Metro

R.I. prep school report cites more sex abuse victims

Memorial Schoolhouse, left and Chapel from the Dragon Quad at St. George's School in Middletown, R.I., Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. (Stew Milne for The Boston Globe)
Stew Milne for The Boston Globe
Memorial Schoolhouse, left and Chapel at St. George's School in Middletown, R.I.

An investigation by St. George’s School has found that a total of 23 students were sexually abused by three school employees in the 1970s and ’80s, according to a draft of a report provided to the Globe Wednesday evening. The perpetrators were fired, but the prep school did not report them at the time to child protection services, as mandated by law.

In addition, three other employees during the same period engaged in sexual misconduct with a single student apiece, bringing the total to 26 victims of staff abuse, according to the draft report to alumni, signed by headmaster Eric Peterson and board chair Leslie Heaney.

“To all victims, we are truly, deeply sorry for the harm done to you by former employees or former students of the School,” the draft states. “We are heartbroken for you and for the pain and suffering that you have endured. We pledge to do all we can to support you in your efforts to heal, if you want or need our support.”

Advertisement

The document outlines plans to set up a therapy fund for victims, create an independent advisory support group, and consider removing former headmaster Tony Zane’s name from a dormitory. Zane, now 85, led the school in Middletown, R.I., during the years the abuse occurred.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Even though previous school administrators fired four staff perpetrators, “it is evident that school failed on several occasions to fulfill its legal reporting requirements to the authorities,” the current leadership writes in the draft report. “We believe the school could have done more to keep its students safe.”

Only former athletic trainer Al Gibbs has been publicly identified. In the draft report, the school states that Rhode Island State Police have instructed it not to make public the names of living perpetrators.

The report also disclosed that “three credible firsthand accounts” and corroborating evidence suggest that three former students of the school each engaged in sexual misconduct toward three other students. All three perpetrators were reported to Rhode Island State Police by the current school administration.

The school’s report said that victims reported various personal problems after the abuse, including rebellion, difficulty in relationships, depression, shame, embarrassment, and attempted suicide.

Advertisement

There were no complaints about any current abuse at the school, said Eric MacLeish, a lawyer who has worked to press the school to acknowledge its troubled past.

Despite the remedies offered in the 12-page report, one of the victims of Gibbs expressed disappointment.

“It omits a number of material facts and does not specify the sequence of events leading up to today’s release,” said Anne Scott, who graduated in 1980. “I renew the call for a truly independent investigation and one that also honestly examines the roles of successive school leaders.”

In a Globe article published last week, Scott and two other women spoke publicly about their sexual assault by Gibbs, who was fired in 1980 and is now deceased. Over the weekend, the three women began circulating an online petition to fellow alumni, criticizing the school’s approach to investigating the abuse and demanding that it take additional steps to help those affected.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition had garnered 450 signatures and many supportive comments. One woman wrote: “I was also assaulted. I have told my story to several ‘investigators’ over the years, and the response was silence. Except for 2 others I thought I was alone.”

Advertisement

In their petition, the women objected to St. George’s hiring Will Hannum, the law partner of the school’s legal counsel, as the “independent investigator” who is looking into past sexual abuse. The petition was created by Scott and Katie Wales, who graduated in 1980, and Joan Reynolds, class of 1979.

Scott, Wales, and Reynolds told of being molested or raped by Gibbs in a locked training room when they were teenagers and Gibbs was in his late 60s.

The school’s draft report defended Hannum as a veteran investigator who is not providing any legal advice to the school. It also reported that though Hannum was initially put in charge of a fund offering advance funding for therapy and reimbursement for past treatment, it will now be administered by a Rhode Island clinician experienced in treating sex abuse victims.

In the late 1980s, Scott, then in her 20s, sued the school after revealing to her parents that Gibbs had molested her starting in 1977, when she was sent to him for a field hockey injury. After aggressive push-back from the school’s attorneys, Scott dropped the lawsuit and agreed to sign a gag order prohibiting her from talking about it, and she moved abroad.

This year, Scott reunited with MacLeish —himself a former St. George’s student, and Scott’soriginal lawyer — to press St. George’s on the issue. In part because of their prodding,Peterson sent out three letters to alumni about the abuse — in April, August, and November — and the school eventually released Scott from the gag order.

In the Nov. 2 letter, for the first time, Peterson named Gibbs as a perpetrator.

The controversy today about St. George’s dark past has also focused on the previous headmaster, Zane, who led the school when the abuse took place. Zane heard multiple reports from girls who said Gibbs had abused them. Although he fired Gibbs, the school did not report the assaults to child protective services, as mandated by law, and it fought to discredit Scott during her lawsuit.

MacLeish and his cocounsel, Carmen Durso, say they have received dozens of calls since the Globe first wrote about the St. George’s case on Dec. 15. A total of 21 women have accused Gibbs, including his three named clients, four other women who also came forward by 1980, and 14 additional women. They have also heard from male alumni who say they were abused by male staff members.

Among the many who contacted the Globe is a woman who said that Gibbs molested her when she was 14, after she suffered a tennis injury.

“None of us were talking to each other about it,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

Another woman this week told MacLeish she was 13 years old and in her first weeks at the school when Gibbs began to molest her. Shortly after, she said, she was raped by an upperclassman. The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she kept the events secret and never sought therapy. When the school’s letter revealed Gibbs’s identity, she said, she was “stunned” to learn she wasn’t the only one.

In an e-mail, the woman said she is now experiencing “crippling depression, probably healthy after suppressing these experiences for so long.”

Scott has also e-mailed alumni to say MacLeish retained Boston area psychologist Paul Zeizel, who treated some Boston Marathon victims, to help the victims coming forward.

“Some alumni are in real crisis and need help now,” Scott wrote.

On Tuesday, she and other alumni started an online SGS Alumni Therapy Fundraiser to pay for it.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.