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Parents defend Ozone Park school in wake of scandal

The parents at St. Elizabeth’s parochial school in Ozone Park want to set the record straight now that the former pastor has pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $100,000 from the parish and the principal has been put on unpaid leave after reporting him.

Parents who were picking up their children Tuesday afternoon defended the school, whose activities were far removed from the day-to-day operations of the church.

“I don’t think anybody has lost faith in the school,” said one Woodhaven parent of a first-grader. “The kids wouldn’t see the reverend and would mostly see the principal.”

Last week the Rev. John Thompson pleaded guilty to charges that he stole more than $95,000 in church funds over a four-year period and used the money to support his gay lover and an expensive lifestyle, according to the indictment obtained by the Queens district attorney.

The plea bargain was reached after Barbara Samide, the principal, filed a lawsuit accusing Thompson of pilfering church funds and of sexual harassment.

Another Woodhaven resident and parent of a 13-year-old eighth-grader said Thompson’s guilty plea was a shock, but there were other positive aspects to St. Elizabeth’s school that overshadowed lawsuits and stolen church funds.

Other parents were disturbed by the school’s decision to put Samide on unpaid leave after she threatened to add physical assault charges against Thompson to her lawsuit.

“There is a lot that’s good about this school and I want to support the school,” said the parent, who also suggested there was a hidden agenda to get rid of Samide. “There are small classes and a good acting principal who has been here for years.”

Many parents were more concerned about when or if Samide would return from her unpaid leave than what would happen to Thompson. Several students were shouting for the return of Samide while running to meet their parents after school.

The general feeling was in support of Samide’s actions and her handling of the situation with Thompson.

“What [Samide] did was right,” said Tim Lebentis, a 55-year-old Ozone Park resident who has a daughter, granddaughter and grandson at St. Elizabeth’s.

Samide is still on unpaid leave and there are no plans for her immediate return, her lawyer, Michael Dowd, said.

But parents are confident their children are getting a good education, even though some students are aware of the conflicts and are asking questions.

“(The teachers) are doing the best they can to educate the children,” said one mother of an eighth-grader. “The teachers here are excellent.”

Thompson will be in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens Oct. 29, when a judge will sentence him on his guilty plea.

Thompson is expected to receive five years’ probation and be required to pay back the church the full $95,940, which he stole between Aug. 4, 1998 and April 1, 2002, under his plea bargain agreement, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said last week.

Brown said the investigation was continuing into Samide’s allegations of sexual misconduct.

Until Thompson is sentenced, one parent said, every parent will be quiet about the pending case.

“Wait until the 29th, and then you’ll hear us talk about Thompson.”

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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