secure, private psychiatric facility where he’d been admitted as a high-risk patient to keep him from self-harming.
Teresa remembers little of the terrible moments following her son’s death, but she does recall every decision that brought them to that day.
Describing Julio as a calm and loving baby with huge brown eyes, she says that while he was diminutive in stature, like his parents, it was obvious from the time that he was in pre-school how talented and clever he was. He competed in gymnastics at the highest level from a very young age.
A deep thinker, he was obsessed with finding out how things worked, and designing and inventing everything from water rockets to a go-kart, and then building them with his dad.
It was his intelligence that made the family choose to send him to the best school they could afford. With its excellent academic record, St John’s College in Houghton, Johannesburg, seemed the best fit. They even bought a house within a stone’s throw of the school.
As Teresa and I sat drinking tea on her veranda, surveying the family’s wild and beautiful garden complete with tree houses and homemade forts, we could hear the St John’s school bell chiming 10.
Although we can’t see the clock tower Julio allegedly climbed while in prep school, for the Mordoh family, the melodic chiming is a haunting hourly reminder of the suffering he endured.
St John’s formed a significant part of Julio’s life. He was there for pre-prep and prep school, and then, after the family spent his high school years in France and Dubai, he chose to return home to complete his A-levels at the school.
His experiences in pre-prep and 6th Form were positive ones, but Teresa says that he felt very differently about the prep school. She describes how in the year that he died they visited the school together, which gave Julio the opportunity to show his mother some of his favourite places, including the science lab and 6th Form lounge.
She says she was struck, however, by how his demeanour and body language changed and how he withdrew into himself when he walked into the prep school.
By then, she knew why.
According to Teresa, the catalyst for a major change in Julio’s life was St John’s requirement for all boys to participate in school sporting activities.
By the time Julio was in prep school, he was already competing in gymnastics (a sport not offered by the school) at national and then international level. In his second year at prep school, he received a special dispensation excusing him from school sports and even school recognition for his achievements.
But his exclusion left him isolated from his peers. That, along with his size and intellect, made him a target for bullying.
After a bullying incident that Julio downplayed because he didn’t want to be a snitch or singled out, his headmaster suggested that Julio have weekly hour-long counselling sessions with the prep’s head of pastoral care.
According to Teresa, the head of pastoral care was a friendly, caring and approachable man. He seemed to take a keen interest in Julio and his well-being and kept in WhatsApp contact with her about Julio’s progress and emotional stability.
In addition to counselling sessions, the head of pastoral care, who was also in charge of rock climbing at St John’s, presented climbing as a solution to both Julio’s isolation and the ongoing bullying.
Julio’s upper body strength and agility made him a perfect candidate for climbing, at the time an emerging sport at the school. Although boys were not allowed to climb until they were 12 years old, the teacher offered him the opportunity to start training in 2013 when he was only 11.
Unbeknownst to the family, he invited Julio to go bouldering in the school “cave” during break. Julio disclosed to a friend that the teacher warned him not to tell anyone, especially his parents, in case they got angry and he wasn’t allowed to climb anymore.
His teacher also permitted him to climb the school climbing wall which was supposed to be off limits until he was in Grade 6. It was another secret, along with his reported climbing of the school’s bell tower.
By the end of that year, Julio’s mother had seen a notable change in his behaviour. He was more withdrawn, sad, private and less willing to connect with his dad or open up to her.
She attributed it to his age, but sought help from the headmaster when Julio began to resist going to school and stopped sleeping well. Teresa says he seemed visibly afraid of school and refused to attend sessions with the school’s male psychologist.
Once again, the school’s proposed solution was counselling with its head of pastoral care.
Despite his distress, Julio continued to excel academically and in gymnastics, and in August 2014, he won the U13 SA National Rock Climbing Championship.
Teresa remembers Julio’s climbing teacher encouraging him to go on weekend trips with the school’s explorers to get climbing experience. But despite his persistence, Teresa wouldn’t let Julio camp unsupervised overnight, citing his weekend gymnastics commitments as an excuse.
However, in November 2014, a few months after his nationals win, she did allow him to go on a day trip to the Magaliesberg with his climbing teacher and some other boys.
Teresa describes her dismay when it got dark and her son had still not returned. When he finally got home at 7pm, he was the only boy in the car.
As Marcio invited the teacher in for coffee, Julio rushed off to shower. But before leaving, the head of pastoral care insisted on giving Julio his engraved Leatherman as a “reminder of the special day”. Julio reluctantly accepted the gift but then hid it away. His mother says he never used it.
It wasn’t long after that the head of pastoral care and climbing teacher, whose name is inscribed on the Leatherman he gave Julio, left the college to take up a deputy head position at another school.
Shortly thereafter, on the cusp of qualifying for the 2015 World Championships, Julio stopped climbing.
What happened during Julio’s time in the prep school stayed buried through his teenage years when the Mordohs lived in France and then Dubai, until five years later when the family returned to South Africa.
While Julio was excited to be home and seemingly enjoyed 6th Form at St John’s, his anxiety intensified and his insomnia worsened.
