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Alumni wonder why reverend is still out at Phillips Exeter

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 18. 2017 11:29PM
Robert Thompson 

Phillips Exeter Academy alumni with ties to long-serving school minister Robert Thompson intensified criticism of their former school last week following media disclosures that two deans escaped prosecution or internal consequences for failure to report possible child abuse.

They see a double standard. While Thompson, a Phillips Exeter alumnus who devoted his life to the school, languishes for 16 months on paid leave, the deans continue to work and received the backing of the administration.

“The only person who’s been punished on this is Rev. Thompson,” said Bruce Bernstein, correspondent for Thompson’s Class of 1972.

Phillips Exeter spokesman Robin Giampa confirmed that Thompson is on paid leave from his job as school minister. An interim minister has been named, she said.

“Out of respect for the privacy of those involved, we don’t disclose personnel actions, nor do we discuss open or ongoing employee reviews,” Giampa said.

To those outside Phillips Exeter, the Rev. Thompson comes off as the naive minister who, according to the Boston Globe, encouraged a popular male student to bake bread as a show of penance to a female student who alleged that he groped her in the basement of the Phillips Exeter chapel.

Within days of the July 2016 article, they say, Thompson was barred from the campus and remains on paid leave. He is unable to defend himself publicly under terms of his suspension.

His classmates claim he is being used as a scapegoat for the actions committed by Phillips Exeter and its two deans in the complicated matter of a student-on-student incident in 2015. It has sparked an ongoing saga of allegations, doubt and second guessing:

• The girl, who was 17 at the time, discussed the situation with an adviser and the two deans.

• Thompson met with the students in an effort at reconciliation.

• Police arrested the male student, Chukwudi Ikpeazu, on misdemeanor assault charges.

• The Boston Globe reported the matter, extensively quoting the woman, Michaella Henry.

• Rockingham County Attorney Patricia Conway dropped the charge against Ikpeazu.

Then last week, a document surfaced showing that New Hampshire State Police drafted arrest warrants against the two deans — Arthur Cosgrove and Melissa Mischke — that charged them with failing to report the potential abuse to state officials.

Conway later opted not to bring charges; Attorney General Gordon MacDonald is reviewing that decision.

“They (the school administration) has a lot of stake in making Bobby (Thompson) the fall guy. They’re in trouble,” said Joyce Maynard, an author and 1971 Phillips Exeter graduate.

“It’s a grave injustice,” said Bernstein, a New York City hospital administrator. “The school has to release the gag order and let him speak.”

Once the New York Times and New Hampshire Union Leader reported that the deans did not inform state authorities about the possible sexual assault of a minor, Phillips Exeter issued a statement in defense of the deans. The deans released their own statement, too.

But 16 months after placing Thompson on leave, school administrators have said nothing.

“It seems the academy has rushed to the defense of the deans, which might or might not be right, but they’ve never defended Reverend Thompson,” Bernstein said.

In the class notes section of the school’s annual bulletin, the six class officers wrote they are dismayed by Thompson’s suspended status and called on the administration to resolve the matter promptly.

Another 84 members of the 1972 class endorsed the statement, including GAP clothing chairman Robert Fisher, political scientist Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, authors Josh Gidding and Eben Alexander, and Case Western law professor Juliet Kostritsky.

To Bernstein and Maynard, Thompson has been pilloried unfairly for the suggestion of baking bread. His job wasn’t to investigate or discipline a student for inappropriate behavior. As an ordained AME Zion minister, Thompson saw his job as reconciling the tension between two students, Bernstein said.

“He is all about redemption,” Bernstein said.

The two say Thompson never asked about the specifics of the transgression. A 2016 state police report obtained last week seems to spell that out. Although state police interviewed Thompson about the matter, the investigator did not draw up charges against him. The file provided to the Union Leader does not detail what Thompson told the troopers.

Maynard, who said she has spoken to Thompson about the matter, said the idea of baking bread came from the female victim. Ikpeazu was known around campus for baking and selling monkey bread, Maynard said.

The victim kept asking for more bread, which made Ikpeazu uncomfortable and he eventually stopped, Maynard said.

Previous media reports have faulted Thompson for allowing the bread exchange to take place because it made the victim feel uncomfortable.

Michaella Henry could not be reached for comment.

The New Hampshire Union Leader has filed a Right-to-Know request with Patricia Conway for the closed-case file, given the continued repercussions of the case. She has yet to acknowledge the request.

Maynard said bread should be taken in the context of the Bible, where breaking bread and communion are symbolic in acts of coming together and putting aside differences.

Bernstein said hundreds of students made it through Phillips Exeter with Thompson’s support. Maynard said that Thompson, a tall man with a booming voice, provided a nurturing presence at the school. And he performed numerous weddings, funerals and baptisms for alumni.

“The man with the biggest and most powerful voice I have ever known,” Maynard said, “has been silenced for a year and a half.”

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