How did this elite US$58,000-per-year school become a playground for child sex abusers?
A new report depicts decades of sexual abuse by multiple staff at the St George’s boarding school in Rhode Island
The elite Rhode Island boarding school St George’s became a kind of “private hell” for dozens of students in the 1970s and 1980s who were manipulated and sexually abused by faculty and staff, according to a report issued Thursday by an independent investigator.
One in five girls who attended the school in the 1970s was sexually abused by the same athletic trainer, and many others were subjected to abuse by nine other staff members from 1970 to 1989, the report found. More recently, a faculty member engaged in inappropriate conduct with several students in the 2000s, the report found.
The report, by Boston lawyer Martin Murphy, found the school betrayed the trust of students and their parents and provided few, if any, places to turn for help. Murphy was hired by the Middletown school and the survivors’ group SGS for Healing.
The most prolific offender was athletic trainer Al Gibbs, who abused at least 31 girls, the report said. Gibbs was fired in 1980 after being caught taking photographs of a naked girl in his office, but the report found that he was paid a US$1,200 annual grant for “distinguished service” that continued until he died in 1996. The school acknowledged in December that he abused 17 students.
“For a long time, everybody said I was a liar,” said Katie Wales Lovkay, who said Gibbs abused her in 1979. “It feels really good to have this investigative report back me up.”
Another teacher, Franklin Coleman, received a recommendation from the dean of the faculty despite being fired in 1988 for inappropriate sexual contact with a student, the report said. Fourteen students told investigators of abuse by Coleman, the report said. A working telephone number for Coleman couldn’t be found.
A man who reported being sexually abused by Coleman said the investigation accurately captured the campus environment, where students were often unsupervised and administrators covered up anything that could taint the school’s reputation.
“It was a lawless place,” said the man, now in his 40s, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is a victim of sexual abuse. “There definitely were faculty who cared, but none of them protected me.”
The report also suggested that the current headmaster at the US$58,000-per-year Episcopal school didn’t adequately handle reports of misconduct by teacher Charles Thompson in 2004 and should have fired him rather than put him on leave . Thompson was accused of inappropriate behaviour that included touching several students’ legs. The report said he declined to be interviewed during the investigation.
The headmaster previously announced he will step down next year .
The report also criticised the current board of trustees for “victim shaming” in a statement this year that cast doubt on the credibility of a student who accused Thompson of molesting him.
Attorney Eric MacLeish, a St. George’s alumnus who represented dozens of victims at the school, called the report the most comprehensive recounting to date of sexual abuse at an American boarding school.
MacLeish said it was important to note that the school is a very different place today, and he applauded the board of trustees for their response.
In a letter to the school community, Leslie Heaney, chair of the board of trustees, acknowledged the school’s failure to respond appropriately to reports of misconduct, and apologised.
Among other employees named in the report was the Reverend Howard White Jr., who worked at the school from 1971 until he was fired in 1974. The report said three former students came forward with credible accounts of sexual abuse against him. He has also been accused of abusing children in New Hampshire, North Carolina and West Virginia. The report said White declined to be interviewed by investigators.
Timothy Tefft, a former English teacher is accused of sexually abusing a sophomore boy in 1971. He was fired just months after being hired, “evidently for supplying alcohol to the hockey team over winter break,” the report said. Tefft went on to teach elsewhere but is now serving a federal prison term for receiving child pornography.
Susan Goddard, a part-time nurse at St George’s from 1976 to 1998, reportedly engaged in sexual misconduct with a student in 1979 and 1980. The student told investigators that when Goddard distanced herself after his graduation, he attempted suicide. Goddard didn’t immediately respond to a message left on her home phone.
William Lydgate Jr, who taught English at St George’s from 1968 to 1970 reportedly sexually assaulted at least one student and likely at least another. He couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
The report found no danger posed by current administrator Robert Weston, who was placed on leave after secondhand allegations concerning his boundaries with students. Heaney on Thursday said Weston was welcome back.
The school announced last month it had agreed to a settlement with up to 30 former students for an undisclosed amount.
State police previously investigated and said they wouldn’t bring charges for a variety of reasons, including the statute of limitations.
The school, founded in 1896, counts among its graduates poet Ogden Nash, former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson and members of the Bush political family.