Past Troubles Haunt Effort to Revive Famed Harlem Boys Choir

Horace Turnbull, outside the Church of Ascension, hopes to bring back the Boys Choir of Harlem, which his late brother founded over four decades ago. (Photo by Sune Engel Rasmussen/The Uptowner)

After Walter Turnball, founder of the Boys Choir of Harlem, died in 2009 at the age of 62, his brother Horace Turnball disbanded the choir. Three years later, Horace wants to revive it, according to an article by Sune Engel Rasmussen in The Uptowner.

However, after six days of auditions, Horace Turnball’s hopes for a large turnout were dashed when only 15 showed up. More auditions have been scheduled for Dec. 4 and future dates, but with a past that includes a sexual abuse case and financial difficulties, Turnball faces an uphill battle to resurrect a choir that for four decades brought young at-risk boys to international prestige.

The choir’s collapse came gradually over a course of eight years. It “arguably” started in 2001 when choir producer Tim Battle brought David Pinks, then 14, to Horace Turnball. The teen had been in the choir for five years but now had grave allegations against the choir’s counselor.

For two years, Pinks said – according to a 2009 decision by a State Supreme Court judge – he had been sexually abused by Frank Jones, the choir’s counselor for 20 years. Now Pinks was asking that the counselor be kept away from him. He and Battle later went to Walter Turnbull with the same request.

But for 10 months, the Turnbulls did nothing, because no choir members had previously complained about Jones, then 51. They permitted the counselor to chaperone kids on a total of eight trips, according to the court decision, and to sleep in their dormitory during summer camp. At that point, the sexual abuse had ceased, stated the decision, but Pinks maintained that the ongoing contact with Jones caused him emotional distress.

Giving up on the Turnbulls, Pinks, then 15, chose to work with police. Wearing a hidden recorder, he revisited Jones in his office and recorded evidence, which resulted in Jones’ arrest in 2001. In 2002, the former counselor was sentenced to two years in prison for child endangerment and 24 counts of child sex abuse.

When a report released by the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District found that the Turnbull brothers failed to report the abuse, Horace resigned in 2004, though Walter continued on until his death in 2009. The court eventually acquitted the brothers and the Board of Education – the choir was based in a public school – of any legal responsibility. Asked about the abuse case, Horace did not want to talk about it.

“There’s nothing I can do about what’s transpired in the past,” he said, insisting that precautions are now in place to avoid similar incidents. All staff will be trained to deal with abuse accusations, which anyone involved with the choir can also report via a hotline, he said.

“I really do wish that in the society in which we live, it didn’t happen,” he said. “But we know that even in certain secure settings, it may happen. All I can do is to make sure that we are moving forward in the future, and that the safeguards are there, the checks and balances are there, the monitoring is there.”

David Pinks, who is now a music producer in Las Vegas, said in a statement to CBS, “Horace Turnbull was the first person I spoke to about my abuse, and he never did anything about it. The idea of that same leadership starting another Harlem Boys Choir is scary.”

On top of the sex abuse case, financial troubles also brought down the choir as a result of “poor financial control, the legal costs of the abuse allegations and eviction from the Choir Academy of Harlem, which had served as its home.” It resulted in a $5 million deficit.

For Turnball, he won’t let the sex abuse case brand the choir.

As he was wrapping up the second round of auditions, Turnbull didn’t blame the meager turnout on the abuse case, which he called “one incident in a 33-year history.” People judge the choir on its entire body of work and on what it has meant to the world, he said.

“Yes, the reputation, to some people, may have suffered,” Turnbull admitted. “But not those who knew the people who actually worked there, who knew its leadership.”

Hoping to start rehearsals in January with 40 to 60 boys, Turnbull said he’s still looking for a new home after the eviction from the Choir Academy of Harlem. Before rehearsals, he’ll hold information sessions for parents to explain the safeguards and procedures meant to protect their children.

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