How did NZ's richest school become centre of sexual abuse cases?

June 26, 2022

How did New Zealand's richest school become the centre of one of the country’s biggest sexual abuse cases? At the boys-only boarding school Dilworth, hundreds of students suffered serious abuse over 30 years. What's more, they say the school went out of its way to cover it up.

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence that may disturb some readers. It contains confronting themes.

By Mava Moayyed and Kate McCallum

Dilworth is a prestigious boys-only boarding school with a noble goal; to take in children from straitened circumstances and give them education, faith, and opportunity.

Every student attends Dilworth for free. It’s a private school education at no cost. For many, attending Dilworth is life-changing.

But the school that promised its boys so much, instead destroyed the lives of hundreds of New Zealanders.

Police launched "Operation Beverly" to look into allegations made by former Dilworth students.

Ciarin Smith, Neil Harding and Mark Staufer

After years of silence, these former Dilworth students are choosing to reveal the details of their abuse. They want the school to be held accountable.

Sexual abuse at Dilworth has only recently come to light publicly. In 2019, police began to look into allegations being made by former students. They dubbed the investigation "Operation Beverly".

They weren’t sure what they would uncover, but within just a few years they'd identified 139 victims. They believe another 96 children were likely abused.

Police have identified 139 victims and believe another 96 children were likely abused at Dilworth.

One of those victims is Kiwi broadcaster Mark Staufer. He regularly graced our TV screens and radio airwaves in the '80s and '90s. Now living in Amsterdam, he’s a storyteller who, for decades, has kept his own story secret.

"I'm in my 50s now so I kind of can talk about it, but there are those who didn't even get to the age of 50. They killed themselves - it was too painful for them. When that sort of stuff happens, you realise you've got to make a stand," he says.

Mark was nine when he started at Dilworth.

"My mother was in a financial situation where it was virtually impossible for her to provide for me what I needed as a growing lad, and this option arose and obviously it was manna from heaven."

Mark Staufer.

But he says his reality was closer to hell.

"Dilworth was a constant source of dread for me. There was no escape from it. If you were singled out, it became a day full of dread and a night full of horror."

Mark was 12 years old when he met the school chaplain, a man imbued with religious authority. Reverend Peter Taylor was hired by Dilworth in 1976 on the recommendation of the Anglican Church.

"To have someone take an interest in you, as that sort of vulnerable kid, is really potent. He just seemed like the first decent male who’d ever paid attention to me in my life," Mark says.

Reverend Peter Taylor.

"The abuse was gradual and mostly it was cloaked within biblical and religious ideas. His whole thing was that Jesus and the disciples had a very close relationship, much closer than we’re led to believe."

Mark says the abuse began with Peter Taylor touching and kissing him.

"Then it accelerated very fast actually. It accelerated quickly into rape," he says.

"There’s such a feeling of humiliation. I kind of blanked it out and just thought it won't happen again. But of course, it did happen again, and again, and again."

He says Taylor’s favourite place to do it was on the altar of the school chapel.

Neil Harding, now 56, also remembers Peter Taylor.

"I thought he was a man of God. He was married and he had young children, so he was sort of beyond reproach, despite having a nickname."

Taylor's nickname among the students was Pumper Pete. As a child, Neil says he was called in to visit Taylor’s home on school grounds.

"He made me sit in the darkest corner of the room, and then he proceeded to place his hand on my thigh and start putting it in my pants," Neil says.

"The shame and humiliation of not believing that he was Pumper Pete. How stupid was I that I had allowed this man to be close to me?"

Neil Harding.

Neil found solace in the school choir - but since learning how many boys had been abused, the memory now haunts him.

"It's really sad because of the innocence of those boys and how their lives have been derailed. Two of the boys that were singing have been abused and have committed suicide".

He says the school was well-aware that boys were being abused and that makes the trauma much worse.

"The most damaging thing about this, is the fact that the sexual abuse of these boys was needless. The school knew it was happening," Neil says.

"The most damaging thing about this, is the fact that the sexual abuse of these boys was needless. The school knew it was happening."

—  Neil

Mark Staufer agrees. He reported the abuse to the headmaster himself in 1976.

