OPINION: Never look a gift horse in the mouth. That's the first phrase that sprang to mind when Dilworth School announced plans to compensate former students who were sexually abused by its teachers, over many decades.

Published in Stuff

But Dilworth’s offer of money (details of which are yet to be released) is not a gift, of course. It would be fundamentally wrong to consider it a gift. Those whose school years, and often their adulthoods, were blighted might properly consider it a right – or if not that, then certainly the very least the school can and should do.

The Dilworth survivors have walked a long, long road to this point. It’s three years since the school was warned by an old boy that a storm of allegations would soon be upon it; two years since the school first apologised for the actions of its former staff members.

Vulnerable boys who were harmed by Ian Wilson, Ross Browne, Graham Lindsay and others, have told their stories to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, and to the school, and to courts, and to journalists. Their bravery has been outstanding and god knows (I use the term deliberately) they deserve whatever the school, or society, can give them.

In a post to its old boys network, trust board chair Aaron Snodgrass says the school had been working for months with leading experts on both sides of the Tasman to develop the financial redress plan, to be launched next year. It had taken note of recommendations from the Royal Commission of Inquiry, he said, and was determined to build a best-practice model “adhering to the fundamental principles of being survivor-focussed, comprehensive and restorative.”

It was the first time many survivors had been told of the work.

Survivor-focussed, comprehensive and restorative. Those are fine and soothing words, and for the sake of the survivors they deserve our very close scrutiny. What would a survivor-focussed process really look like for the Dilworth men?

From my experience, you can’t have any of that, without accountability. Three of the Dilworth abusers – Wilson, Browne and Lindsay – have admitted their abuse in court; three others have died before their cases were able to make it in front of a judge.

But what accountability will there be for school administrators, who may have been told of the abuse at the time but did little, or nothing to stop it?

What accountability will there be for the school leaders who allowed housemaster Rex McIntosh to quietly resign after allegations were made against him in 1979? Mcintosh continued to teach for decades after his resignation, and was again due to face charges of indecent assault and had pleaded not guilty, when he died in hospital in May.

Dilworth has admitted it did not contact police at the time, or the predecessor body to today’s Teaching Council. It also admitted that it sought and received name suppression when Ian Wilson was first convicted in 1997.

The Dilworth Trust Board has accepted keeping the name of the school secret may have stopped other survivors from coming forward “which is why today, to ensure we are able to communicate openly with our community and to encourage other victims to come forward, wherever possible, our policy now is to not seek name suppression for the school in relation to historical abuse matters before the courts.”

There is very real and reasonable worry among the people that count – the former students at the centre of all this – that a financial redress system might achieve the exact opposite of the accountability they deserve. While individual survivors might get a sum of money (which would, as I said, be no more than their due) if Dilworth’s process is not set up to be fully transparent, it will fail on that count.

Money as compensation is often a factor in sexual harassment cases where both parties decide to settle. Many of these settlements are locked down with non-disclosure agreements, which in some cases prevent the survivor from even talking to their spouse, their mum, or their therapist about their experiences.

Since these horrors came to light, 12 men have been charged and over 200 former students have spoken to the police. There has also been a class action lodged with the Human Rights Commission. Initially brought by Neil Harding and another who cannot be named, they now have over 90 abuse survivors involved, and they hope more will come forward.

“It is impossible for the school to be fully accountable for their actions and move forward without publicly acknowledging the role they played,” Harding says. “This needs to be anchored to the facts of what occurred, and those facts rely on survivors’ voices being heard, the full scope of the abuse and the school’s actions being known.”

So, will Dilworth School’s process also include an inquiry into who knew what, and when, and how the abuse was allowed to continue for decades? Did boys come forward and make complaints at the time and how were those complaints handled? Threads of complaints being made at the time of the abuse have been revealed in court documents, but so far Dilworth School has declined to answer questions.

Even after its former chaplain Ross Douglas Browne pleaded guilty to a string of offending against 14 Dilworth boys over 15 years, the school insisted on holding its silence.

The court documents show complaints were made about McIntosh, and they were shut down. But the documents are silent on who made the complaints, to whom and how far up the school hierarchy those complaints travelled.

Dilworth school has declined Stuff’s request to shine light on the topic, with a spokeswoman saying a further statement would be made once Browne is sentenced in December.

Our justice system is not predicated on an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth and nor should it be. But it can’t be ignored that those sentenced are likely to serve single-digit prison sentences. They will lose a handful of years at a time when they’re likely to be in poor health, with limited options.

By contrast, many of the survivors have lost their best years. Many, now in their 50s and 60s, can, sadly, look back on adolescent and adult lives littered with mental health issues, substance abuse and broken relationships. Neil Harding points to compensation amounts overseas in the low millions, and says for the worst of the Dilworth harm the school should be expecting to be making individual awards of around half a million dollars.

The money is important, but for the vast majority of survivors, this process is not just (or even) about money. It is about recognition of what they have endured and that it was wrong.

Any compensation package needs to address what happened, how it was allowed to continue happening, and what has been done to ensure it never happens again. Only after that has happened can money be discussed.

Dilworth will fail in its lofty ambition if it does not truly front up, connect the dots of the past and hold itself properly accountable.

By Alison Mau
Published in Stuff
10 Oct 2021