Communities React to Charges against Educator As Protests Hit Schools

By Mark Spivey
January 3, 2012|head

Kevin Waldrip (left) offers parents a leaflet as Robert Hoatson, president and co-founder of Road to Recovery Inc., holds signs Tuesday outside Bernardsville Middle School, where Patrick J. Lott serves as an assistant principal. / Karen Mancinelli/FOR NJ PRESS MEDIA

Some glared angrily in the direction of the small handful of protesters handing out pamphlets urging them to support legislation to lift the statute of limitation in civil cases of child sex abuse and to expand the definition of who’s liable in those cases. Some smiled broadly and even gave the protesters a thumbs-up. Some leaned out of their vehicles to shout a condemnation, critique or words of support.

To be sure, the range of emotions exhibited by parents filing out of the Bernardsville Middle School parking lot Tuesday afternoon was nothing short of staggering.

But vastly outnumbering any of those categories were those who simply rolled down their car windows and accepted a pamphlet. Hunger for reliable information, after all, remains a prevalent sentiment after the school’s assistant principal, Patrick J. Lott, was arrested nearly two weeks ago and charged with videotaping students showering in the locker rooms of Immaculata High School in Somerville, where Lott has served as a dedicated volunteer for years.

“I didn’t even know he volunteered at Immaculata,” said Tony Sisto, a 53-year-old resident of the Peapack section of Peapack-Gladstone and the father of girls in the fifth and eighth grades at the middle school. “It’s so devastating to these children to trust a guy like that when something like this happens.”

Sisto described Lott as an administrator who just about everyone affiliated with the school knew well, a product of a particularly gregarious personality and a routine of coming outside each morning to greet students as they arrived. Sisto said he “felt really bad” for Lott when he first heard the news, assuming that the allegations were false, but admitted that he changed his mind once he read about the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office investigation into the matter — a probe that so far has produced a total of more than 50 criminal charges and a bail set at $500,000.

“I feel that he’s guilty,” Sisto said. “There’s a lot of evidence. … And I don’t think he’s going to be back.”

Supporters of Road to Recovery Inc., a nonprofit charity that assists sexual abuse victims and their families and friends, outside Bernardsville Middle School Tuesday. / Karen Mancinelli/FOR NJ PRESS MEDIA

Others still said they’re giving Lott the benefit of the doubt.

“I think there are two sides to the story. … And I don’t want to judge anybody just yet,” said Maria Wagner of Lambertville, who identified herself as the caretaker of a 12-year-old student at the school. “But if it’s true what they say, it’s too bad.

“I thought he was fantastic,” Wagner said of Lott’s performance as an administrator, and added that news of the allegations immediately caused her to ask, “Are we talking about the same person?”

Robert Hoatson, co-founder and president of Road to Recovery Inc., a Garden State nonprofit charity that assists sexual abuse victims and their families, started Tuesday at Immaculata and ended it at the middle school in the affluent Somerset Hills suburb of nearly 8,000 people. A former priest with the Archdiocese of Newark who for years has been critical of the Catholic Church’s response to child sex abuse scandals across the state, Hoatson and a handful of fellow protesters said they also gathered to raise awareness of such cases and to urge people to be vigilant about reporting them.

The message did not resonate with everyone.

“You don’t know this community!” one woman in a dark blue winter coat yelled at Hoatson and Kevin Waldrip of Woodbridge when they tried to explain why they were there. “This is not our fault, and it’s not the kids’ fault!”

The woman declined to identify herself by name but said she was the mother of a boy and girl who attended the school.

“We’ve had enough to deal with here,” agreed a second woman who rolled down the window of her Volkswagen to address Hoatson directly as a handful of luxury sport-utility vehicles stopped behind her.

The tense exchanges were monitored by police officers manning three marked patrol cars parked outside the school, while an officer in a fourth, unmarked car asked members of the media to keep off school property.

The group’s reception arguably was even more chilly in Somerville Tuesday morning, where Hoatson said a man wearing a Catholic priest’s distinctive white collar angrily asked him whether they planned to travel down to Washington, D.C., to protest a woman’s right to have an abortion. An Immaculata parent wearing hospital scrubs later demanded to know whether Hoatson and his fellow protesters were employed, then accused them of harassing students by being there, Hoatson recalled.

“Still, there were a lot of thumbs up (in Somerville),” Hoatson added, holding a loud yellow placard that read “Protect kids, not pervs.” “A lot more than I thought we’d get.”

Several Immaculata parents declined to comment when approached by a reporter as classes were dismissed for the day Tuesday afternoon, while students said they were not allowed to talk to the media about the matter. They didn’t elaborate.

“I wish there were men outside my church doing this when I was 13,” quipped the 61-year-old Waldrip, who added that he was sexually abused by a priest on his 13th birthday in Newark but kept the dark secret to himself for decades. “I wish that there was someone who was there for me.”








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