Sex offender taught at elite Philly prep school for decades; two ex-students allege abuse

Chestnut Hill Academy teacher Frank Thomson in the hall outside his classroom, circa 1975. .

Mr. Thomson drove a red MG. Sometimes he had his big shaggy dog with him in the sports car. He played piano at school musicals and coached wrestling, too. He took boys on ski trips and for overnight stays at his Cape May beach house. They thought he was fun.

By the accounts of two of his former students, math teacher Frank “Sandy” Thomson IV was also a sexual predator while teaching in the 1970s at the elite Chestnut Hill Academy.

The men are speaking out now that Thomson, 69, has pleaded guilty to two felonies in Cape May County, confessing to police that after his retirement from 26 years of teaching in Chestnut Hill, he molested a teenage boy in a Shore community and was grooming another boy there for sex.

The headmaster of the private school on Wednesday emailed a letter about Thomson’s New Jersey convictions to alumni and asked them to contact the school with any concerns. The letter was sent after 15 months of pressure from a 1980 alumnus.  

“In the modern world of independent schools, we just want to be transparent,” Steve  Druggan, headmaster of the 1,000-student academy, said Tuesday. “We have alums who may or may not be aware of this issue, and we want to be up front.”

The alert said the school “has not received any reports of misconduct by Mr. Thomson related to any students of SCH.”

But in interviews, two men, both now in their 50s, said they were abused by Thomson while teenage students at the school in the 1970s.

One of the men said that after he told his father he had been touched inappropriately by Thomson during a wrestling session, his father "hit the ceiling," and met with the school’s athletic director and the master of its Upper School to tell them he was outraged.  

School officials say there is no reference to such a meeting in Thomson’s personnel file – indeed, no complaints of any kind.

The other man said he never said a word to anyone about the abuse in part because Thomson had ingratiated himself with his family. “I never told my parents because they were such good friends with Frank, and it would have felt like a betrayal,” the man said.

Thomson did not respond to phone calls and a note requesting comment left at his Cape May home.  His lawyer, Joseph J. Rodgers, also did not return calls.

Thomson taught at what was then known as Chestnut Hill Academy from 1972, when he was 24, until 1998, when he retired. The school in those years was for boys only. 

That changed in 2011 when it merged with a nearby girls’ school and adopted its current name, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Springside Chestnut Hill Academy emailed a letter to alumni about Frank "Sandy" Thomson's New Jersey convictions.
 

In the South Jersey criminal cases, authorities say police confronted Thomson in July 2015 after an adult grew suspicious about his interactions with an 11-year-old boy at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Cape May.

Thomson, who owns a house on Windsor Avenue three blocks from the beach in Cape May,  was the treasurer of the club. He also volunteered with a local Boy Scout troop.

Thomson confessed that he had been grooming the boy for three months, prosecutors said.  Among other things, he gave the boy a cellphone and promised him a motorized scooter. 

He freely admitted that he had been manipulating the boy for a future sexual relationship.

As for the boy, he told police that Thomson was “nice,” and had been a help to his family.

Not only did Thomson admit the grooming, authorities say,  he also volunteered that 15 years before he had sexual contact with another teenager whom he also plied with gifts. 

Prosecutors say that  in 2001, the boy twice slept in the same building as Thomson and was jarred during the night to find the retired teacher touching his penis.  The boy, who confirmed the assaults in interviews with police, pretended to be asleep during the molestations.

Police arrested Thomson within two weeks of the tip. Last October, Thomson pleaded guilty to two New Jersey felonies — child endangerment for the grooming victim and aggravated sexual contact for the other victim.

He is to be sentenced Feb. 3.  Prosecutors are seeking to imprison him for a year and put him under parole supervision for 15 years. He could also be listed in  New Jersey’s sex-offender registry. Thomson, who has been working as a emergency medical technician for Cape May City, has been free after putting up his Cape May house as collateral for $200,000 bail.

'This guy is a predator'

During his quarter-century in Chestnut Hill,  the mustachioed Thomson was thought to be an excellent teacher, good at explaining math concepts. He was an outdoorsy extrovert, a class adviser, a man with a knack for relating to students.  At times, the unmarried Thomson would provide rides to youngsters on his way to school from his home in Bala Cynwyd.

“A nice guy,” Barnaby Roberts, the school’s headmaster in the 1980s, said Tuesday.

“When I heard the news, I was totally amazed. Sad,” Roberts said.  As for any suggestion of misconduct, Roberts said there was “not a rumor, not a mention of it.”

While the furor over abuse within the Catholic Church grew into an international phenomenon in the last two decades, the problem has troubled other institutions as well.  Last year, the Boston Globe published a series of news reports about abuse at more than 60 New England private schools.    

In this region, prosecutors began investigating past abuse at the Solebury School in Bucks County after the private school in 2014 put out a public letter acknowledging and apologizing for sexual mistreatment of students by faculty several decades earlier.

In Thomson’s case, the incidents recounted took place in the 1970s, his first decade at the school.

Both men who leveled the allegations asked not to be named in this account.  The Inquirer and Daily News do not identify alleged victims of sexual crimes  without their permission.

