After a months-long investigation of sexual abuse at St. George’s School, a report released Thursday described the elite Rhode Island prep school in the 1970s and ’80s as a cauldron of sexual exploitation of students.
Sixty-one alumni gave investigators first-hand accounts of the abuse they say they suffered, with 51 saying the abusers were faculty or staff and an additional 10 reporting abuse by classmates. Two staff members abused at least one student every year they worked at St. George’s.
“The picture that emerges from this investigation is profoundly disturbing,” attorney Martin F. Murphy wrote in a preface to the 390-page report. Murphy, a partner at the Boston firm Foley Hoag, was appointed in January by St. George’s and the victims’ group SGS for Healing to investigate sex abuse at the school in Middletown, R.I.
For many of the alumni interviewed by Murphy’s team, the school was a place “where their abusers created a kind of private hell for them, a place where they suffered emotional wounds and trauma that for many remain unhealed,” according to the report. And what was worse for many, Murphy wrote, was “betrayal at the hands of an adult entrusted with their care, at a school where they saw few, if any, places to turn for help.”
In August, the school agreed to a financial settlement for 29 alumni. In June, under fire from alumni who felt he had not been responsive to the burgeoning sex scandal, headmaster Eric Peterson announced that he would not seek to renew his contract when it expires at the end of this school year.
But the Murphy report praised the school’s current policies and cleared one administrator, Robert Weston, who was put on administrative leave in January pending an investigation of “boundary issues” with students. On Thursday, Leslie Heaney, head of the school’s board of trustees, said that Weston, the associate head of school, is welcome back to campus.
In response to the report, Heaney said: “It is now quite clear that the school repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when reports of sexual abuse were brought to the attention of administrators and teachers. . . . We are profoundly sorry for the harm this caused.”
Murphy noted that much has changed at St. George’s today; the school now embraces a culture of respect and “state of the art” policies regarding sexual assault, misconduct, bullying, and hazing, he wrote. Still, he said, “it required the persistent efforts of alumni . . . over the last 15 years to persuade the school to conduct a complete examination and accounting of its past.”
The most egregious case of abuse centers on Al Gibbs, an athletic trainer who, according to the report, allegedly abused 31 of the 51 victims of staffers. Murphy said nearly one in five girls who attended the school from 1972 to 1980 made first-hand reports of abuse by Gibbs, who “began sexually assaulting female students nearly as soon as” the campus went coed in 1972 and continued until he was fired.
The total is probably higher, Murphy said, since many victims choose not to report: “We expect the number of women actually abused by Gibbs substantially exceeds the reported figure.”
One of his victims, Anne Scott, who was one of the first to publicly tell her story last December and is the head of SGS for Healing, said she hopes the report will lead to more protections for children.
“When one considers the ripple effects of sexual abuse — the damage to parents, siblings, friends, and other family members close to the victim — the amount of trauma inflicted on human beings is measured in the hundreds of years,” she said Thursday.
Her attorneys, Eric MacLeish and Carmen Durso, said they were satisfied with the investigation.
“The report is the most comprehensive accounting to date of sexual abuse at an American boarding school,” said MacLeish, who has represented hundreds of victims of such abuse. As a St. George’s alumnus, he said that he was proud of the way trustees ultimately addressed the crisis, and that he believed “no parent should hesitate” to send a child there today.
Former head of school Tony Zane, under whose watch much of the abuse occurred, released a statement saying that he and his wife have asked that the school remove his name from a girls’ dormitory on campus, as victims had earlier requested.
“We have always had the health and happiness of our students in our minds and in our hearts, but we feel that the school should take this action now in the hope that it will in some small way assist in the healing process for the entire St. George’s community,” Zane said.
Heaney said Thursday that Zane Dorm will revert back to its original name, West Dorm.
Although Zane fired Gibbs in 1980, he wrote him a letter of recommendation. And, according to Murphy’s report, St. George’s continued to pay Gibbs an annual stipend of $1,200, given to employees with distinguished service.
