The headmaster of St. George’s School, which has been embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal, has informed trustees that he won’t seek to renew his contract, which expires June 30, 2017.
Eric F. Peterson, whose resignation had been sought by many alumni, did not mention the scandal in his letter to trustees but referred to recent months as challenging. The controversy at the school became public in December, after Anne Scott and two other alumnae told of being molested or raped by athletic trainer Al Gibbs in the late 1970s.
In a letter sent Tuesday to the St. George’s community announcing Peterson’s departure, board of trustees chair Leslie Heaney referred briefly to the scandal: “Throughout this transition, the school’s commitment to addressing past instances of sexual abuse and to supporting our survivor community will remain steadfast.”
Peterson, 50, was appointed headmaster of the Episcopal prep school in 2004. His letter included a quote from the poem “Ulysses,” in which Tennyson writes of Greek hero Odysseus “and his desire to return to the sea in search of adventure.” Peterson wrote that he loves the poem “because it describes so well the tension between staying home in a familiar, comfortable setting or chasing the horizon towards an unknown, exciting future.”
“For the past several years, I have found myself wrestling with his same dilemma,” Peterson wrote, adding that St. George’s is a place that he and his wife, Krista, love. “We raised our family here, and for all of us, St. George’s will always be home. At the same time, we all leave home someday, and this transition comes at a logical point for our family and for us professionally.”
St. George’s in Middletown, R.I., has educated Astors and Vanderbilts, and its rolling campus is known as “the Hilltop” for its perch overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Founded in 1896, it has 365 students in grades 9 through 12. Tuition for next year is $58,000.
According to IRS records, Peterson was paid $524,700 in salary and other compensation in 2013, the latest year records are available online. Krista Peterson is senior associate director of admissions at the school.
In her letter, Heaney praised Peterson’s leadership, citing the creation of the Merck-Horton Center for Teaching and Learning, a global studies program, expansion of the library, dorm renovations, and the creation of the Academic Center. She said the board has hired the executive search firm Spencer Stewart to find his replacement.
At the urging of Scott and her attorney Eric MacLeish, St. George’s commissioned an independent investigation of sexual abuse in 2015. In late December, the school issued a report saying the investigator found a total of 26 students who were sexually abused. The report said six school employees were responsible for different instances of abuse. Though most of the perpetrators were fired after the allegations were made, the school did not report them to the state Department of Children, Youth and Families.
At least three St. George’s employees accused of misconduct went on to jobs where they faced subsequent sexual misconduct allegations involving children.
Though most of those allegations dated back decades, the first report, by Will Hannum, failed to mention allegations by boys in 2004, after Peterson arrived at the school. At least 10 boys told school officials that teacher and athletic trainer Charles Thompson had touched them inappropriately and made them uncomfortable.
Though he was placed on leave, Thompson returned the following semester and remained at St. George’s until 2011, when he was hired at Taft “with highly favorable references” from St. George’s, according to a Taft spokeswoman.
When victims learned that investigator Hannum was not only the law partner of the school’s then-outside counsel but also her husband, a second investigation was commissioned, with the school and the victims’ group SGS for Healing choosing Martin F. Murphy as the investigator. Murphy, a former Middlesex prosecutor and a partner at the Boston law firm Foley Hoag, is expected to release his report in late June.
MacLeish and Carmen Durso, who are representing some of the victims, say they have credible allegations that nearly 50 alumni were sexually abused — most by staff, some by other students.
Some survivors and other alumni had called for Peterson’s resignation, saying that he failed to report allegations to authorities and was more concerned with the school’s reputation than the victims. Many have described lives shattered by addiction, divorce, and feelings of shame, guilt, and betrayal.
“I look forward to this unfolding chapter at St. George’s School,” Scott, who runs a foundation in Virginia, said Tuesday. “In it, survivors are warmly welcomed back. Their message is heard and understood. Their truth is acknowledged and acted upon. We will all be better and stronger for it.”
MacLeish, who is also a St. George’s alumnus, said Tuesday night that Peterson “was one of many school leaders who chose silence about decades of sexual abuse at St. George’s over outreach, compassion, and assistance to alumni victims. As someone who went to St. George’s, I hope that the next head of school approaches this crisis with a complete open heart to the survivors we represent and understands the devastation and trauma that these life altering events caused.”
Katie Wales, who was allegedly assaulted by Gibbs, said she was pleased with Peterson’s news. “I am still shocked that he wasn’t charged with anything by the Rhode Island State Police,” said Wales, who lives in Connecticut.
Last Friday, the State Police ended their seven-month sexual abuse investigation of the school without bringing criminal charges. Law enforcement officials, including state Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, said their hands were tied by loopholes in the existing state laws.
But because of the St. George’s scandal, the Rhode Island Senate has approved legislation to ensure that schools report allegations of sexual abuse of children to the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. According to a General Assembly press release, the legislation was filed “to address a situation that came to light amid allegations of abuse over the course of decades at St. George’s School” and specifically names public and private schools as mandated reporters of such abuse.
Though Kilmartin has maintained that St. George’s School was a mandated reporter, the school, and even DCYF, said that schools and educators were not spelled out in the law.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.