St. George’s School, reeling after months of allegations of sexual abuse of students, has agreed to what one lawyer called a “very significant” financial settlement with up to 30 alumni, for incidents going as far back as the 1970s.
The settlement, whose terms remain confidential, was announced jointly by school officials and some of the aggrieved former students. It caps a time of tumult at the elite school in Middletown, R.I. The allegations, made by dozens of former students, have led to independent investigations of the school, and to a probe by the Rhode Island State Police. The embattled headmaster, Eric Peterson, announced in June that he won’t seek to renew his contract when it expires next year.
“St. George’s has done something meaningful and important for survivors,” said Anne Scott, whose allegation of rape in the late 1970s by the former school athletic trainer was the catalyst that brought forth other allegations. “It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to receive this kind of validation and support, after all these years. Our spirits are renewed on our forward healing journey.”
Both sides expressed relief at the settlement, which some likened to reparations. Leslie Heaney, chairwoman of the board of trustees, said she hopes that the agreement will assist in that healing. “We look forward to continuing to work with our survivor community so that the lessons learned can ensure the safety of our current and future generations of St. George’s students,” she said.
Eric MacLeish, counsel for the claimants, commented, “While no amount of money can make victims whole, today’s settlement says to survivors: ‘This was not your fault, it affected your life in profound ways, it happened at our school, and we are truly sorry for what you have lost.’ ”
The agreement was mediated by Paul Finn, a Boston-based mediator and arbitrator who has helped settle claims in the priest sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston as well as in several school cases, including the Horace Mann School in New York.
In a letter sent Wednesday to the school community, Heaney said that Finn will hear from each survivor “to assess the nature and degree of harm suffered. He will oversee the determination of individual award amounts.”
She added: “This is a painful part of St. George’s history for which we are deeply and profoundly sorry.”
Though the settlement talks took place over the course of four recent days, MacLeish said the process has been months in the making. Both sides had been bitterly divided at times, but MacLeish called the talks “very constructive,” and said both sides showed “a great deal of care and compassion.”
As part of the agreement, neither side can talk about the amount of money involved. MacLeish would only say that “the school has made a very significant financial compensation available to survivors.” He and attorney Carmen Durso have about 40 clients from the school. He declined further comment on the others.
St. George’s, an Episcopal school, has educated Astors and Vanderbilts, and its rolling campus is known as the Hilltop for its perch overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Tuition for next year is $58,000.
In late December, the school issued a report saying that its investigator found that 26 students were sexually abused by six school employees, most of it in the 1970s and 1980s. When alumni criticized that report for its lack of independence from the school administration, a second investigator was appointed. Martin Murphy’s report is due in August.
Katie Wales, a survivor who is covered by the settlement, said Wednesday that “it’s a huge relief that it’s done with.” Wales, like Scott, was abused by athletic trainer Al Gibbs, whom she went to see after a horseback riding injury in 1979. He began to molest her and took photos of her naked in the school’s whirlpool, she said, which he then circulated among the boys at the school.
When she told Tony Zane, the headmaster at the time, she said, he told her she was crazy and sent her to the school psychologist. Her life began to spiral into alcohol and drugs, and she was expelled the week before graduation in 1980.
After others reported Gibbs, Zane fired him — but wrote him a letter of recommendation. Gibbs died in 1996. Zane, who is in his 80s, lives in New Bedford.
Though pleased with the settlement, Wales said there’s still unfinished business on campus: “Zane Dorm is still a bone of contention. His name doesn’t belong on a girls’ dorm.”Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.