An elite Rhode Island boarding school agreed Thursday to hire a new, independent investigator to look into allegations of sexual abuse made by at least 40 former students covering four decades.
Lawyers for the people who allege they were molested or raped by former school employees and students said they reached an agreement late Thursday with administrators at St. George's School, a $56,000-a-year coeducational, Episcopalian school in Middletown, Rhode Island.
Many of the alleged victims had questioned the thoroughness of the school's first investigation, which was led by the law partner of the school's attorney. In a report last month, the school said that investigation found that 26 students had been sexually abused in the 1970s and '80s by six former employees. The school acknowledged it didn't report abusers to authorities at the time and apologized for not doing more.
Since then, Massachusetts lawyers Eric MacLeish and Carmen Durso said they have heard from at least 40 people who say they were abused by former staffers and students at the prep school.
Victims hailed the school's agreement to hire a third-party investigator that must be approved by both sides. Rhode Island State Police also are conducting a separate investigation.
"Today's decision is a very important first step in what we hope will be a process of reconciliation and healing," said Anne Scott, a 1980 graduate of St. George's who said she was repeatedly assaulted over a 2-year period by the school's former athletic trainer. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they were victims of sex crimes. But Scott has spoken publicly about the allegations at a news conference and on a TV news programs.
Leslie Heaney, chair of the school's board of trustees, said the school is committed to "truly impartial investigation."
"There is nothing more important to us than that the review be thorough and exhaustive, and that its findings are found to be reliable and credible by all parties, particularly the victims," Heaney said in a prepared statement.
The widening scandal at St. George's has also had repercussions in the Episcopal church.
On Wednesday, a priest was suspended from a Pennsylvania church after being accused this week of molesting three boys at St. George's.
The Rev. Howard White has not been charged with a crime, and did not return a phone message left Thursday at his home by The Associated Press. He told The New York Times on Tuesday that the allegations were "news to me." Asked by the newspaper if he had been fired because of the accusations, he said, "That isn't really true." He told The Boston Globe he had no comment.
A retired priest, White has been serving as a long-term, fill-in pastor at St. James Episcopal Church in Bedford, about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Episcopal officials moved swiftly after his name surfaced, saying he would be subjected to church discipline.
"I have moved to immediately restrict Fr. White's ministry and to provide for the pastoral care of the congregation that he currently serves," Bishop Audrey Scanlan of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania wrote in a letter published on the diocese's website Wednesday.
She said she has not received any reports of abuse at St. James.
Under the terms of his 90-day administrative leave, which is renewable, he is not permitted to wear priestly garb, perform any clerical functions or hold himself out as an Episcopal priest, Scanlan said in an interview Thursday.
The school's report said that an employee later identified by victims' lawyers as White was fired in 1974 after he admitted to inappropriate conduct with a male student. It added the school's investigation "determined the employee had inappropriate and potentially sexual contact with at least three male students, including sharing a bed and trying to touch students in bed.
A biography of White on St. James' website said he was also on the faculty of St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and went on to serve in leadership positions at private schools in Virginia and North Carolina before becoming rector of a church in Waynesville, North Carolina. He stayed at Grace Church in the Mountains for 22 years.
Ordained 50 years ago last month, White has been leading the tiny St. James congregation in worship each Sunday since retiring to Bedford in 2007.
Rubinkam reported from Allentown, Pa., Lavoie reported from Boston.