Should Headmaster Face Charges for Sexual Abuse Cover-Up?

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Royal Commission hearings into the handling of allegations of indecent assault at prestigious Sydney boys’ school Knox Grammar have been told that a former headmaster deliberately withheld information from police about allegations of paedophilia.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse finished its hearings into Knox Grammar at the end of last week, and will create a report that is due to be published later this year. The Commission is also expected to recommend whether further criminal proceedings should be taken against individuals involved in the matter, which could potentially include the former headmaster.

Former headmaster admits to misleading police

The Royal Commission heard that headmaster Dr Ian Paterson was approached by a policewoman from the Child Protection Enforcement Agency in 1996 after she had received anonymous allegations of child abuse from people who had previously been employed by the school.

After being approached, Dr Paterson told the hearing that he had deliberately attempted to mislead the police officer, and did not share the extent of the information he knew about the matter with her. He also admitted to providing documentation that he knew did not contain the relevant information the officer needed regarding the allegations the members of staff involved faced.

Alleged incidents and allegations

As well as this incident, Dr Paterson admitted that he tried to conceal allegations against a teacher in September 1992. The teacher was facing legal action after a student had raised allegations of sexual abuse against him. It was alleged that Dr Paterson was more concerned as to whether the teacher in question was homosexual than whether he had abused students, and that he protected the teacher and reputation of the school rather than protecting the students.

In another incident, a 13-year-old boy was groped in the middle of the night by a man hiding under his bed wearing a balaclava. The man ran off when the boy screamed. The headmaster failed to report the matter to police, and instead launched an internal investigation and warned students not to speculate as to who the perpetrator may have been.

Allegedly, the man’s build matched that of one of the teachers at the time, who had promised the boy a ‘surprise’ earlier that day. The commission heard that the teacher was later arrested for masturbating in front of students at another school, yet he was allowed to resign from Knox and was even given a reference by the headmaster. The teacher failed to turn up to the hearings, and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.

During the course of the hearing, a number of former Knox Grammar teachers have been alleged to have committed numerous different acts of indecency against students, and Dr Paterson allegedly repeatedly failed to act on this, claiming ignorance of what was going on and a lack of understanding of the severity of the issues.

Dr Paterson’s hiring methods have also been called into question, as his policy of hiring Old Boys without background checks or references allegedly allowed so many paedophiles to work at the school, and even remain there after complaints and serious allegations had been made against them.

Should charges be laid?

In a twist on the final day of the hearings last week, Dr Paterson told the inquiry that he had not tried to mislead police, despite accepting that he had done so earlier in the week.

Since Dr Paterson gave his evidence last week, pressure has been mounting for him to face criminal charges for withholding information from police that could have been valuable to their investigations, and which would have revealed the extent of the problem at Knox Grammar years earlier. At the school itself, a building that was named in Dr Paterson’s honour is already in the process of being renamed, but it will take a while longer to see what the recommendations from the Royal Commission will be.

Can charges be laid?

Under the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998, it is an offence for people in certain occupations, including teachers, not to report cases to Community Services when they have reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is at risk of significant harm from abuse. There is currently no criminal penalty for failing to report, as it was removed from the legislation in January 2010.

But since 2000, section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act has made it a crime to conceal a serious indictable offence. A ‘serious indictable offence’ is one that attracts a maximum penalty of at least 5 years imprisonment; and would include the sexual abuse allegations levelled against teachers at the school.

A person is guilty of ‘concealing’ if they know or believe that an offence has been committed but fail without a reasonable excuse to bring information that might be of material assistance to a member of the police force or another relevant authority. The maximum penalty is 2 years imprisonment.

In addition to charges surrounding the conduct of Dr Paterson, the Royal Commission is expected to make recommendations as to whether or not charges should be laid against a number of teachers who were alleged to have committed sexual offences against students in the school. The Commission’s report is due to be released in September.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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