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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Beautiful Voices, Ugly Allegation, Crying Shame

September 29, 2002|JAMES S. GRANELLI

My wife, Mary, and I didn't know much about the All-American Boys Chorus in late January 1998, when she came across a newspaper advertisement about chorus auditions for 7- and 8-year-old boys. I had heard the chorus perform at several private corporate functions in Orange County, and I had taken my family to a chorus Christmas concert in the late 1980s. We laughed at the music director, Father Richard Coughlin, prancing about the stage as he moved stiff-shouldered boys through their songs.

I vaguely recalled stories in the early 1990s about Father Coughlin being accused of child molestation and being forced out of the organization, which he had founded in 1970 and nurtured for two decades. So when Mary showed the ad to our 7-year-old son, Alex, and he said, "Yeah, sure," we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Alex was sold on the chorus as soon as he saw the group's tour bus. It had televisions and reclining airplane-style seats. This was no ordinary children's choir, though. This was a nationally acclaimed chorus that has traveled the world. Advancing through the divisions--the white-shirt audition group to the blue-shirt training division and then to the red-shirt concert chorus--is rigorous. Nearly 150 boys gather two or three times a week at chorus headquarters, a building at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. They spend up to six hours a week learning to sing and rehearsing for more than 80 concerts a year.

But learning to sing well, to sing against harmony and to memorize the basic repertoire of more than 40 songs are only part of the work. The chorus is a tremendous place to learn leadership skills and discipline. The priority is discipline--It has to be. The group just finished a monthlong Asian tour, performing before sold-out audiences from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to Seoul and Beijing, so the boys had to be well-disciplined for only nine staff members to handle them.

Friends questioned our decision to let Alex, now 12, go on the tour. We were concerned about safety, especially in Malaysia. But the thought of a staff member harming Alex never entered our minds. Chorus policies and procedures prohibit a staff member from being alone with a boy. But more than that, we believed that no staff member would ever abuse Alex. And we still believe that, despite news last week about the arrest of Roger Giese, a former chorus member who was serving as a part-time vocal instructor. Giese, 27, is charged with child molestation in incidents over the past four years involving a boy, now 17, he had met in the chorus.

Tony Manrique, the executive director of the chorus, emphasizes that the alleged incidents did not occur during a chorus rehearsal or concert or at any chorus facility. Parents, though, have concerns. A few might consider pulling their sons out of the chorus; most wouldn't think of it. Hopefully, no one will.

Manrique and co-workers are busy raising funds, recruiting members and scheduling concerts, so I'm sure they hope the controversy will quickly fade. But as a member of the news media, I doubt it will. The case involves a staff member who allegedly violated the trust that parents put in the chorus, which ensures that reporters will be there every step of the way as Giese goes through the court system. No one knows this better than Giese. His full-time job is in public relations, which helps clients get out of such messes.

The chorus is in a no-win situation. Whether Giese is convicted or his accuser's story turns out to be unfounded, the damage already is done. Public accusations stick in people's minds like peanut butter on the roof of the mouth. The chorus, a tuition-free program that relies mostly on donations, concert fees and CD sales, has a solid foundation and will survive.

But for a while, it might be tougher to get bookings and win corporate contributions, especially in an already tight market for nonprofit groups and in an atmosphere of supercharged emotions generated by a string of widely publicized molestation cases.

The chorus also is going through some changes. A new musical director steps in next month to replace David Albulario, who helped rebuild the chorus in the aftermath of Father Coughlin's abrupt departure. Albulario has been planning for a year to chase his dream of acting in Broadway musicals. The chorus is holding auditions this month for new members and already has faced some questions from their parents. The chorus will need new voices; an unusually large group of boys will leave at Christmas because their voices have changed or because they're simply tired from the hectic pace.

The Giese episode makes me angry and sad. The chorus is arguably the best boys choir in the nation; the director of the Vienna Boys' Choir has compared it favorably with his own group. That such incidents occur is shameful; that the harm spreads and affects so many others is frustrating. The chorus is a great organization; I wish I had another 7-year-old son who could join the group now.

*

James S. Granelli is a Times staff writer.

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