“In our view, the school’s treatment of Gibbs in the years after his termination, continuing until his death in 1996, reflected at best serious misjudgment and at worst, callous indifference to the girls and young women the school knew he had abused,” Murphy wrote.
The report does not identify any of the student abusers by name but describes an atmosphere of hazing and bullying by teenagers, often occurring with little adult supervision.
It describes a male-dominated culture that greeted girls when they began to be admitted to the all-boys’ Episcopal prep school in 1972. Traditions such as Casino Night that featured scantily-clad “bunnies” waiting on boy “gamblers” helped create a second-class place for female students.
Among 10 alleged staff perpetrators, the report named one who had not yet been identified in earlier reports. She is Susan Goddard, a part-time nurse who in 1979 and 1980 engaged in sexual misconduct with a male student. When she broke it off at graduation, the boy attempted suicide by driving a moped into a wall, fracturing his skull in five places. (The report noted that Goddard had declined to speak to investigators.)
Murphy’s investigation is the second at the school in the past year. The first one was headed by attorney Will Hannum, but when victims learned that he is not only the law partner of the school’s then-counsel but also her husband, they objected to what they considered a conflict of interest.
Though Murphy found that the report based on Hannum’s investigation was thorough and done in good faith, “an investigation begun with the best intentions went horribly awry” because alumni felt misled about Hannum’s independence from the school.
The Hannum investigation came after Scott and MacLeish began to push the school to launch an investigation into sexual abuse. The resulting report, released in December 2015, identified six staff abusers, all them anonymously except for Gibbs.
MacLeish and Durso, who are representing about 40 alleged St. George’s victims, earlier identified four of the staffers as choir master Franklin Coleman (who, like Gibbs, “sexually abused at least one student in each year of his tenure at the school,” the report said); assistant chaplain Howard White; and teachers Bill Lydgate and Timothy Tefft. They were also named in the report released Thursday.
Some of the St. George’s perpetrators went on to work at other schools and settings with children. The Globe reported in February that White is being investigated in North Carolina on allegations that he abused two teenagers while a rector there in the 1980s. Tefft, who is serving a prison term for child pornography, was also accused at two other schools in Connecticut and New York. Lydgate resigned from the Island School in Kauai in 2003 after students told school officials that he had made sexual advances.
The report also addresses a more recent allegation against technology head and dorm master Charles Thompson, who in 2004 was put on leave after several boys complained that Thompson had invited them into his apartment and touched them inappropriately. Months later, he was allowed to return to teaching, though not to live on campus. On advice of the school’s outside counsel, who told Peterson the behavior did not constitute sexual abuse, the school did not report Thompson to state authorities.
Murphy concluded that the question of whether to terminate Thompson’s employment was a matter of judgment, but that “In our view . . . it would have been more prudent for Peterson to have terminated Thompson. Thompson’s conduct was sufficiently far enough outside the bounds of acceptable conduct as to call into question his fitness to serve as a teacher or staff member.”
The report criticized another attorney for the school, William P. Robinson III, for the “aggressive approach” he and former head of school Archer Harman took toward Anne Scott when she brought a lawsuit against the school in 1989. The strategy included efforts, which the court rejected, to disclose her name publicly and to say that she may have had consensual sex with Gibbs when she was 15 and he was 67.
“The school’s tactics were within the bounds of the law,” Murphy wrote. But its denial that Scott was sexually assaulted “represents . . . a failure to recognize any moral obligation to act responsibly to students who had been abused as young, vulnerable children in the school’s care.”
Robinson was appointed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2004.
In a written statement, Heaney, the board chair, said the report represents a new beginning for the school.“It still is only a step in our journey. It is our fervent hope that today will begin our collective reconciliation and that the painful divisions in our community caused first by the past sexual misconduct and then by its long-delayed revelation will, by God’s grace, finally begin to mend.”Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.