Why Do Sexual Abuse Scandals Keep Happening in Rhode Island?

For years, trusted coaches and priests in Rhode Island schools and churches were accused of child sexual abuse and innapropriate behavior. Why does it keep happening?
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Photo Illustration: Getty Images and Emily Rietzel.

It was just after ten on a Sunday night, and Fred was propped up in bed, catching up on the news. Wife and child asleep, the house was quiet and dark, save for the small pool of blue light from his phone.

One of the biggest headlines on April 22, 2018, was about convicted pedophile Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team. He had recently been sentenced to two consecutive essentially life sentences in Michigan state courts for sexually assaulting girls, and Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney was publicly recounting her eight-year nightmare at his hands, beginning when she was just thirteen years old. The story described how over decades, Nassar successfully seduced an entire community into accepting his molestation as legitimate medical treatment as he abused more than 500 victims.

Fred (a pseudonym for an individual who requested anonymity) was in his early thirties, more than a dozen years removed from his days as a North Kingstown Skipper. But, as he read on, he felt a strange energy spread throughout his body.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he recalls. “The wheels started turning. There were so many parallels.”

He immediately sent a text to his high school buddies about the article.

“Got me thinking about the body fat tests from coach Thomas. I just Googled where calipers were supposed to be used to measure body fat and there was absolutely no reason for us to be naked.”

For four years, once a quarter, Fred says he willingly stripped down for coach Aaron Thomas in his office in the communications lab as a closed-circuit camera monitored the hallway outside. Thomas allegedly pinched the skin of his arms, his waist and his inner thigh by his testicles with plastic calipers. Sometimes, Fred says, he performed nude stretches or did a duck walk at Thomas’s request. The test was clothes-optional — according to two internal reports prepared on behalf of the North Kingstown School Committee, Thomas prefaced this regimen by asking if the boy was “shy or not shy.” He was an incredibly popular teacher and successful basketball coach, so for North Kingstown athletes, these tests — an open secret among them — fell somewhere between a rite of passage and an honor.

“If you were asked to do the test, you were perceived as an elite athlete. I was excited to do it. I thought, ‘I’m on his radar now,’” he says. “After high school, it was a running joke with my friends.”

Suddenly, it didn’t seem funny to Fred at all, and by the fall of 2021, the whole town knew.

In June 2018, Fred reported his experiences to the state police and the North Kingstown Police. He aired his concerns on social media. That September, another former student told then Superintendent Philip Auger about his fat-testing experiences. But according to the two internal reviews, neither the police nor Auger shared these allegations with the other.

The dominoes didn’t start to fall until February 2021, when Auger, braced by reports from other former students, launched internal investigations and informed police. In June 2021, Thomas resigned after the School Committee voted to terminate him and briefly found another job. That October, the news of the reported naked fat-testing broke. Auger and Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri resigned in March. More allegations surfaced that Thomas touched some boys as a “hernia” or “puberty check.” In August, Thomas pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree sexual assault and second-degree child molestation. He has adamantly denied any wrongdoing. Thomas’ case has yet to go to trial, but the district now faces multiple lawsuits and investigations over the behavior of three coaches.

This year, the state has been rocked by a series of child sexual abuse scandals in the schools and Catholic Church. Besides Thomas, a Davisville Middle School coach was placed on paid administrative leave after he was accused of stalking and harassing one young girl and displaying sexually charged behavior toward others, reportedly inviting them to twerk at a school dance and having them run in their sports bras during practice. A group of middle school boys was so disturbed by what they saw, they reportedly began to log his behavior as potential evidence. Another North Kingstown High School girls’ coach was suspended after students accused him of inappropriate touching and remarks about their bodies.

In February, the Diocese of Providence removed two priests from ministry. Pastor Francis C. Santilli of St. Philip Parish in Greenville was placed on administrative leave after multiple allegations of sexual abuse. The diocese also removed Father Eric Silva from church assignments in Barrington and, later, in Narragansett after parents in Cranston and Barrington alleged that he asked their children questions about their sexual orientation and activity during confession, reportedly accusing them of lying if they denied being gay or sexually active.

In response, the General Assembly added several new abuse amendments to the books. Among them: It is now a felony for a parent or guardian to place a child in their care at substantial risk of serious physical and sexual harm. Another creates a third-degree sexual assault charge against any person of authority over the age of eighteen who has any sexual contact with a child between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. The law previously only covered sexual penetration.

“I couldn’t believe there was such a loophole,” says lead sponsor Senator Jessica de la Cruz (R–Burrillville, Glocester and North Smithfield). In her opinion, “a fourteen- or sixteen-year-old can’t consent to sexual contact with an adult.”

State Representative Julie Casimiro (D-North Kingstown, Exeter), a lead or co-sponsor of several of these bills, says the Thomas case underscores their importance.

“I knew my community needed this,” she says. “I have been knocking on doors since April 16, and no one is bringing up any state issues — every comment is about the School Committee and the school department. We have a terrible situation. Why wasn’t this stopped?”

One bill that didn’t pass, sponsored by state Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (D-Narragansett, South Kingstown), would have eliminated the time limit on when a victim of child sexual abuse can file a civil lawsuit against a perpetrator or the institution alleged to have enabled the abuse. The current 2019 law, also sponsored by McEntee, extended the time limit for such suits to thirty-five years after reaching adulthood — plaintiffs now have up to age fifty-three to sue individuals and institutions they allege to have harmed them as a child. They have seven years from the reasonable time of discovery as well. 

