Dilworth School sexual abuse scandal: How the case was blown wide open

By Isaac Davison
September 20, 2020

Dilworth School
Photo by Dean Purcell

Author Ted Dawe says his novel was influenced by his time at Dilworth School
Photo by Jason Oxenham

Charges have been laid over historic offending at Dilworth, but former students say it could be just the beginning, writes the NZ Herald’s Isaac Davison in this Herald Premium article.

Two years ago, a former Dilworth School student approached the school with a warning.

The old boy – a victim of alleged abuse at Dilworth – told the school it should prepare for serious allegations to emerge, several sources told the Weekend Herald.

“They were basically told to get their house in order,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At the time, a reckoning was taking place around the world against institutions which had harboured secrets about sexual abuse.

High-level inquiries were under way or coming to their conclusions in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia.

In New Zealand, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care was being set up. It had an even broader scope than the overseas inquiries, and was later widened further to include religious institutions.

That broader scope meant it would cover Dilworth, a century-old Anglican boarding school in Epsom.

The approach by the alleged victim kicked off an intensive two-year review at Dilworth which culminated in charges this week against seven men aged between 60 and 78.

However, those charges could be just the beginning.

More than 50 people contacted police in the 24 hours after charges were laid and police say their investigation is ongoing.

Former students and staff told the Weekend Herald they believed more instances of alleged abuse had gone unpunished.

“There will be lots of guys in their late 50s, early 60s who will be quivering in their boots now,” said one relative of a former student. He claimed that his brother was raped at the school in the 1970s. His brother later took his own life.

Since it was founded in 1908, Dilworth has earned a reputation for turning around the lives of boys from deprived backgrounds and providing an elite education to families who could not otherwise afford it.

Its charitable purpose came from the school’s founder, James Dilworth, a canny land speculator who had no children of his own and left his wealth to establish the school.

Throughout its history, Dilworth students have been chosen not on academic or sporting merit but on “family need”. Every student receives a scholarship of $35,000 a year, which covers education and boarding fees.

Ted Dawe, an author, was head of English at Dilworth between 1989 and 2002.

“I would never have stayed as long as that if it hadn’t been a rewarding place to teach,” he says.

“It paid well, it looked after you, it had a sort of Hotel California thing; you could stay but you could never leave.”

But it also had many contradictions at the time, he recalls.

“I found everything about [Dilworth] very, very odd.

“It was more like an orphanage than a school. The relationships were unhealthy and close.

“The kids were incredibly needy and very, very keen to gain favour. It was emotionally transactive in a way that other schools I taught at, like Aorere and Auckland Grammar, were not.”

Dawe later wrote the novel “Into the River”, which was briefly and controversially banned from sale or supply in New Zealand in 2015.

The book centres on a Māori boy from the rural East Coast who wins a scholarship to attend an exclusive Auckland school, and includes portrayals of teenage sexual abuse and drug-taking.

“Obviously, there is a lot of stuff in that book that smells strongly of Dilworth School,” Dawe told the Weekend Herald.

“They weren’t things that I saw – I couldn’t have seen them – it was just basically things that I surmised, that went on around me, but that we were never informed about.”

During Dawe’s time at Dilworth, he claimed a handful of teachers suspected of abusing students left quickly – and quietly, Dawe says.

“I remember three incidents where somebody I had spoken to on Friday – I came in in the weekend to do sport, and I saw him packing up, he had a trailer there and he is moving all the stuff up and he had decided to retire during the last 12 hours.

“And he had been there for 30-odd years.”

This seems to have been part of a recurring pattern. A student of the 1970s also said teachers and tutors would disappear overnight,

“They would be there one day, gone the next. Nothing was ever said about it.”

Much of the alleged abuse related to physical violence and excessive corporal punishment (made illegal in 1987) rather than sexual exploitation.

“If you had bad table manners, you were severely beaten by some of the senior members, the prefects,” a former student says.

“We would do a thing called the ‘phantom mug’. If someone misbehaved, particularly if you were a junior member, the seniors would come and beat the shit out of you in the middle of the night.”

Bullying was not unusual in New Zealand boarding schools. But numerous students who were at the school in the 1970s said the bullying was ever-present, occasionally sadistic, and stuck with them well after they left.

“It took me about 10 years to stop dreaming about it,” said one student from that period. “I was bullied and when I went to report it I was caned for saying it. You were under threat of physical punishment 24 hours a day.”

Caning would be dished out for something as minor as talking too loudly at the dinner table or walking into class singing. Sometimes the boys were left bleeding as a result.

The former student also recalled how one person was responsible each night for putting toothpaste on 70 toothbrushes that were all lined up in a row. That made it obvious if anyone had not brushed their teeth – the brush would still have paste on it.

The tutors would pull any child who hadn’t brushed their teeth out of bed at midnight, drag them into the communal showers, hose them down with a fire hose and force them to brush their teeth with a bar of soap.

Another man who attended Dilworth in the early 1970s for about four years describes it as “one of the dark periods” of his life.

