A damning independent inquiry into sexual and physical abuse at Auckland’s Dilworth School has uncovered a “catalogue of damage and injustice” spanning more than half a century, from 1950 to 2005.

Photo: Bevan Read/Stuff

Warning: This report covers the subject of sexual abuse and contains information some readers may find upsetting

Led by Dame Sylvia Cartwright and Frances Joychild KC, the inquiry found serious failures by the school’s senior leadership and governance. Cartwright and Joychild released their report at a press conference in Auckland on Monday.

It follows the arrest of 12 staff members and other men connected to the school, a Royal Commission public hearing and extensive media reporting.

The report – of over 500 pages – draws on testimony from 171 former students, 30 family members and over 100 former staff. The report’s findings include:

  • Extensive sexual abuse, physical violence and bullying over decades
  • Testimony that the rape of schoolboys “often happened on the altar”
  • Students who reported abuse to senior school staff were called liars and caned
  • The school did not refer abuse to police

The inquiry also reached a fundamental conclusion that “ongoing silence about the sexual abuse recorded in this report is the primary reason for the damage caused to many former students at Dilworth”.

“Regrettably this report is a catalogue of what went wrong, the lifetime of damage it caused to abused students, how that damage might be fixed and an expression of hope that the terrible events of the past will never be repeated.”

One of the themes is the division caused by former students. Some still look fondly on Dilworth as an institution that provided them with the education and foundation it promised.

Others, who saw or experienced sexual and physical abuse have vastly different views.

They are known as “The Lost Generation” – the Dilworth Old Boys missing from school reunions and social events.

The school’s mythology writes them off as boys from “bad” families, from sole parent homes, who were only enroled in the school in the 1970s and 80s because Dilworth had spent the equivalent of millions of dollars on new school buildings and needed to grow the roll.

In his 2007 book, The Dilworth Legacy, former headmaster Murray Wilton said there were hundreds of boys that make up the “Lost Generation”.

“In effect, millions of dollars of the Trust resources were wasted on boys who never had the potential or desire to rise above their station in life,” Wilton wrote.

But the Dilworth Independent Inquiry report came to a vastly different conclusion.

“The more credible reason for the behavioural problems of this time was the extensive sexual abuse, physical violence and bullying. Many former students told us these factors caused them to become so emotionally disturbed they could not function normally.”

The school climate was described as militaristic by one former student and as a “prison orphanage”. Another called it a “hellhole of violence”.

Dilworth fostered a “no narking” culture where those that dared to speak out were labelled homosexual, threatened with violence and in some cases caned by senior staff.

Bullying was rife, as were random acts of violence. Former students spoke of boys being tied in sleeping bags and hung out of second storey windows at night.

Sometimes the canning by teachers and housemasters was so severe that students would be left with the skin of their backside in a bloody mess.

Boys would be lashed with the cane for doing as little as speaking after lights out or during prep.

The school prided itself on providing a high standard of education for boys from low income families, who had themselves experienced trauma.

It was that promise which instilled a sense of guilt in boys who, after being abused, no longer wanted the “opportunity” of attending Dilworth.

The boarding school environment further cut them off from what little family support they had.

It is in this climate that the Chaplain – child sex offender Peter John Taylor – abused boys with near impunity. His abuse is one of many disturbing chapters in the document.

Taylor’s abuse is but one example. His case was at one time covered by a name suppression order which Stuff successfully challenged in November 2022. The details of his case have not been widely reported.

The inquiry found that despite complaints from boys and various “red flags”, Taylor was allowed to take boys to his home on school grounds at night.

A review by the inquiry of boarding house diaries between 1976-78 shows there were 41 entries where Taylor had boys, often on his own, late into the night.

One entry filled in by a house tutor read “[Student] has returned from Guess-who’s place at 10pm twice now in the last week and I’m getting sick of it (that’s only when I’m on duty – who knows about the other times!!!)”

The tutor confirmed to the inquiry “Guess-who” was Taylor.

The inquiry also heard from some of the boys abused by Taylor.

One boy, who had recently lost a close family member, was sent to Taylor for “counselling”. During the session, Taylor tried to sexually abuse him.

The former student told the inquiry he ran to then-principal Peter Parr’s office and reported the incident.

Parr reacted by calling him a “nasty boy” and something akin to “fancy making up a story like that about a man of God” before caning him six times.

