Dilworth abuse cover-up allegations left to 'fester like an unlanced boil'

By Contributor

Former Trust Board Chair Derek Firth says there was no cover-up of any sexual abuse at Dilworth. Photo / Abuse in Care Inquiry

A former chairman of the Dilworth Trust Board has criticised the way the school has handled allegations that sexual abuse was covered up, saying they were instead left to fester like an "unlanced boil".

"Right until this day, the current trustees and their advisers have [wrongly, I believe] been adamant that none of the victims or the public should be informed about why things were done or not done," Derek Firth said in a written submission to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

"As a result, the assumptions of inadequate governance have been left to fester quite unnecessarily."

Firth, who chaired the board between 1996-2000 and 2009-2015 and was a trustee on it for 40 years, said he bitterly regretted the abuse and the impact on the victims.

"Everyone connected with Dilworth has been devastated by it. It was horrible. There are no adequate words to describe it."

However, he denied it was covered up and took a dig at victims, including Neil Harding who is leading the Class Action on behalf of more than 100 survivors.

"In no case where there was reported sexual abuse was anything ever "covered up". It is mischievously wrong to suggest that the school ever did "harbour and support known offenders" as publicly stated frequently by the spokesperson for the victims, Neil Harding. Nothing of the sort ever occurred."

Firth told Open Justice last month only one "known offender" was made to leave without being reported to the police during his 40 years on the board.

Speaking at the inquiry today he said that case happened in the late 1970s and on his recommendation. It involved allegations of inappropriate touching and he was worried about the young victims not being believed by a jury.

"It has since transpired that his degree of abuse was greater than what was reported to us at the time."

In hindsight Firth said the school should have proactively investigated how many other boys might have been involved when those allegations were made.

He said there were four cases that were reported to police during his time on the board. One was under Peter Parr who was the headmaster between 1967 to 1979. There were two reported under headmaster Murray Wilton who ruled until 1997 and one under Donald MacLean who retired in 2018 - just two years before the historic abuse became public knowledge.

WHY WASN'T MORE DONE?

Katherine Anderson, the Royal Commission's lead counsel for the Anglican Church hearing, asked Firth why the board hadn't thought to investigate further in 2005/2006 when concerns were raised about Chaplain Ross Brown who encouraged boys to masturbate in class.

She put it to him that it wasn't the first time there had been a complaint about a chaplain or staff member at the school.

"Did the board ask themselves at that time 'is there a problem that we actually need to do some work to understand that nature and extent of it'?"

He said that wasn't the case as there were only three or four cases, depending on the definition of sexual abuse, reported over a period of nearly 40 years.

"It wasn't a setting in which we saw the need for that sort of wider investigation".

Firth was asked about a letter he sent to survivor Vaughan Sexton who had requested a meeting with him in 2012 to discuss sexual abuse he had suffered as a child.

In the letter Firth said he would only meet him as a courtesy - and that people making allegations later in life were often trying to claim ACC or make excuses for difficulties in their lives.

Sexton wasn't making anything up and instead went to police, who charged former MacMurray House tutor Keith Dixon in 2013. He was sent to jail a year later.

"I wish I had not written that letter and I'm sorry," he said today.

Anderson put it to Firth today that his response to Sexton was a reflection of a "culture of disbelief" of what survivors were saying.

"No, I think it reflects my age and my view of the world at that time."

Nearly 140 men have gone to police with allegations about former staff, tutors, teachers and chaplains since the historic abuse was revealed in 2020 following an 18-month investigation by police. Twelve men have since been arrested, many of whom are now in jail. Three have died since the charges were laid.

A FESTERING BOIL

The current chairman, Aaron Snodgrass, has apologised on behalf of the school numerous times for the abuse that occurred over more than four decades. But, he has never gone into specifics or responded to questions about how the abuse was allowed to continue for so long.

Firth said under questioning that while he thought Dilworth had done an excellent job of handling most aspects of the historic abuse once it became public knowledge, the board had let victims down when it came to how they handled allegations of a cover-up.

"They were silent. They were allowed to fester like an unlanced boil. The victims were being unnecessarily stirred up by a lack of reaction to these allegations," he said. "What they were yearning for was some explanation and they never got it."

He said he regularly asked the current trustees to explain to victims and the police why this one case was not reported - but they "refused to do so".

"It would have been better for the victims and the public to have been given these reasons from the outset rather than let the erroneous statements which have been made go unchallenged and be allowed to fester with the obvious consequences that has had."

Firth said proper financial redress was now essential for the survivors and he regretted being "slow to acknowledge this while a trustee".

MAKING CHANGES

Snodgrass also gave evidence to the Inquiry today and released a statement this afternoon in which he again apologised to Old Boys.

"On behalf of the Dilworth Trust Board and Dilworth School I apologise to all Old Boys who suffered abuse while a student at our school, however that abuse occurred. It was not your fault. It was your school that failed to protect you."

Snodgrass, a former student himself, became chairman of the board in 2018 at a time when the extent of historical sexual abuse at Dilworth School was becoming more widely known and understood.

He outlined the school's "extensive efforts" to improve student safety as the extent of the abuse became better understood. He also spoke about how the school's senior management team have led a programme to create fundamental change in the culture.

"The entire framework for the school, its policies, processes and actions, have been directed in a focused and informed way towards the best interests of the child," he said.

"As a result of the development and implementation of best practice child safe policies, processes and culture, Dilworth School received Child Wise Accreditation in September 2022.

He said Dilworth was the first school in New Zealand to gain this accreditation.

"Our people worked hard to achieve this safeguarding milestone – and will consistently work equally hard to maintain it. This accreditation is far from the end of the road, but it is a positive milestone on our continued journey."

QUESTIONABLE REFERENCES

On Wednesday former headmaster Murray Wilton admitted writing references for several former staff who left the school under a cloud of suspicion - including one for a housemaster facing allegations of sexual abuse.

In a second case he gave a music teacher a reference so he'd be able to find another job, despite knowing he had been supplying boys with alcohol and inappropriately touched one of them at his bach on Waiheke Island.

Former Dilworth Headmaster Murray Wilton gives evidence at the Royal Commission of Inquiry. Video / Abuse in care

Former Dilworth Headmaster Murray Wilton gives evidence at the Royal Commission of Inquiry. Video / Abuse in care

The now 86-year-old, who was the headmaster between 1979 and 1997, apologised for the abuse which he says was "abominable". He described the men involved as "wolves in sheep's clothing" and "bad apples".

Wilton was adamant that he and his senior management staff did "all that was humanly possible" to protect boys from abuse.

However, he added the trust board could have done better to prevent the abuse and respond to reports of abuse.

"With "hindsight" the Dilworth Trust Board would have made changes to the manner in which they responded to reports of abuse and would have made more effective moves to prevent its occurrence.

"If the trust board, or I, had benefited from today's knowledge and understanding of the nature of sexual abuse and its management they [we] would emphatically have acted differently."

SEXUAL HARM

Where to get help:

If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact

Safe to Talk

confidentially, any time 24/7:

• Call 0800 044 334

• Text 4334

• Email support@safetotalk.nz

• For more info or to web chat visit safetotalk.nz

Alternatively contact your local police station - click here for a list.

If you have been sexually assaulted, remember it's not your fault.