"The headmaster blamed it on me and called my mother to the school. At this point, I'm thinking ‘hallelujah! This is it, I'm going home,'" he says.

"But they didn't tell [my mother] anything about what had happened. They just told her I was misbehaving in such a terrible fashion and needed to be punished."

Mark was caned.

Then, he says, the headmaster assigned Peter Taylor to keep an eye on him.

"That was his job! They had appointed him to make sure that I was doing what I was supposed to do. Of course, the rapes continued."

Reverend Peter Taylor.

Mark was suffering day after day, feeling trapped and isolated. He’d had no help from the Dilworth headmaster, so he came up with a plan to call the local newspaper and report what was happening.

"I got as far as ‘I'm here to report some terrible things going on at an Auckland boarding school’, and a tutor swooped in, grabbed the phone out of my hands."

The next day, he was called into the headmaster’s office and expelled.

"It was the happiest day of my life when I got into my mother’s Ford Anglia and drove away from the school. I was like ‘my God, it’s done’."

Documents show Dilworth knew in 1978 that at least five other students were being abused by Peter Taylor.

The school claims it carried out an internal investigation into his offending at the time, but that the report was inexplicably "destroyed" years later.

The police were never called. Instead, minutes from a Dilworth Trust Board meeting show Taylor was allowed to quietly resign.

In his short tenure as school chaplain, Sunday understands Taylor abused around 10 children.

Peter Taylor resigned quietly from Dilworth.

Mark says the school’s deliberate coverup of Taylor’s offending still baffles him.

"It’s just bulls***, it’s bulls***. You know people say ‘what are you complaining for? Look at what [the school has] done for you. It might have cost you a bit of arse raping, but hey!’"

Peter Taylor died in 2012, aged 74, in Blenheim.

If he was alive today, police have said he’d likely be added to the list of 12 men already charged with sexual assault at Dilworth.

Dilworth's offenders.

"The entire top echelon of these people knew exactly what was going on and they did nothing about it," Mark says.

One mother, whose son was at Dilworth in the early 2000s, is now supporting him through a P addiction.

"He’s in his third stint for rehab. We're just going to have to take each day as it comes and be there for him, and support him," she says.

Her son has chosen to keep his name suppressed, but he supports his mother speaking to Sunday.

"I feel so guilty as a mum that my son's endured when he's endured. The guilt doesn't go away and that's why I chose to speak out."

She enrolled her son at Dilworth after her son’s father died of illness. He was vulnerable and looking for a father figure.

"I noticed some real big changes [in him]. There was something inside of me telling me something was wrong, something was not right, but never thinking that he was being sexually molested at school. Never."

When Chaplain Peter Taylor left Dilworth in the late 1970s after abusing a string of boys, Dilworth employed Reverend Ross Browne as his replacement.

Browne went on to become a serial sex offender while at Dilworth.

Ross Browne in a documentary from the 1990s.

In a documentary from the 1990s, Browne told a reporter: "Dilworth is a place where if you need it, you can get a hug or something. It's a place which is that comfortable".

"He wore the cloak for the church, and that’s the perpetrator that violated my son and took everything away from him."

Ciarin Smith, now 33, is another victim of Browne. He lifted his name suppression to speak to Sunday.

"It was a really hard decision," he says.

Ciarin Smith.

"I just thought, what message is that sending if I'm speaking anonymously? I’m saying I haven’t done anything wrong but I’m hiding. I didn’t want to hide."

Ciarin was a model Dilworth boy, a straight-A student with an impeccable record. He won multiple awards and was the school's runner-up dux in the mid-2000s.

"I remember him being very jolly," Ciarin says about Ross Browne. "Very friendly, warm and intelligent. The next time I really spent more time with him was in the crypt."

The "crypt" was the name of Browne’s office where students would hang out after class.

"At some points, there were probably 12 people in there. We felt special that we were given a privilege to join this group that was a little exclusive," he says.

But the crypt had a sinister underbelly. Browne was coaxing boys to kiss and touch while he watched.

"We were encouraged to use the bathroom next door if we wanted to do anything more without clothes on," Ciarin says.

Browne’s grooming left Ciarin feeling deeply confused.