Taylor kept another boy late after class and sexually assaulted him. The boy swore and ran from the class. His “outburst” was seen by a teacher who reported him to a senior staff member, and he too was caned.

Taylor also repeatedly raped another boy in the school’s chapel. The report says Taylor told the boy it was “normal and… Jesus and his disciples did it.”

Other abuse happened during prayer.

“After Mr Taylor had locked the chapel doors and undertaken a private communion service, rape often happened on the altar.”

That former student also reported the abuse and was labelled a liar by Parr and caned. His mother was called and told her son had been misbehaving. He was later put under the “guidance” of Taylor and the sexual assaults continued.

He and a handful of others signed a petition to stop Taylor’s abuse and approached Parr. The principal called the boys into his office one by one and caned them.

By 1978 rumours of Taylor’s sexual abuse were swirling around the school.

In one incident Taylor was walking through school grounds when a group of senior students called out “child fiddler”. Taylor kept walking.

Towards the end of the year one student approached his teacher, Robert Howard Wynyard, and complained about Taylor. Wynyard, who himself would later be convicted for the sexual abuse of Dilworth boys, went straight to Parr.

A month later, having heard nothing, Wynyard went back to Parr and asked to conduct an investigation. He would eventually take at least 10 written statements from students before reporting back to Parr.

Parr, along with board members Derek Firth and Bill Cotter confronted Taylor.

Firth, a lawyer, told the inquiry that Taylor was given the option of returning with an admission in writing. If he did that he could leave the school without the police being called in.

Taylor took 15 minutes to return with a statement.

While Wynyard told the inquiry statements from the boys detailed sexual assault and rape, Firth said the board understood the complaints to be “inappropriate touching”.

The school made no referral to the police and there was no counselling for the boys.

Instead, the school board made a “compassionate ex-gratia” payment to Taylor’s wife of $2000 – the equivalent of $14,850 in 2023, according to the Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator.

Four weeks after his sudden resignation, Taylor wrote to the board.

“I wish to place on record my most grateful thanks to all the support and encouragement I have received from you all in my time at Dilworth.”

The inquiry found evidence that the Anglican Church knew of complaints about Taylor sexually abusing young people in Nelson before his appointment to Dilworth. Those complaints surfaced six months before his Dilworth resignation.

There is no evidence anyone from the Anglican Church notified Dilworth and Taylor sexually abused more boys in his final six months.

The board neither reported Taylor’s abuse to police, parents, or the Education Board.

This was despite Parr alerting police to an allegation of a student sexually assaulting another boy and Parr calling police when a student was caught with a small amount of marijuana.

Firth told the inquiry that a police investigation into Taylor could have had a “detrimental effect” on students.

The inquiry found his motivations lay elsewhere: “We are more inclined to think that the driving force behind the school’s overall approach to non-reporting was to maintain the reputation of the school and avoid the possibility of adverse media attention.”

That is supported by testimony from an unnamed staff member who spoke to Cotter after Taylor’s dismissal “Bill [Cotter] said words to the effect that the police should not be involved because the media attention would give the school a bad name.”

With the continued support of the Anglican Church, Taylor went on to teach at Papakura High School. He also had leadership roles in the church and abused more boys in the 1980s.

Wilton told the inquiry the failures of Parr and the board at the time could have led to offending by others.

“Paedophiles, potential offenders already in the School at the time ([Ian] Wilson, [Robert Howard] Wynyard, [Leonard] Cave) may well have gained confidence from the actions, or rather inactions and felt emboldened to carry on what they might have been doing or planned to do.”

But Wilton’s comment did not address the extent of sexual abuse at Dilworth.

During the Parr era the inquiry learnt that at least 69 boys were sexually abused. Eight staff have been charged with abuse and between two and six were working at the school at any one time over this period.

Taylor was replaced at Dilworth by Ross Douglas Browne.

Browne would also go on to leave a trail of destruction in the aftermath of his sexual abuse of boys.

The inquiry found a fundamental shortfall in the number of staff employed to oversee the boarding houses contributed to abuse happening.

Repeated pleas from three Dilworth principals to increase the staff to student ratio in boarding houses fell on deaf ears.

One board chair, Derek Firth, recalled Parr “hammering” the board for help for the students.

