Sex abuse scandal rocks exclusive New England prep school

In this Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 photo buildings at St. George's School rest on top of a hill in Middletown, R.I.  The exclusive New England boarding school, whose alumni include Astors, Vanderbilts and Bushes, has been rocked by a sex abuse scandal. Dozens of former students say they were raped or molested by employees or schoolmates over the past four decades. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
In this Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 photo buildings at St. George's School rest on top of a hill in Middletown, R.I. The exclusive New England boarding school, whose alumni include Astors, Vanderbilts and Bushes, has been rocked by a sex abuse scandal. Dozens of former students say they were raped or molested by employees or schoolmates over the past four decades. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (AP) — For more than a century, St. George’s School has been part of the pedigree of some of America’s richest and most influential families. Astors, Vanderbilts and Bushes have attended the exclusive boarding school, where students can go sailing, play on squash courts or simply enjoy a sweeping view of the sea from the hilltop campus.

But since at least the 1970s, leaders at St. George’s kept a secret.

Dozens of former students have come forward to say they were raped or molested by employees and schoolmates over the past four decades. St. George’s acknowledged in a report in December that it repeatedly failed to notify police and child welfare authorities as required by law.

The school’s current leadership has characterized the abuse as a problem of the past and said it discovered the extent of the misconduct only recently. But many accusers have disputed that, and much of their anger has fallen on Eric Peterson, headmaster since 2004.

Peterson was told in 2004, 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2015 about numerous allegations of abuse, according to interviews with alumni and documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Many alumni are calling on Peterson to step down. Some want the entire board swept clean.

“It’s like a charade of arrogant exceptionalism that is endemic in the school, in the leadership of the school,” said Hawk Cramer, an alumnus who says he was molested by the choir director in the 1980s and told Peterson about it in 2004.

Some alumni say the school’s leaders hushed up the abuse to protect the reputation of St. George’s, which was founded in 1896. The $56,000-a-year Episcopal institution just outside Newport has about 400 high school-age students and a rich endowment of more than $140 million.

A spokeswoman for both the school and Peterson declined to comment on specific allegations, citing an independent investigation underway.

St. George’s previously issued a statement apologizing “for the harm done to alumni by former employees and former students.” ”We also apologize that the way in which the school addressed these incidents has served to compound this harm,” the statement said.

Separately, Rhode Island state police are looking into possible sex-crime charges and other offenses, including failure to report abuse. There is no statute of limitations on rape in Rhode Island.

The problems at St. George’s burst into view in mid-December when The Boston Globe reported the story of Anne Scott, who said she was repeatedly raped by athletic trainer Al Gibbs as a 15-year-old in the 1970s.

She sued the school as “Jane Doe” in 1988. St. George’s tried and failed to reveal her identity publicly and aggressively fought the case, even though her lawyer, Eric MacLeish, says evidence emerged during the lawsuit that Gibbs had assaulted four other girls. Scott dropped the case the following year, receiving nothing, and agreed to a gag order preventing her from speaking about it.

More such allegations quietly piled up in the years that followed.

It was not until last spring that St. George’s sent a letter informing the entire school community about possible sexual misconduct “many years ago” and asking graduates to report anything they knew. In November, the school reported allegations of abuse to the Rhode Island state police for the first time.

MacLeish, a St. George’s alumnus and a lead lawyer in the Boston Catholic Church sex abuse lawsuits, said he is aware of at least 40 people who say they were abused at the school and 12 alleged abusers, either employees or students. The most recent misconduct alleged dates to 2004.

The school did take some action over the years, firing or forcing out three teachers in the 1970s and ’80s, according to its December report. They were:

— Gibbs, who was fired in 1980 and died in 1996. The school acknowledged he raped or otherwise abused at least 17 students. It did not report any misconduct to child welfare authorities until 1989, in the course of Scott’s lawsuit. The agency said it had no authority to act because the alleged victims were over 18.

— The Rev. Howard “Howdy” White, who abruptly left in 1974 after a parent accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct with a student. The school said White abused at least three students. White refused to comment when reached by the AP.

— Franklin Coleman, the choir director, who was fired in 1988 after student complaints of molestation and other inappropriate behavior. The school said it did not notify child welfare authorities on the advice of its legal counsel. MacLeish said he has now spoken to six of Coleman’s alleged victims. Coleman did not return messages seeking comment.

Neither White nor Coleman has ever been charged. Both went on to other schools around the U.S. before retiring several years ago.

One graduate said he was molested by Coleman in 1987 during an overnight trip to Boston. The man told the AP that he reported it to the school the following year, after he learned Coleman had asked another boy to sleep in his bed during a choir tour of England.

The man said he spoke with Peterson’s predecessor as headmaster, Charles Hamblet, and met with Peterson in 2006 to discuss the abuse. Both Hamblet and Peterson offered to pay for therapy, which he accepted, he said.

Peterson wrote to the man in a 2006 letter obtained by the AP that the school’s willingness to pay for therapy was “in no way an admission of responsibility.”

Dan Brewster, a 1974 graduate, went on to serve on the board of trustees in the early 1990s. He said that then-headmaster Hamblet and Howard Dean, a former board chairman and father of the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, told him that in some past cases of teachers accused of abuse, the school would quietly let the educator go with a lump-sum payment, a nondisclosure clause and an agreement barring the faculty member from taking a job at another boarding school.

Brewster said that when he asked why the school didn’t notify parents and the authorities, the two men replied that teenagers might be dragged in to testify and that their parents might also bring an “avalanche of lawsuits” against the school. Hamblet and Dean are now dead.

In the 2004 case, three students reported to then-Dean of Students Tim Richards that a teacher “was touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable,” according to Richards’ spokeswoman, Karen Schwartzman. Richards investigated and the teacher was placed on leave, but the authorities weren’t notified. Peterson told Richards that he talked to outside legal counsel and was advised that the school was not required to contact authorities, the spokeswoman said. Richards is now headmaster at a Connecticut boarding school.

Another alumnus, Harry Groome, said he was raped by an upperclassman with a broomstick in 1978 in front of at least five students, an episode so widely known that it was alluded to in the yearbook. A photo of a laughing Groome sitting in a trash can and holding a hockey stick was captioned: “It’s better than a broomstick!”

In 2002, Groome said, he sent a letter to Hamblet describing what happened. Hamblet thanked him, but nothing else happened, Groome said. In 2004, he said, he forwarded a copy to Peterson. Groome said he followed up with Peterson in 2011 and then met with him, but again no action was taken.

“I want this school to thrive in the future, but it cannot thrive until we flush out the bad, and Eric Peterson has got to go,” Groome said. “This stuff can’t go on anymore. It’s ruined lives.”

___

Lavoie reported from Boston.

___

Follow Michelle R. Smith at https://twitter.com/MRSmithAP. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/michelle-r-smith

Follow Denise Lavoie at https://twitter.com/deniselavoie_ap. Her work can be found athttp://bigstory.ap.org/content/denise-lavoie

WNCT-TV 9 On Your Side provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

blog comments powered by Disqus