"It’s something that I've grappled with for a long time, and why it was so hard to come forward. But I would ask whether it would ever be acceptable for a teacher to encourage sexual activity between children?"

In 2006, Browne was suddenly gone. Students were told he’d left school for "health reasons".

But he’d actually quietly resigned after Dilworth confronted him about allegations from former students that he’d encouraged boys to masturbate in class.

With the crypt gone, Ciarin went to see the school counsellor.

"I told her everything I’ve told you today and she referred me to SAFE which is for sexual offenders."

Instead of supporting the 17-year-old as a victim of sexual abuse, Ciarin’s then-counsellor reported him as a sexual deviant. The consequences were devastating for his whole family.

"Legally, I couldn't be around children which was hard because I lived with my sister who was five years younger than me. So, at the time, she had to move into my grandparents' house.

"I just felt so guilty and responsible for everything that was going wrong."

"I just felt so guilty and responsible for everything that was going wrong."

—  Ciarin

Ciarin says SAFE eventually realised the mistake, but the trauma lingered.

"That fear of having done something wrong persisted a long time. Even though I was told that I shouldn't have been sent to SAFE in the first place."

Fifteen years on, Ciarin’s life is good. He's married, has a great job, and has strong relationships with his family and friends.

But for the mother and her Dilworth son recovering from drug addiction, they’re still putting the pieces of their lives back together.

"He could have been so successful in life. He had the brains, he had the ability, he had the personality. P addiction is through the trauma he experienced at school."

A mother and son who spoke to Sunday about their experiences with Dilworth.

In a victim impact statement read in court, her son described the effect of Ross Browne’s sexual offending in his own words:

"I lost my father at a young age. I was looking for a replacement father figure. I had chosen you. Little did I know that you had chosen me. Chosen me to mould, to manipulate, to mislead, to abuse. To rip apart my pride, to rip apart my promising future, to shame me. I have lost my two great businesses. I have lost one great woman. I have almost lost my family. All because you chose me."

Last year, Browne pleaded guilty to 15 sexual abuse charges involving 14 students. Some of his victims were as young as 11.

He was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

Sunday understands at least 22 students between 1976 and 2007 told school staff about abuse. The school had three decades of knowledge that its boys were being harmed.

Earlier this year, the Dilworth Trust Board apologised in a pre-recorded video

But Neil Harding says the apology doesn’t go far enough and is now leading a class action representing about 130 Dilworth victims.

"[The school] apologised for what the paedophiles had done, but it didn't apologise for how they'd covered up the abuse."

For over two weeks, Sunday asked Dilworth's current Trust Board for an interview. They declined. Instead they sent this statement.

Read the Dilworth Trust Board's full response to Sunday

"Our focus is firmly on establishing both an Independent Inquiry… and a Redress Programme.

"We are committed to confronting the issue of historical abuse openly and honestly.

"Dilworth School did not adequately ensure the safety of our students and the past procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse were insufficient.

"We apologise unreservedly."

But Neil Harding says the current Dilworth Trust Board is trying to protect its money and reputation. He also believes it isn't meaningfully consulting victims as part of the redress programme.

The 56-year-old says the school has set a maximum redress amount of $200,000 for victims, and not every victim will be entitled to that.

"They should be going to the survivors and saying how can we help you? What do you need? Not sitting and saying ‘this is the document and we're in control. We're in charge. We are going to define your worth’.’"

Dilworth is worth more than a billion dollars. Even if it paid 200 victims that maximum redress, it would come to less than 5% of its wealth.

Dilworth's wealth.

"Dilworth needs to sell some of its property and pass it out amongst these kids," Mark Staufer says. "A lot of these guys who went through the clutches of Dilworth were completely shattered and it's horrifying to me. They need looking after."

Mark is now working on a screenplay to turn his story into a film. He says it's helping him heal, but he still wants honesty and accountability from Dilworth.

Neil Harding says he’ll keep fighting until they achieve justice for all the victims.

"This is a process of justice. It is not a process of getting money. Part of redress is financial compensation, but we want the truth," he says.

Follow Sunday on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok for more stories. Watch full episodes on TVNZ+.