His mother describes how he would come home from school with goosebumps and visibly shaky. After suffering more extreme anxiety and panic attacks, his psychologist diagnosed him with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
When the psychologist briefed the family, one of the first questions she asked was if Julio had been sexually abused.
It was a question no one could answer. Despite the diagnosis and help from his psychologist, Julio wasn’t able to access what had caused the trauma, so after completing 6th Form in 2020, he chose to spend his gap year seeking help.
During his long-term treatment, Julio wrote this: “There are one or two things that I haven’t shared with anyone yet… I’ve pushed this to the deepest, darkest corner of my mind and tried hard to delete it from my memory entirely. Saying it out loud makes it real and validates that it actually happened.”
The diary entry was written shortly before 15 November 2021, when St John’s released a letter notifying the school community that several past pupils had alleged sexual assault by a former teacher who had been employed in the prep school between 2002 and 2014, and that charges had been laid with the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences unit and the matter reported to the South African Council of Educators and the Anglican Safe Church Unit.
Teresa remembers how, when Julio’s psychologist read him the letter, his head dropped and his body stiffened. When she had finished reading, all he could say was: “Oh, so there were other boys. I thought I was the only one.”
On hearing his words, Teresa says she felt as if her heart shattered into a million pieces, realising her son had suffered the shame of thinking he was the only victim and therefore somehow to blame.
Julio’s psychologist, who believed that Julio would have benefited from group therapy to deal with those feelings of shame and isolation in a safe space with other survivors, offered to facilitate group therapy for the victims.
But the school declined, confirming that it was providing the victims with psychological support if required, but that everyone was “on a different journey” and cited victims’ requests for privacy.
In a written response to questions for this article, the school’s executive headmaster, Stuart West, stressed that “the need for such a process was not shared by other victims and could not be imposed on them.”
Perhaps for this reason, Julio never disclosed the details of his abuse. However, a close friend said he told her that it went on for a long time and that he felt confused, tormented and irreparably damaged.
He said that “he felt broken and wished his life was over. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to fix himself”.
It was the message that he conveyed to St John’s when he was finally ready to meet with the school in July 2022, three months after allowing his psychologist to disclose to the school that he was also a victim.
In September 2022, two months after he met with the head of human resources at St John’s, the family received a letter from the headmaster expressing alarm over Julio’s suicidality and stating that “without any admission of liability” the school would “sponsor a short-term hospitalisation at an approved mental health facility that specialises in patients that are at risk.”
En route to being admitted, Julio went to a police station where he wrote an affidavit stating that he had been sexually abused by his climbing coach (who he names) while a pupil at St John’s College during the years of 2011 to the end of 2014 when he was aged 10 to 12 years old.
It was his final act of defiance against the abuse that forever altered his life.
Shortly thereafter, while in the supposedly secure facility, after begging unsuccessfully to be sedated following intense dreams, flashbacks and extreme agitation, Julio hanged himself.
Although 10 survivors of the abuse at St John’s prep school came forward, the case against Julio’s alleged abuser, which was moved to Rustenburg in November 2021, stalled because there was no active investigation.
Attorney Ian Levitt subsequently became involved, resulting in the case being incorporated into Operation Nemo and Colonel Heila Niemand being appointed as the special investigating officer.
On 9 October 2023, the former head of pastoral care at St John’s prep, who cannot be named until he has pleaded to the charges, finally appeared in court.
The case was postponed to 7 December.
Headmaster West emphasised the importance of duty of care and said the school continues to support the complainants in the case. He also referenced a report by retired Constitutional Court judge Johan Froneman commissioned by the school after the allegations of abuse emerged. It was deemed too confidential for release even in a redacted form, but a summary was sent to the school community.
The report noted that the school had no knowledge of the allegations of abuse prior to 2021. It also noted that during the prep teacher’s tenure, no complaints were made against him by pupils.
The summarised report provides little explanation of how the former head of pastoral care was able to abuse boys undetected throughout his 12-year employment at St John’s, but does note that “two complaints were taken by Prep staff to their Head during the former teacher’s tenure, and these were appropriately dealt with by the Prep Head at the time.”
While the nature of those complaints is not detailed, the report stresses that Froneman “did not uncover improper management of the complaints… given the knowledge available at the time regarding sexual and other abuse”.
Tragically, Julio is one of many pupils who are sexually or physically abused at one of South Africa’s elite boy’s schools.
The second of this two-part series tells the stories of two other boys whose lives ended tragically following abuse at two other schools, and unpacks South Africa’s horror statistics about the sexual abuse of boys and the link between abuse and suicide. DM
If a child you know has been affected by sexual abuse or is at risk for suicide, please contact Childline’s Helpline 24X7 on 116 (free from all networks) or visit their Online Counselling chatrooms.
These articles were written in loving memory of:
Julio Mordoh: 08.01.2002–05.11.2022
Thomas Kruger: 20.03.2002–17.11.2018
Bradley Skipper: 18.12.1989–30.12.2017