Three boys came to administrators at the prestigious Rhode Island prep school St. George's in 2004 with disturbing allegations: their dorm master had touched them inappropriately. Timothy Richards, then dean of students at the Episcopal school in Middletown, said he and the headmaster, Eric Peterson, interviewed the students.
The accused staffer left the school abruptly, and students were told he had taken a personal leave of absence. But a former school official says the school never reported the allegations to child welfare officials, as is required for credible accusations of abuse.
Instead, the headmaster concluded that the employee "did not engage in sexual misconduct" and allowed him to return to work the next school year. Richards, now headmaster at another private school, said Peterson told him that "outside counsel" had advised him that reporting the matter to authorities was not warranted.
This week, with St. George's embroiled in a growing sexual abuse scandal, Richards said he would have reported the 2004 incident. "If the decision was up to him, he would have reported it to the appropriate agency in Rhode Island," said Richards's spokesperson, Karen Schwartzman. "In the situation at St. George's School, he's relying on the judgment of his boss, who is head of school and also an attorney."
The incident intensifies the spotlight on Peterson, who is still St. George's headmaster and was already facing calls for his resignation for what victims say is his failure to respond appropriately to numerous allegations of unreported past abuse. On Dec. 23, the school released a report on its own investigation into sexual abuse there, mostly in the 1970s and '80s, describing six staff and three student perpetrators. But it did not include the 2004 incident, even though the father of one alleged victim says he described the case in detail to the investigator.
The dorm master, Charles Thompson, remained on staff until he left in 2011 for the Taft School in Connecticut. He is now director of information technology at Taft. He did not respond to Globe requests for comment.
Joe Baerlein, a spokesperson for St. George's, said Friday: "When Mr. Peterson became aware of reports of inappropriate behavior by Mr. Thompson, he immediately put him on leave. He had the matter investigated and mandated that Mr. Thompson receive a psychiatric evaluation before returning back to the school. The subsequent actions taken on Mr. Thompson were the result of the opinions provided by the professionals in their reports back to the school."
The St. George's scandal became public in December when former student Anne Scott and two others came forward with allegations that athletic trainer Al Gibbs assaulted them in the 1970s. Since then, more than 40 other alumni have reported sexual abuse to attorneys Eric MacLeish and Carmen Durso, who are representing some of them.
Alumnus and former school trustee Dan Brewster says he was informed of a staff member's purported misconduct toward multiple students in 2004. He told school officials but never heard back from Peterson, despite repeated attempts to reach him.
"It's disgusting," Brewster said. "It was abundantly clear from the outset that the school had no intention of informing parents, tending to the needs of victims, informing law enforcement, of doing anything other than protecting what they viewed as the importance of the institution."
IRS tax records, which are public because St. George's is considered a nonprofit, say Peterson was paid $524,700 in salary and other compensation in 2013, the last year records are available online. His wife, Krista, is senior associate director of admissions at the school.
Through spokeswoman Schwartzman, Richards detailed what happened when the three students described their experience to him and Peterson, reporting that "Mr. Thompson was touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable."
Richards then interviewed 18 other students who lived in the dorm, wrote up what he heard, and gave the account to Peterson. According to Schwartzman, Richards said Peterson told him that he received legal advice that it was unnecessary to report the matter to child protective services. Richards worked at St. George's for 23 years, until he left to become headmaster of Pomfret School in Connecticut in 2011, his spokeswoman said.
MacLeish said Thursday that Peterson was required to report the allegations.
"In 2004, the law had been clear for 30 years that if there is any suspicion of child abuse, it had to be reported within 24 hours. If you fail to report it, there are criminal penalties of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000."
The standard for reporting, said MacLeish, who has represented dozens of victims of both school and clergy sexual abuse, "is much lower than criminal prosecution. It's reasonable cause to believe that abuse or neglect occurred."
According to one of the alleged victims, who was 14 at the time, Thompson would bring him into his apartment at night, where the boy would be told to sit on the couch while the dorm master sat on the floor.
Thompson was head of IT and also did physical therapy.
"He'd bring you in late at night," said the alumnus, who asked not to be identified. "I had a knee injury. He told me I had sailor knees, and he used it as an excuse to try to stick his hands under my shorts. He made a lot of people feel very uncomfortable."
The boy, who said his room was next to Thompson's apartment, was upset enough by the advances to have trouble sleeping, and went to Richards. After others also reported him, Thompson left campus.
"Eric Peterson came to our dorm and read a letter from Thompson that he was leaving for personal reasons," said the former student, who was expelled later that year for smoking pot off campus.
The boy's father said that despite repeated requests to meet with Peterson, he never heard back from him.
"It's apparent that St. George's School has not been forthcoming about the extent of abuse," said the father, a business executive.
At the urging of Scott and her attorney, MacLeish, St. George's last year launched an investigation into sexual abuse allegations on the oceanfront campus. But the investigator, Will Hannum, was dismissed recently when victims questioned his independence after it was learned that he is not only the law partner of current school attorney Sara Schwartz, but also married to her.
The school agreed to investigate further, and, with the agreement of victim representatives, named Martin F. Murphy to conduct a third-party investigation.
Hannum declined to comment on why the public report of his findings did not include the Thompson episode.
In a December e-mail to MacLeish, Schwartz acknowledged that the school had been made aware of the Thompson allegations several years ago, but a school investigation uncovered no sexual misconduct. However, she wrote, "In connection with Mr. Thompson becoming employed at Taft, St. George's advised Taft of the allegations."
MacLeish replied, in part: "it is not the role of the school to conduct a child abuse investigation and then determine whether or not it can be supported. That is the job of child protective services. . . . As I'm sure you're aware, the reporting requirement is immediate and mandatory."