Rewriting History

A fired gay librarian battles for vindication

John Philbrook was, by all accounts, very good at his job. A librarian at San Francisco's Main Library, he tutored immigrant children, helping them learn English and encouraging them to read. A popular mentor, Philbrook won numerous civic awards for his work with disadvantaged children. Parents sought out his help, and some fatherless children even adopted Philbrook as their "godfather."

But after a decade of distinguished service, Philbrook's career was devastated in 1996 when a 17-year-old boy accused the middle-aged, openly gay librarian of sexually molesting him.

Reports of the allegations against Philbrook hit the newspapers. He was summarily fired from the library, and had to post $50,000 bail after his arrest on two felony counts of child molestation.

In no time, he went from honored librarian to disgraced social pariah.
What Philbrook would like people to know now is that he has been exonerated of all charges. But the 50-year-old librarian is finding out how difficult it is to reclaim your good name.

Throughout two years of legal wrangling and pretrial hearings, Philbrook always maintained his innocence. Even when prosecutors offered to let him plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge, Philbrook refused. He demanded a jury trial to prove his innocence.

Philbrook never got his trial, because the case never made it that far. Last summer, a superior court judge dismissed the charges against Philbrook for lack of evidence. Prosecutors were unable to make a case strong enough that Judge William Cahill would even allow it to go before a jury.

The dismissal last July cleared Philbrook of any wrongdoing, but vindication outside the court is proving harder to come by.

"I'm relieved, but I still feel violated," Philbrook says. Although the original allegations made headlines, neither daily newspaper has reported his exoneration in the eight months since the charges were dismissed.

More importantly, Philbrook would like to return to his job. "And I deserve a public apology from the library," he says. "I deserve justice."

But that doesn't appear likely. The library does not want him back.
Next month, a lawyer from the City Attorney's Office and a representative of Philbrook's union -- Service Employees International Union Local 790 -- will go before an independent arbitrator to argue whether he should be reinstated.

Despite the dismissed charges, library officials say their own investigation gives them pause in rehiring Philbrook, although they won't specify why. "The library's internal investigation had to do with other, complicated issues," says library spokesperson Marcia Schneider, who declined to elaborate further. "We wouldn't be in arbitration if there weren't differences between Mr. Philbrook's position and the library's."

Philbrook and his union maintain the library discriminated against him because he is gay by jumping the gun and firing him based on "innuendo, suppositions ... and fatally flawed bits and pieces of gossip." Philbrook likens his dismissal to a "witch hunt."

"They couldn't get me on my work, so they said, 'He's gay and works with children -- how obvious.' The library was exploiting stereotypes," Philbrook says. "I may be a middle-aged gay man, but I am not a pedophile. I am a middle-aged gay man who has been in a stable relationship for 12 years and I am a library professional."

Philbrook did fit a suspicious profile -- a man befriending and tutoring children at home, sometimes allowing them to spend the night -- says police investigator Patrick White, who checked out the allegations. "You see he's a very nice guy, but then you have suspicions. To me that's the tip," White says. "Behind closed doors, he can be someone else." But, White acknowledges, his interviews with numerous children Philbrook tutored unearthed no other charges of molestation.

Philbrook, and some fellow librarians, believe the molestation accusations provided the library a convenient way to get rid of him because he was openly critical of flaws in the library's plans to rebuild after the 1989 earthquake.

A petition drive organized by Philbrook garnered signatures from 33 staff members outlining their concerns that the celebrated architectural design for refurbishing the Main Library was not practical. His high-profile criticism, Philbrook argues, contributed to the library's decision to fire him.

"It sounds like a paranoid stretch, but there's too much fishy stuff about my case that doesn't make sense," Philbrook says. But library spokeswoman Schneider says Philbrook's dissension was not a factor in his termination.

"The library was taking responsible action in light of serious criminal allegations," Schneider says. "There were lots of librarians upset by the designs, and they still have their jobs. This had nothing to do with punishing a critic of the library."

But if criminal allegations were the sole basis for Philbrook's dismissal, they have since proven unsubstantiated. Philbrook's lawyers argued that the accusations came from a troubled teenager who had a pattern of lying to authorities at school and even the library, where he was employed shelving books part time. Judge Cahill, who would not comment on his decision, apparently bought those arguments and tossed the charges.

Besides tutoring youngsters, Philbrook ran a chess club for mostly immigrant children in the Tenderloin. There, he taught chess to a brother and sister of the teen who accused him of molestation, and Philbrook got to know the children's parents. When the father asked Philbrook to help his third child, who was having trouble in school, Philbrook was happy to oblige.

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