The culture of violence and bullying in the boarding house had affected him “profoundly”, he says. He is so ashamed of the nickname he was given at the time that he cannot share it, 40 years on.

He recalls a hierarchical structure in which tutors who had been bullied themselves as students went on to treat juniors with cruelty. One tutor was particularly sadistic, and he and other boys were once thrashed for saying grace too loudly.

The violence was covered up by what he describes as a “code of silence”.

“You don’t tell on anyone at any time ever or you are dead meat,” he was told by other Dilworth boys on his first day.

The student said his time at Dilworth defined the rest of his life “in terms of getting over it and recovering”. He noted he never encountered abuse from teachers, and all of the problems occurred outside the classroom.

Former students and staff claim Dilworth had unique traits which, when combined, created an environment where abuse could occur.

Boarders had come from all parts of the country and were far from family support. Tutors lived on-site and were often just a year or two older than the senior students. Children sometimes came from broken families and had no parental figures, and developed unusually intense relationships with staff.

While the generous endowment for students provided them an education their family would have never afforded, it also created an environment where parents could be reluctant to remove their sons even after they had been badly bullied or abused.

“The financial implications were so strong,” Dawe says.

“And so in a sense the parents became corrupted by the money involved as well. It was very, very difficult for kids to ever get out from that point of view.”

Dawe says he felt powerless to confront the abuse.

He was “a small individual” and the school was “colossally powerful”. A Herald investigation last week found it was the wealthiest private school in the country with assets of nearly $1 billion .

“I couldn’t have done anything about it,” Dawe says.

“I wasn’t in any position to. That would have been a very, very bold move for a person who was just a teacher here. My book was possibly my attempt to do something about it.”

The historical abuse at Dilworth is not an isolated case.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry has so far indicated that abuse within New Zealand’s state care and religious institutions was relatively prevalent in the second half of the 20th century.

What is unusual is that a group of people have now been held to account for that abuse, in some cases decades after it occurred.

One Dilworth old boy says he previously went to police in the 1990s with sexual abuse allegation but detectives had not taken a statement. It was just a child’s word against an adult’s, he says.

Several more cases related to Dilworth did, however, make it to court and led to convictions, though victims said they did not reflect the scale of the alleged offending.

Through a spokesperson, Dilworth School acknowledged this week that its historical procedures for dealing with allegations of abuse did not meet current standards.

“They were inadequate and we apologise to our old boys for this,” the spokesperson said.

It was not until the former student approached the school in 2018 that Dilworth finally tackled the issue in an open, comprehensive way.

The current Dilworth Trust Board, in particular chairman Aaron Snodgrass, has shown far greater eagerness than previous leaders to address past abuses, sources say.

At significant cost, the school hired experts to develop new protocols for preventing and responding to abuse.

The establishment of the historical abuse process coincided with a rare change of leadership at the school, which has had just nine principals in 114 years. Headmaster Donald MacLean retired after 20 years, and Dan Reddiex was appointed to replace him.

In September 2019, a letter was sent to former Dilworth students.

“As Old Boys, we know some of us suffered abuse while at school,” the letter from Snodgrass said.

“Mostly this has been physical and emotional, such as bullying and excessive corporal punishment (prohibited from 1987), and also sexual abuse.”

The school offered a free, confidential listening service and counselling to old boys who had suffered abuse.

Dilworth old boys have also submitted to the Royal Commission of Inquiry in private sessions. Further submissions are planned when the inquiry begins its hearings on the Anglican Church.

“We can confirm that historical abuse at Dilworth school is within the terms of the Inquiry and is an active aspect of its investigation into the Anglican Church,” a spokeswoman said.

The commission is able to refer allegations of abuse to police if the victim consents to it. Asked whether it had referred any Dilworth allegations to police, the spokeswoman said the commission could not discuss individual cases.

In mid-2019, after an internal investigation, Dilworth laid a complaint with the police in relation to historic offending at the school. Complainants then spoke to the police’s Criminal Investigations Branch.

Investigations into historic offending are typically slow, and difficult, often weighing one person’s word against another from events which occurred decades ago. The Dilworth investigation was then disrupted when police staff were seconded to Operation Deans – the evaluation of the police response to the Christchurch shootings. The arrival of Covid in New Zealand again held up the investigation.

But after New Zealand came out of level four lockdown in June, police resources were returned to the Dilworth investigation and it gathered pace.

Old boys started to get whispers of arrests last week. And on Monday, six men appeared in Auckland District Court charged with offences including indecent assault and sexual violation. A seventh man was charged the following day. The school said the offending spanned from the 1970s to the early 2000s, though court documents show the latest charge was in 2008.

“The abuse has cast a dark shadow over our school,” Reddiex said in an emotional press conference on Monday.

It was a moment some thought would never come. Time had soured their hopes of justice but hadn’t diminished their memory.

“I can still smell the smell of him,” said one former student living in Australia, who said he was abused at the school in the 1970s. “I can still describe the room to you very clearly, and the furniture and the times that it occurred.

“It is a memory that stays with you.”


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