By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
It is a nightmare that has been happening all too frequently at private schools, including Episcopal institutions: a student is sexually abused by a faculty or staff member, who later leaves quietly with a recommendation that leads to another job with children.
More than 100 private schools in New England have faced allegations of sexual misconduct in the past 40 years, according to a Boston Globe Spotlight team investigation. In nine of 31 cases examined by the Globe, schools wrote recommendations for the accused and effectively covered up the scandals.
“The problem of sexual abuse in schools is the clergy sexual abuse crisis of this decade,” said Carmen Durso, a Boston attorney who sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in the 2000s and now represents victims in their cases against schools. “Hundreds of schools have had someone sexually abused at their school and they have basically just pushed it aside, pushed the person out, or quietly got the person to leave.”
Now Episcopal schools are among those grappling with how to prevent sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups. They await recommendations from a task force commissioned by the National Association of Independent Schools and the Association of Boarding Schools.
“Episcopal schools are not any more prone than peer institutions to perpetuate a culture of silence for fear of reputational damage,” said Dan Heischman, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, by email. “Our schools have certain ‘balances of power’ that can serve as checks to that tendency and serve to encourage victims to come forward.”
Howard White Arraigned
Defrocked priest Howard White, Jr., former associate chaplain of St. George’s School in Rhode Island, was arraigned in Boston on Dec. 13 on five charges of assault and battery.
White, 75, is accused of sexually molesting teenage students of St. George’s during two trips to Boston in 1973. He has been accused of sexual abuse in three other states.
The criminal charges against Howard White Jr., 75, grew out of a Rhode Island State Police investigation into allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct by former faculty and students at the elite prep school in Middletown, R.I., going back to 1970, according to the Suffolk district attorney’s office.
The DA’s office and a civil attorney for three alleged victims said the criminal proceedings are the first they know of to be initiated against White, who lives in Bedford, Pa.
A grand jury indicted White last month on five counts of assault and battery. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Suffolk Superior Court.
Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Audrey Mark said White couldn’t be charged with indecent assault and battery because the law was not on the books at the time of the alleged offenses. The statute of limitations doesn’t apply in this case, prosecutors said, because White never resided in Massachusetts.
White was removed from the priesthood in October by the Bishop Audrey Scanlan of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, where he lives and was canonically resident.
Transparency is encouraged through schools’ relationships with dioceses, as well as reporting commitments and whistleblowing protocols, Heischman said. But those safeguards have not led to a strong track record. Episcopal schools have been among the highest-profile offenders in covering up allegations and abuse.
Last summer, St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island, settled with 29 victims in the largest prep-school abuse case to date. St. George’s internal report identified 26 student victims who were abused by faculty and staff (mostly in the 1970s and ’80s), but an independent investigation by attorney Martin Murphy found a much larger problem. In his 390-page report, more than five dozen students said they had been sexually abused on the cliffside campus: 51 at the hands of faculty and staff, another 10 by classmates. The report said abusers kept them in a “private hell.”
Students suffered “betrayal at the hands of an adult entrusted with their care, at a school where they saw few, if any, places to turn for help,” Murphy’s report said.
In the wake of scandal, St. George’s has been trying to learn from mistakes and adopt best practices, said Suzanne McGrady, the school’s director of communications.
“As our school came to terms with past sexual abuse in our community, we looked closely to see what could have been done differently and, as a result, have taken a number of steps that the independent investigator, Martin Murphy, concluded are ‘a first-rate set of policies, practices, and systems to prevent sexual abuse and to report it when discovered,’” McGrady said by email.
But schools need “a comprehensive look at the issue to help our schools serve students better,” said Myra McGovern, vice president of media at the National Association of Independent Schools. Cover-ups at other Episcopal schools have been part of a pattern that is only now coming to light.
Brooks School, an Episcopal boarding school in North Andover, Massachusetts, paid $300,000 to settle a 1993 case against former admissions officer Lois Poirot, who was accused of engaging in sex with a student, according the Globe. But Brooks did not reveal her history in its recommendation letters. She went on to work at two more private schools in the area.
In August, a private investigation found St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Florida, had failed to comply with Florida’s mandatory reporting law in 2015 when administrators learned a teacher had been hosting sleepovers with students. The report hammered the school for not notifying police. Instead, St. Andrew’s conducted a quiet internal investigation and decided no sexual misconduct had occurred.