Under the old law, says Hagan McEntee, “if victims didn’t come forward until they’re twenty-five, it was too late. We need to pass bills that have teeth and relate to the reality of what people go through before they go to the courts.”

Establishing legal accountability is helpful, say experts, but so few child abuse cases ever reach that point.

“We do know from research, there are a minimum of 45 to 55 million adult survivors of child abuse, but we’re not getting millions of reports per year sent to law enforcement or Child Protective Services,” says Robert Geffner, psychologist and president of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma. “It’s part of the culture of silence. People are ashamed, afraid, confused, so they don’t report. We’ve had mandated reporting laws for decades, but we still aren’t getting many mandated reporters to report.” (In Rhode Island, all adults are mandated reporters.)

When abuse victims do report, often, they are not believed. Part of that is a lingering backlash from the McMartin preschool scandal of the 1980s, when the owners and staff of a California preschool were accused of sexually molesting hundreds of children. The methods used to interview the children were controversial and raised questions about the witnesses’ credibility. Seven years of investigation and trials resulted in no convictions. The debacle led to the establishment of professional investigation and interviewing protocols, but it set back the notion that children were truthful reporters, says University of Michigan Professor Emerita Kathleen Coulborn Faller, a child welfare researcher who sits on a federal commission to investigate Larry Nassar.

“We have a system that’s not child-supportive. It is suspect-supportive,” she says. “Under-reaction is quite common.”

In the Thomas case, a former student reportedly told Superintendent Auger in September 2018 that he wore nothing but a towel during the testing; Thomas vigorously denied any student was ever naked. According to two separate internal reviews conducted on behalf of the School Committee, Auger did not pursue further investigation. Instead, he supplied the coach with a $5,000 electronic body composition analyzer and directed Thomas to cease testing kids alone behind closed doors. Parents and students have alleged that their complaints about the other two coaches went unheeded for years.

In the Santilli case, the first known allegation of misconduct was reported in 2012, followed by another in 2014. The Diocese of Providence deemed the adult reporters noncredible.

Victims often aren’t believed because abusers have the trust of the adults around them. For example, says Coulborn Faller, Nassar did a lot of volunteer work; abusive priests often did favors for their colleagues, such as covering a Mass. “People have been trained on the grooming of victims but not necessarily on grooming the community,” she says.

In 2012, the diocese described Santilli as “exemplary.” Thomas’ peers held him in high regard and deemed the allegations “out of character” with the man they knew. Bishop Thomas Tobin called Silva “a fine priest.” Ultimately, this disconnect is so powerful, the adult community doesn’t or can’t believe the reports that such an upstanding person could harm children.

Megan Reilly, a mom of three children in the North Kingstown school system, was so outraged by the news she created a Facebook group, Fixing a Broken System, to share news about the Thomas case and other allegations of staff misconduct.

“A lot of people just didn’t believe it, didn’t want to hear it,” she says. “They tore me apart online. They said that I was trying to take him down. I was public enemy number one until all these investigations and all these people began to resign, and then people started to take it seriously.”

“People still have a stereotypical view of who a child abuser is, and it is not their neighbor, their coach or their priest,” Geffner says. “So, when a child discloses, the mind automatically clicks into denial, and that affects all our systems of care — Child Protective Services, law enforcement, the courts. Only 18 percent of reports are substantiated, so people say abuse is declining. I don’t think so. I think it’s a bias in the system.

“We’ve gotten better in public awareness, and recognizing inappropriate behavior,” he says. “But we have not gotten significantly better at doing something  about it.” 

Ann Hagan Webb, a spokesperson for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, whose own childhood experiences prompted the legislation of her sister, Carol McEntee, says the Catholic Church has made no significant progress, despite defrocking hundreds of priests and paying billions in settlements worldwide. Pope Francis’ 2014 Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was so toothless, the two survivor members quit, she says. Pope Francis scrapped plans for a tribunal to hold bishops accountable, a year after he announced it.

“Their PR machine is really good,” she says. “But behind the scenes they work to discredit victims. They don’t mind if criminal laws change, but for changes in the civil laws, they use everything in their toolbox to protect their money. We’ve had lawmakers tell us to our face, I won’t support that — I’ll lose the Catholic vote.”

The Diocese of Providence declined to answer any specific questions about its actions, but North Kingstown has vowed to do better. This fall, it launched an app to keep all athlete-coach communications within official channels and began conducting extensive training with adult staff and students on child abuse reporting and Title IX, as well as anti-bias and anti-discrimination. The district also created a new assistant athletic director/trainer position for additional oversight.

“Our first priority is to protect the safety and security of each and every student,” says Interim Superintendent Michael Waterman.

In June 2018, Fred walked out of the police station a little lighter.

“I was sure they were going to go right to the school and march coach Thomas out in handcuffs. I deliberately waited, because his son was graduating — I didn’t want to embarrass the kid,” he says. But he didn’t anticipate waiting three years.

“Think about it — a fourteen-year-old boy, naked, alone with a teacher in a school building. What more did you need to know?”

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Ellen Liberman is an award-winning journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades.