BERNARDS — An investigation by a prestigious private school in Somerset County found at least 27 former students who said they were molested by a beloved teacher and administrator years before he was convicted in New Jersey and then again in New York for similar crimes involving other children.

The report also reveals new allegations of sexual abuse against other former teachers at the school.

In shocking detail, the report recounts numerous instances where sexual abuse was taking place within the school during the 1960s and '70s.

The report also says that while teachers and administrators may not have been directly aware of sexual abuse allegations, it was common knowledge that former teacher and scoutmaster Thad Alton behaved inappropriately and gave certain adults "pause" about his actions. 

Even when word got out that Alton had been accused of molesting boys, some parents of Pingry students were encouraged not to press charges and to let their children forget their abuse, they recalled decades later in interviews with private investigators hired by the school's attorneys.

"We want to extend a profound apology to our community," headmaster Nathaniel E. Conrad and Jeffrey N. Edwards said Tuesday in a statement about the results of the report. "We were heartsick to learn the extent of his pattern of abuse."

Victims, meanwhile, welcomed the report's release.

"We are pleased that the Pingry School commissioned an investigation and glad they have released their findings," The Pingry Survivors said Tuesday.

"We believe that healing from the abuse we suffered – and preventing future abuse – requires that the Pingry community be given a complete picture of what happened and how it was allowed to happen.  We will be carefully reviewing this report in the days ahead.

"We hope that revealing the truth about abuse at Pingry will serve as a first step in the healing process – for ourselves and for our community, and we remain hopeful that we can find a way forward through a collaborative process to address the past and to create a safer Pingry for future generations."

Two years ago, several victims formed The Pingry Survivors support and advocacy group, which conducted its own investigation that spoke to 150 witnesses.

After the group released their report last year, the school sent a letter to current families of the Pingry School in Basking Ridge and alumni and trustees after they became aware that several students were sexually abused by Alton between 1972 and 1978. He had worked at the Short Hills Country School prior to a merger of the two schools in 1974.

After he left the school, he was charged a year later by prosecutors in Essex County on charges of molesting 12-year-old boys, who also had been his students, during a scouting trip in which they played strip poker. He pleaded guilty in 1980 and was sentenced to probation after a psychologist determined that he was not a compulsive sex offender.

He got a job in 1981 at a university in upstate New York, where he continued to work with children with a kayaking club he started. And the abuse continued.

In 1989, he was charged with molestation and sodomy charges in two New York counties on allegations that he fondled two 14- and 15-year-old boys who were part of his kayaking club, raping a 12-year-old boy and fondling a 10-year-old boy. He also admitted to having sexual contact with boys two years earlier, but was not charged with that. In 1990 he pleaded guilty to the charges from one county in exchange for the rest of the charges being dropped and was sentenced up to six years in prison. After he was released in 1995, he was forced to register as sex offender in New York.

After more of his victims came to light recently, Pingry's attorneys hired T&M Protection Services to conduct an investigation into the allegations. The consultants interviewed 74 witnesses over the course of 10 months before publicly releasing their 44-page report this week. They did not speak with Alton, who has not been charged with any new crimes.

The students interacted with Alton in his capacity as teacher, coach, and administrator; as camp counselor at Camp Waganaki; and as scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 64. The abuse took place in New Jersey, New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The report said that Alton assaulted students in his office during and after school and on weekends in a variety of locations including the school gym, the girls locker room, the home of his in-laws and in his own Pingry-owned home when his wife and children were present.

Victims said the incidents of assault took place individually and in groups when he invited boys to his office where he would show them pornographic movies and magazines and play games of "truth or dare."

Many victims told the private investigators that they felt Alton's behavior was their own fault.

"He was the good guy that any student could go to. He was kind of that fatherly brother-friend who came across as if he could relate to you at your level. He was the head of the Boy Scout troop, which was one of the most successful Boy Scout troops in New Jersey, Troop 64," one student told investigators.

The report revealed that after Alton left Pingry, at least one board member learned of allegations against Alton which ultimately led to Alton's arrest in the fall of 1979. The school did not notify all parents or faculty at that time.

While the abuse was happening, the boys never reported it to adults, the report said. Now adults, the victims said they never talked about what happened among themselves and pretended like it didn't happen. Only one of the victims investigators spoke to said he admitted what happened to his parents after Alton's 1979 arrest.

At the same time, the abuse was an open secret and boys teased each other about who would get to spend a night in Alton's camping tent, where sexual play with Alton was routine.

Many of the boys simply didn't know what was happening. One victim, who experienced the sexual play with other scouts and Alton in his tent, came to believe that what they were doing "was part of Boy Scouts."

“We just didn’t know how wrong it was," the report quotes one victim as saying. "All we knew was it felt good.”

“It is well-known and well-documented that child victims of abuse, especially sexual abuse, rarely report their abuse while they are still children,” the report says.

Among the reasons for this, are “fear that they will not be believed, embarrassment about what has transpired, fear they will get in trouble, and a lack of understanding that what is happening is sexual abuse. These reasons are often compounded when the abuser is someone in a position of authority and/or respect in their community.”

The report found “that were we indicators of unusual behavior by Alton while a Pingry employee" and that teachers where aware of shady activity, such as Alton often locking himself up in his windowless office with young boys.

Several teachers also were aware that his scouts had played strip poker, but they told investigators that they didn't believe he had been involved in the games, saying they were "naive" and that the boys didn't act like they were abused by "shying away from him." On the contrary, most boys looked up to Alton and followed him like a "Pied Piper," as one former teacher put it.

At the campground, teenage counselors-in-training said they were alarmed by his tent activities with the boys, which they did not see, and tried to report him to the camp's administrator. But before they had the chance, they said Alton phoned ahead and claimed that the teens had smoked pot and shoplifted from a store. As a result, the administrator didn't believe them.

The report cites one parent who remembers a parent meeting at Pingry at which a psychiatrist encouraged them not to press charges, reasoning that it would be better to let the children forget the abuse rather than dragging them into a courtroom. Other parents also admitted to investigators that they did not want their children named in lawsuits or asked to testify.

The school's March 2016 letter asked for students and staff to report abuse by Alton or anyone else to the investigators from T&M Protection Resources.

Accusations were made against Bruce Bohrer, a wood shop teacher at Pingry's Short Hills campus between 1974 and 1991, that he sexually abused at least four 10-and-11 year old boys.

In one instance, another teacher caught Bohrer pulling down a boy's pants in front of the class. She scolded him but did not report it to administrators.

The report says investigators turned over their findings to law enforcement.

The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office did not immediately return a request for comment. New Jersey 101.5 could not locate Boherer in order to ask for his response.

Longtime-faculty member Antoine du Bourg was accused of inappropriate physical contact with multiple students during his 46-year tenure at Pingry. Du Bourg left the school in 2002 and passed away in 2011.

Child abuse in New Jersey can be reported by calling 1-877-652-2873) or, if a child is in immediate danger, call 911.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com.

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