After weeks of public pressure, the board of trustees at embattled St. George's School agreed on Thursday to appoint a new "third party independent investigator" to oversee a comprehensive investigation of sexual abuse at the school. The decision was announced in a joint statement by board chair Leslie Heaney and by rape victim Anne Scott, speaking on behalf of SGS for Healing, a group of victims and other alumni.
The decision came after a two-hour meeting between attorneys for the victims and trustees of the prestigious Episcopal preparatory school in Middletown, R.I, and was the first accord between the two sides.
Since December, when Scott went public with her story, accounts have grown of sexual abuse at St. George's. More than 40 former students have told lawyers they were raped or molested at St. George's, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, by what both the school and victims' attorneys acknowledge were at least nine staff or student perpetrators.
The new investigator will be agreed upon by both the board and the victims, and they hope to appoint someone next week.
"Today's decision is a very important first step in what we hope will be a process of reconciliation and healing," Scott said.
Heaney, the board chair, said: "The board is committed to a truly impartial investigation. There is nothing more important to us than that the review be thorough and exhaustive, and that its findings are found to be reliable and credible by all parties, particularly the victims."
In April, the school began what it called a "full and independent inquiry" into the abuse. It has been sharply criticized by victims and their attorneys because the investigator appointed by the school, Will Hannum, is the law partner of St. George's legal counsel, Sara Schwartz, which critics say compromises the inquiry's confidentiality and credibility.
That opposition heightened on Thursday morning, when victims learned that Hannum and Schwartz are not just law partners, but also married.
"This just compounds the betrayal and the hypocrisy of the investigation," said Scott, who was repeatedly raped by the school's athletic trainer, Al Gibbs, starting in 1977. Gibbs, fired in 1980, died in 1996.
In an e-mail to the Globe late Wednesday, Hannum defended his role: "Our marriage has never been secret and has no bearing on my ability to conduct a proper investigation into the truth, which is exactly what I've done. Neither Sara nor I has ever allowed, nor would we ever allow, our personal union to affect our professional responsibility to clients."
Hannum told the Globe Thursday night that "it was always the case that after I presented my findings to the board, then what happened next would be the decision of the board."
A spokesman for the board said that "Mr. Hannum's role in the investigation is concluded."
Eric MacLeish, an attorney for the victims, praised the decision to hire another investigator: "This is the first time we've been able to have these discussions, and it's clear there are people of good will on both sides." He said he hoped that the new investigator could build on Hannum's initial report of sex abuse at the school and one done by him and co-counsel Carmen Durso.
"We don't want people to have to go back and recount their stories if they don't want to," MacLeish said.
More issues will be discussed with the board, he said, including new allegations he and Durso have received about former school staff members. "Some are from the 1970s, and some are very recent," MacLeish said. "It's very important to know where they are now, and we anticipate the school working cooperatively with us."
Meanwhile, the Episcopal bishop of Central Pennsylvania on Wednesday removed a former St. George's staffer, the Rev. Howard H. White Jr., from the ministry in that state. In recent years, White has been a substitute minister at St. James Church in Bedford, Pa.
White was one of the perpetrators identified by Durso and MacLeish at a press conference Tuesday. In St. George's own investigation, he had been identified only as Employee Perpetrator #2, fired in 1974 for sexual misconduct that was never reported to the authorities, though state law required it.
"It is imperative that we employ all the safeguards that are available to us while the investigation of the Rhode Island State Police continues and while the formal ecclesiastical discipline process involving Fr. White unfolds," wrote Bishop Audrey C. Scanlan to her diocese.
Scanlan told them she has no information about any abuse at St. James. The restrictions on White mean he is prohibited from having contact with minors unless accompanied by someone who is aware of that prohibition and has agreed to act as a chaperone.
White, who earlier this week refused to comment, could not be reached Thursday for comment on the bishop's actions. According to his online biography, he spent decades at other schools after leaving St. George's.
Scanlan's comments came after Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely, who is also an ex officio member of St. George's board of trustees, issued his own letter to clergy, saying that he had informed the bishops in whose dioceses three clergymen connected to the St. George's abuse reside.
"One of the priests allegedly committed abuse and the other allegedly failed to report allegations of abuse made against a St. George's employee as mandated by state law," he wrote.
The third person, he said, is also an alleged abuser.