“Regardless of the fact that there are no reports to suggest that sexual abuse occurred, senior school administrators took insufficient action to protect students from potential abuse,” St. Andrew’s said in a statement after receiving the report.
The habit of covering up abuse seems to be no worse at Episcopal schools than at other schools, attorney Durso said. But observers are still troubled that institutions dedicated to moral and spiritual formation show no distinct capacity for bringing this kind of evil to light.
“A school should display some kind of higher moral compass that would say, ‘This needs to be confronted, not covered up or enabled,’” said Peter Brooks, a safe-school activist who led a group of Horace Mann School alumni in commissioning a $100,000 report to expose decades of sexual abuse at his alma mater.
“Episcopal schools have an advantage because it is a more grounded and informed moral obligation” than in secular schools, Brooks said. However, he added, “the religious training sets up an authority that may be both a help and a hindrance.”
For an abusive relationship to stop, it must come to light, Brooks said. Victims are often reluctant to confront a respected teacher. In a religious setting, he said, they can be even more intimidated or loathe to report someone revered as a faithful exemplar.
In examining why abuse tends to go unchecked for years in schools, Durso starts by considering who the offenders are. As adults sexually attracted to children, they believe society does not understand them. They take pains to operate in secret, although they believe they are doing nothing wrong. They seek out roles, such as the priesthood or teaching corps, in which they can enjoy trust, respect, and access to children.
When abuse concerns surface and they are either hushed up or handled quietly, Durso said, cultural forces are usually at play. People who work in churches and Christian schools generally believe strongly in the good works their employers do in society, he said. Instinctively, they do all they can to shield their employers from shame or disgrace. Sometimes they cannot believe a colleague in such a setting would be a predator.
Durso said today’s students are more aware of what is not permissible and therefore more apt to report sexual misconduct. But administrators are still reluctant to bring in law enforcement, even when state law requires it, as in the St. Andrew’s case.
“There are a lot of people in education who don’t understand their responsibilities,” Durso said. “They take the easy way out. When a kid goes to a teacher or administrator with one of these issues, it is not uncommon for us to see that the person responds with: ‘This is trouble. I don’t want anything to do with it.’”
Further action is needed to ensure abusive behavior is not accommodated at private schools, according to school associations, lawyers, and activists. Recommendations focus on raising awareness of risks and creating structures to heighten accountability.
Both Durso and Brooks say private schools need a reporting system akin to what public schools have through Title IX provisions. They say students need access to an independent office, not affiliated with their school, where they can bring abuse concerns and not be subject to internal pressures to keep mum in a tight-knit school environment.
Public “schools have Title IX programs or have state reporting requirements,” Durso said. “The private schools, in contrast, are like the Wild West because they don’t have the same types of programs in place to deal with these issues — the reporting programs and the response programs.”
In an attempt to resolve past problems, a number of private boarding schools are asking anyone victimized in decades past to come forward. This gives schools an opportunity to make amends and limit the impact of abusers who might still be at large, even if statutes of limitations apply.
The NAES does not require particular policies at its nearly 1,200 member schools, but it does encourage them to provide Safe Church and Safe School training, Heischman said. Durso agrees that training is crucial for helping personnel assure children’s welfare above all else, even if it means a blemish to a school’s reputation.
Ironically, concerns about liability can sometimes lead to inaction while abuse persists and a school’s liabilities increase. If governing board members did not act when they first learned of allegations, they can be tempted to keep abusive situations under wraps out of fear that they will be sued for negligence. But keeping situations quiet or letting employees go quietly only heightens their culpability, Durso said.
The NAES also encourages schools to stop “passing the trash” by disclosing whether an employee has a history of sexual misconduct. Some states require such disclosures and protect past employers from defamation lawsuits in related cases.
Victims’ advocates acknowledge that schools sometimes hear legal advice to keep quiet about an employee’s history, lest the employee be unable to find a new job and sue for damages. But that advice is problematic, Durso says, because the costs of not disclosing can be far greater. And defamation does not occur if the school’s information is factually correct, such as a disclosure that someone was fired because of allegations.
“There can’t be any defamation for a true statement,” Durso said.