Firth told the inquiry the board was short of money at the time.

“The gross understaffing and unaccountability of boarding staff continued,” the inquiry reports.

Bruce Owen, a former deputy principal, told the inquiry Parr’s “passionate plea” for help was ignored by the board.

“That is a terrible indictment of the Trust Board of that time, their governance and how they carried out their responsibilities.”

Instead, the board was more concerned with managing the commercial aspects of the trust.

And its make-up reflected that. Rather than appointing experts in education and school governance, the board was stacked with businessmen. It also lacked any input from families, the inquiry found.

Dilworth’s status as a private school meant there was little oversight by Government bodies like the Education Department – predecessor to the Ministry of Education.

With no external and independent audit, the board was left with an annual report from the headmaster at the time. They were essentially allowed to mark their own homework.

“Most past and present Board members were unaware they could not rely on these assessments to satisfy themselves that the school was operating well and students were safe,” The inquiry found.

It found the board and school leadership failed to enact policies, support students and provide training to staff in how to deal with complaints of sexual abuse and what to look out for.

But the inquiry found positive signs for the future.

Current principal Dan Reddiex​ started at the school in 2019. In the same year former students reported sexual abuse by Browne to the Anglican Church which was referred on to the school.

Dilworth went straight to the police who soon discovered the wider sexual abuse and launched Operation Beverley. Twelve former staff members have been arrested.

Since his appointment, Reddiex has sought Child Wise accreditation for the school, an organisation that requires entities to meet standards on child welfare.

The process has required Dilworth to embed child safety policies, children and young people are informed of their rights, families and communities are kept informed and standards are regularly reviewed.

While commending Dilworth’s positive developments, the inquiry also issued 19 recommendations including:

  • Reforming the structure of the board. The inquiry proposed a model that would see two separate subcommittees – one to look after the commercial aspects and one to look after school governance
  • Continual external reviews to ensure improvements at the school are maintained, including child protection policies
  • The Dilworth “collaborates” with survivors
  • Improve relationships with all former students
  • Update its disclosure/whistleblower policy
  • Develop relationships with parents, Māori and Pasifika communities and include them on a safeguarding committee

The inquiry acknowledged that some former students want to see the school demolished. While the inquiry recognised where that sentiment comes from, it does not support it.

“Dilworth is worth preserving and fostering. The dream of its founders, James and Isabella Dilworth, was to help disadvantaged boys have a chance at a decent education and to be cared for in every possible way while at the school.”

The inquiry said while it was a matter of “deep shame” and regret that dream had not been realised for all students, it is possible for the school to be rehabilitated.

At a press conference, on Monday afternoon co-inquiry leader Dame Silvia Cartwright said rather than addressing abuse, children and young people who spoke out were often punished.

Co-inquiry head Frances Joychild KC told the media the school failed to investigate complaints or refer complaints to the police.

“The ongoing cloak of silence and the determination to protect the school’s reputation allowed the abuse to continue.”

The long-lasting effects of the abuse have left the lives of former students broken and shattered. Relationships have been effected, many have battled addictions and mental health issues.

“Some have insolated themselves completely from family, former friends and communities.”

Asked if there had been criminal negligence, Joychild said she was sure the police were investigating but that was not for her to comment on.

Survivor Neil Harding said two of the boys in his Dilworth School choir had taken their own lives. He laid the blame at the feet of those in senior leadership positions at the school.

“If there is nothing criminal about what was perpetrated, then I don’t want to live in this country.”

In a statement, Dilworth School trust board chair Aaron Snodgrass said the report was “unsparingly honest” and the board would “carefully consider the findings”. He said there would not be any more media comment.

Sexual violence: Where to get help

  • Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00, click link for local helplines.
  • Victim Support 0800 842 846.
  • Safetalk text 4334, phone 0800 044 334 webchat safetotalk.nz or email support@safetotalk.nz.
  • The Harbour Online support and information for people affected by sexual abuse.
  • Women’s Refuge 0800 733 843
  • Male Survivors Aotearoa Helplines across NZ, click to find out more (males only).
  • If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.
  • If you or someone you know is in a dangerous situation, click the Shielded icon at the bottom of this website to contact Women’s Refuge in a safe and anonymous way without it being traced in your browser history. If you’re in our app, visit the mobile website here to access Shielded.
By Edward Gay