One of the incidents was recounted by a Philadelphia businessman, now 54.  He said that in 1977, when he was 15 and in ninth grade,  Thomson grabbed his genitals while coaching him in wrestling.  The man said he had been wrestling for six years at that point and had never had anyone before touch him in that way.

He found it troubling enough to tell his father, a lawyer, who demanded a meeting with James McGlinn, the athletic director, and Owen Boyer, the headmaster of the Upper School.

“This guy is a predator,”  the businessman said his father told McGlinn and Boyer. “Keep this guy away from my son.”

Thomson was not at the meeting but had told the school officials the complaint was groundless.

“They said that Frank said that was an inconsequential contact,” the businessman said. “Frank denied that there was any inappropriate conduct, saying it was the guise of wrestling instruction.”

Afterward, the boy quit the wrestling team and had few dealings with Thomson, who remained a wrestling coach.

Druggan, appointed headmaster of the pre-K through 12th-grade school in July, said Thomson’s file contained no mention of the complaint. Today, he said, “best practice would lead to documentation of something like that.”

McGlinn, Boyer, and the man’s father are dead.

A 'friend of the family'

In another case, a New England man who attended Chestnut Hill Academy for five years in the 1970s said that Thomson twice abused him during sleepovers two years apart. His narrative resembles the police accounts in the Cape May incidents.

In the first episode, in 1976,  Thomson took as many as eight students on a skiing trip to Jiminy Peak in western Massachusetts, 250 miles from Philadelphia. The boys slept in sleeping bags on cots set up dormitory style in a big house nearby, owned by a Thomson friend.

The man said Thomson bunked down in the cot next to him.

“I woke up in the middle of the night to the sensation that someone was stroking my genitals,” the man said. “I woke and it was Frank. He kind of  recoiled back into his sleeping bag like nothing had happened.”

The man told no one about this first episode. He said that his parents liked Thomson and that he was afraid speaking out might jeopardize his enrollment. He said his family was far less wealthy than many others and struggled to pay the high tuition.

Thomson had become especially tight with his father, meeting him through a booster organization for Chestnut Hill Academy sports. His father even was present on one of the Shore trips, a class trip for the entire 10th grade.

Thomson “was the kind of guy who became a very close friend of the family,” the man said.

Beyond all that, the man said, there was “a dichotomy” to Frank.  While he was a molester, the man recalled, “he was a good teacher, and he was friendly and nice and all that good stuff.”

He said the second episode of abuse took place in 1978, when he and a classmate from Philadelphia stayed at Thomson's Cape May house.

In retrospect, the man said,  he finds it ominous that at a lunch during the stay Thomson told stories with sexual overtones to his teenage companions. One evening, he said, Thomson asked who would sleep in the other bed in his room. Again, he said he was awoken by Thomson touching his genitals. Again, the man said, Thomson “recoils instantly.”

And again, he kept silent. “The weird thing was I didn’t feel violated," he said, recounting his reaction at the time. "I just felt sorry for him, that this was a weird, sad thing.”

After hearing of Thomson’s arrest in 2015, he contacted the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office to tell authorities there of his experience.  He said prosecutors didn’t follow up, concluding that the statute of limitations barred any case. 

Dara Paley, Cape May County assistant prosecutor,  this week urged anyone who might have had troubling contact with Thomson to contact her office.

Earlier warning letter

The school also sent a similar warning  letter to a small group of alumni in 2015 about a teacher accused of abusing students while working there between 1968 to 1972. The letter, sent to alums who had attended school during those years, identified the abusive teacher as Mike Clifford, now dead.  

The letter revealed that the school fired Clifford in 1972 after he was accused of sexual misconduct with “one or more students.”   The school apparently never reported the abuse allegations to the police or the school community at the time.

In an interview Tuesday, alumnus Clark Hindelang, 61, said Clifford sexually assaulted him twice, leading him to "years and years of drug and alcohol abuse." Hindelang, now a social-studies teacher in Atlantic City, said his pressure on the school led it to send the 2015 letter.

With the letter about Thomson to alumni and parents, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy acted after months of lobbying from Mike Hill, 56, a 1980 graduate and investment manager. Hill is a son of Louis Hill, a now-deceased state senator from Chestnut Hill who once ran for mayor against Frank L. Rizzo. 

Soon after learning of Thomson’s New Jersey arrest in 2015, Hill asked his old school's interim headmaster to alert alumni. In an email reply, the headmaster extolled the current procedures for handling such complaints but was silent about alerting the school community.

Hill persisted, contacting Druggan after he was hired last summer. Druggan said he could not explain the delay before he became headmaster but added that he moved as quickly as possible, but “it took us a while to get the facts.” 

Hill, whose said his own dealings with Thomson as a student were unremarkable, said an alert was crucial to spur more investigation and to help people heal. 

“There could be other people impacted by this guy,” Hill said. “You’ve got to do the right thing. And the right thing is to let people know.”

cmccoy@phillynews.com
215-313-6813 

@CraigRMcCoy

Staff writer Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.