Dilworth chair admits staff 'moved on' instead of reported; says no cover-up

By Contributor

Former Dilworth Trust Board chair Derek Firth has spoken for the first time about decades of abuse at the school. Photo / NZME

By Elizabeth Binning, Open Justice - Te Pātiti Editor, Tāmaki Makaurau

A former chair of the Dilworth Trust Board has spoken out about the historic abuse at the private boarding school, saying there was no sinister cover-up - but one "known offender" was made to leave without being reported to the police.

That case happened in the late 1970s on the recommendation of Derek Firth, a lawyer who was a trustee on the board at the time. He remained a trustee for 40 years, and also chaired the board between 1996-2000 and 2009-2015.

Firth has previously declined to talk about the historic offending, which has so far resulted in 12 arrests following sexual abuse complaints from nearly 140 former students.

However, following an Open Justice story in which one of the victims called for the school to front up, Firth said he wanted to provide balance to allegations the school covered up abuse between the 1960s and early 2000s.

Firth said the nature and extent of the abuse were "abominable and unforgivable", and had had a "devastating effect on both the victims and what has otherwise been a wonderful school".

"Although the apologies, inquiries and forthcoming financial redress will not repair the harm, I hope they may assist some victims to soften their present effect of pulling down the school."

'No coverup'

"Many thousands of former and current students and staff and the very wide Dilworth community do not deserve that. They, too, have become victims of the devious criminal abusers."

He said he has made submissions, which he is yet to give orally, to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, and also to the independent inquiry commissioned by Dilworth.

He said those submissions will show there was "no cover-up of the sinister kind alleged" and will explain why the known abuser was forced to leave in the 1970s without being reported to the police.

"This was a decision made on my recommendation at the time, and I am hopeful that fair-minded victims, both Inquiries and members of the public will understand my reasoning when it is read and published. The allegations of cover-up by former heads and trustees may be genuinely believed by some victims but they are simply not true."

After hearing all of the evidence, the Inquiries will objectively and fairly reach conclusions about what actually happened and why. Let's wait for them."

'The school knew'

Former student Vaughan Sexton criticised the school recently during his submission to the independent inquiry, saying he was angry at what he believes was decades of staff covering up abuse. He told Inquiry chair Dame Silvia Cartwright he believed the school knew about what was happening.

"They swore us off [one man]. We were told, 'You are not to go anywhere near him' – that I distinctly remember.

He believed many boys who were at the school while the abuse was happening went on to take their own lives.

He told Dame Silvia he had tried raising concerns with a member of the board some years ago: "His comment to me was: 'These kids have left the school, it's got nothing to do with us'."

Allegations of a cover-up have also been made by a large group of abuse victims involved in a class action against Dilworth. The group says the school needs to be accountable for "knowingly failing to protect all students in its care from the systematic sexual abuse perpetrated by staff and representatives".

Inquiry result due by year-end

The class action has been spearheaded by former student Neil Harding, who was abused by a scoutmaster at the school when he was 12.

"As early as the 1970s, Dilworth School knew vulnerable young boys in its care were being sexually abused by staff and others in positions of power, yet the school failed to stop the abuse from happening, allowing it to continue for over 30 years," he said.

The independent inquiry will examine and make findings on the nature and extent of abuse; the factors that caused or contributed to it; the acts and omissions of the school trustees and staff in dealing with complaints of abuse; and the adequacy of the policies and procedures currently in place to prevent any future abuse.

A final report, which is expected to be released publicly, is not due until the end of the year, at the earliest.

A Dilworth spokesperson said the school wouldn't comment on any issues raised by individuals, as it wanted to maintain the independence and confidentiality of the independent Inquiry.

For more information about how to give evidence at the Inquiry, visit: https://dilworthresponse.org.nz/independent-inquiry/.