Metro

Minister in bread ‘penance’ case allegedly had role in other cases

The Phillips Exeter Academy campus in Exeter, N.H.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File
The Phillips Exeter Academy campus in Exeter, N.H.

Years before the school minister at Phillips Exeter Academy encouraged a student to bake bread as an act of penance for allegedly groping another student, the Rev. Robert H. Thompson played a questionable role in two other sexual assault cases at the New Hampshire boarding school, according to a former student and a former faculty member.

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The Rev. Robert H. Thompson.

Thompson wrote a favorable review in 1993 for an advisee who had molested another student at Exeter and “misused his authority as the faculty advisor and school minister” to delay the student from getting kicked off campus, according to a letter written at the time by former assistant school minister Carl Lindemann to school leaders.

Less than two years later, Thompson and his wife, Nadine, who worked as Exeter’s dean of multicultural affairs, allowed a boy who had confessed to sexually assaulting five students within a few hours to stay the night in their faculty apartment and the school didn’t call police until two days later, according to a February 1995 article in The Exeter News-Letter. One victim, Julia Callahan, told the Globe that Nadine Thompson asked her the night of the attack to accept an apology from the troubled teenager who was visiting from New York.

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Julia Callahan.
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Now, two decades later, in the wake of a Spotlight Team report, Phillips Exeter placed Thompson on administrative leave and prohibited him from talking to the media after disclosures in July on a 2015 sexual assault case, according to Nadine Thompson, who no longer works at the school. The minister came under scrutiny for brokering a deal in which the alleged victim received weekly bread deliveries from the student athlete who allegedly groped her in the church basement.

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In an interview, Nadine Thompson defended her husband’s 30-year career as Exeter’s school minister and said his role is to provide pastoral care to any student who comes to him — whether it’s a victim or the accused, like the student involved in the 1993 case.

“He is not the disciplinarian. He is only there to provide support to the students,” Thompson said. “Bob is the kind of person who would never cover up abuse.”

She said she does not have a good recollection of the 1995 case involving Callahan and could not answer specific questions, but added the couple had “very little to do with it.”

Exeter’s principal, Lisa MacFarlane, said Tuesday that the school’s investigator from the law firm Holland & Knight is reviewing both cases.

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“We are extremely concerned by the report we received from Ms. Callahan,” MacFarlane said in a statement.

Callahan said she is coming forward now because she is worried about the backlash from supporters of Thompson against Michaella Henry, the recent graduate who spoke out in July about her 2015 sexual assault. Callahan criticized Exeter’s failure to take public action against Thompson and other school officials, saying they have repeatedly bungled sexual misconduct cases.

“It’s not an isolated incident, and they need to be forthcoming,” Callahan said.

Callahan said she was walking across campus at night in January 1995 when a teenager grabbed her from behind, pushed her into the bushes, pinned her arms, and tried to unbuckle her pants. A branch raked across her forehead, leaving a gash. That Sunday night, the boy grabbed or tried to kiss five female students in separate assaults, the Exeter News-Letter reported at the time.

Callahan said that, in the days after the attack, school officials never followed up with her or her parents, Dean Nadine Thompson would not meet with her, and the school dismissed her efforts to have a broader conversation on campus about the assaults. Callahan was particularly upset because three students walking by didn’t respond to her screams for help during the attacks.

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The school minister told Callahan that the faculty decided that the attacks “should not be made known to the student body as a whole” and sighed, saying it would be difficult to find the time to have dorm meetings because “students would rather sleep or do their homework,” according to an article Callahan wrote in 1995 for the student newspaper with the headline “Ignoring It Won’t Make It Go Away.”

Callahan, whose maiden name was Gray, did not identify Thompson by name in the article but described the person as a “prominent faculty member.”

Eric MacLeish, an attorney representing Callahan, said, “Exeter and Reverend Thompson did not handle this matter in a way that was responsive to the concerns of a sixteen year old girl traumatized by a vicious sexual assault, particularly since the School reported that there were four other girls that had been assaulted as well.”

The Exeter police chief at the time publicly criticized the academy for waiting two days to report a criminal matter, and a school spokeswoman acknowledged “internal communications were not good,” according to the 1995 Exeter News-Letter story.

Lindemann, the assistant school minister from 1991 to 1993 who expressed concerns about Thompson, said he is breaking his silence because he has been unable to get the current administration to answer basic questions about both cases from the 1990s and he is concerned about the transparency of the ongoing investigation into sexual misconduct at the school.

In the 1993 case, Lindemann charged that Thompson tried to keep his advisee from getting removed from campus after the boy was accused of molesting a classmate, “exposing students to unnecessary danger, and the institution to unacceptable liability,” Lindemann wrote to then-Exeter principal Kendra Stearns O’Donnell.

Thompson also wrote a favorable review for the boy on an unrelated disciplinary matter and omitted any reference of the alleged sexual assault.

There was a “protracted struggle with the Dean’s office and Counseling services trying to remove the dangerous student from campus over [Thompson’s] objections,” Lindemann wrote in a narrative provided to school leaders earlier this year.

In 1993, the dean of the faculty acknowledged in a letter to Lindemann that Thompson helped delay his advisee’s medical leave, but “his role in the delay was not as central as you perceived it to be.”

Many of Lindemann’s letters also alleged that Thompson mistreated him.

Exeter launched an investigation into sexual abuse in April in the wake of a Globe report that celebrated teacher Rick Schubart was quietly forced out in 2011 and barred from campus in 2015 after admitting to sexual misconduct with two students. Schubart is not facing criminal charges in the cases.

Henry, who graduated this year, accused the deans of trying to convince her that she had not been sexually assaulted and failing to report the attack immediately to police. She was also upset that she had to face her alleged attacker each week when he made bread deliveries. Henry eventually went to the police on her own to report the student, Chudi Ikpeazu, who was charged and entered a not guilty plea in August.

After Henry came forward, more than 1,000 alumni signed a petition pledging to withhold financial donations to the school. Exeter leaders then acknowledged, “Without question, the situation could and should have been handled in a better way.’’

Other former students began rallying around Thompson, an Exeter graduate who was hired in 1986, and criticizing Henry for speaking out publicly.

One alumnus, who signed an open letter that garnered hundreds of signatures in support of Thompson, was banned from The Exonians, a public Facebook group, after taking “multiple swipes” at Henry, according to comments posted by the group’s administrator.

Henry said she believes Exeter has failed to take full responsibility, particularly with the deans for “denying me my legal right to press charges and by convincing me that what happened was not even a crime.”

Nadine Thompson blasted the school for making her husband a “scapegoat” and said he was the only school leader who took Henry’s concerns seriously.

Thompson said the school has barred her husband from campus, cut off his access to e-mail, and evicted their son from their Exeter-owned home after he pleaded guilty in July to receiving stolen property. She said none of the other deans involved in the case have faced similar discipline.

“All of the other deans are back at work. They rolled him under the bus,” Thompson said. “There was no care for our family.”

Jenn Abelson can be reached at jenn.abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.