Dilworth sex abuse victim: ‘He got away with it for so many years’

Dilworth School student Neil Harding was only 12 years old when he was called to his scout master’s home one evening.

He wasn’t sure why he was being summoned but he did as he was told — it was after all the kind of environment where you followed orders or faced the consequences.

“It felt strange because as a junior boy at night-time we are meant to be tucked up in bed, not out by myself going to someone’s house. I didn’t know why I was going there.”

Harding hadn’t been to Ian Wilson’s apartment before. He did, however, know him from Scouts and had been away with him on an overnight trip with about four other boys to Northland.

When he arrived Wilson, who was in his mid-20s, was sitting at a table but quickly moved to a sheepskin rug on the floor where he lifted his shirt and asked the boy to tickle his tummy.

“It was really awkward and I was going ‘what’s happening on here’ and I just didn’t want to. I just didn’t want to the whole time but then he started groaning and writhing and asking me to go lower and that’s when I removed my hand and suddenly I realised what was happening. I said ‘no’ and I got up and he let me leave”.

As he ran back to his dormitory his fear turned to panic about what the consequences would be for not “obeying” Wilson. There was also arealisation about what just happened in the living room of with a man who he should have been able to trust.

“There was this shock of the realisation of his ulterior motive and that he wasn’t safe — in fact he was a threat — and there was terror as I raced back to my boarding house but I didn’t say anything to anyone.”

It was 1977 and it took him 20 years before he had the courage to go to the police about what happenedat Dilworth School. “Over the years I had been concerned by what he had done and I wanted to ensure the safety of other boys so I … went up to the Auckland headquarters and asked to speak to someone.”

But, the reaction was far from what he expected. “I went upstairs and met with a detective who came and spoke to me. He said he’s not going to do anything, not going to take a statement but what he would do for me is check the database.”

He then confirmed Wilson, and another man Harding mentioned, were already known as convicted paedophiles and that was all he was prepared to do.

“In that moment I gave up on justice for me (and felt like) what had happened to me was trivial and of no real importance.”

He had no way of knowing that just months earlier Wilson was convicted and fined $3500 for the indecent assault of another student — but was given name suppression, as was the name of the school.

It took another 20 years before the he had the courage to try again — this time approaching the school’s Trust Board in 2017 — a move that triggered a series of events that cumulated in the arrest of seven men, including Wilson who was today sentenced to jail for three years and seven months for the sexual abuse of five former students.

Wilson, now a 69-year-old, was born in Northland and went to school in Dargaville. He was a high achiever — school prefect, house captain and in the First XI soccer team.

He had an after-school milk run and weekend jobs and saved enough to buy a Fiat 500 — making him stand outas the only senior pupil who drove his own car to school.

Wilson then moved to Auckland where he gained an arts degree.

It was during this time his path first crossed with the boys at Dilworth School. He started in 1971 as a tutor but only stayed for a few years before leaving to study at Waikato University.

By 1975 Wilson had however returned as a history and social studies teacher. So began a long career at the school which included him holding the titles of scout leader, assistant housemaster of Watling House, senior housemaster of MacMurray House, the foundation housemaster of the hostel and Erin House housemaster.

Behind the scenes he was also sexually abusing vulnerable young boys.

Many of Dilworth’s students had come from broken homes, had lost a parent, been abused before or struggling with a personal problem. And, Wilson knew it.

But instead of nurturing and caring for the boys he took advantage and preyed on them at the time they most needed support.

School camps, sleepovers, drinks and board games at his home, a visit to a home in Maraetai, overnight trips to his mother’s home in Dargaville. He was trusted enough to take boys to places where no one questioned what he was up to and the consequences were dire.

I'll kill myself if you tell

Wilson claims he was introduced to “corrupting behaviour” at the school by another staff member and said the sexual abuse was normalised.

But, despite that, he chose boys he knew would be too scared to ever tell anyone what was going on and threatened those who considered it.

One of the boys said he believed he would get the cane if he told anyone how he was taken into a darkened room where Wilson performed oral sex on him.

A week later he was asleep in his room, which he shared with 12 other boys, when he awoke to find Wilson indecently assaulting him again. That happened several times a week for the next two years.

In his victim impact statement the man described how he tried to tell a priest at the school about the abuse.

“He called me a stupid boy and a liar to say such a thing”.

Wilson also threatened to kill himself if he told anyone.

The boy left school a few years later feeling alone and confused. He had no real friends, failed relationships and drinking problems that resulted in three drink-driving convictions.

“Wilson changed my life and I’ve always wondered how it could have been.”

A previous conviction

Wilson was charged in September as part of Operation Beverley for to the historic abuse of two boys. Further charges relating to another three boys were laid.

But, Wilson also had previous conviction from 1997 relating to another former Dilworth student who he abused in 1978.

In that case Wilson drove the 14-year-old and his brother up to his mother’s house in Dargaville for an overnight trip.

“I remember thinking she wasn’t at all surprised about her son turning up with a couple of Dilworth boys, like she was well used to having different boys from Dilworth there,” the man told the Herald in an exclusive interview.

That night Wilson, the boy and his brother shared a bedroom.

“I had asthma and couldn’t breathe properly. Wilson came over sat on the bedside and said he would make the asthma go away.”

He froze as Wilson, who didn’t have any pants or underwear on, indecently assaulted him for several minutes until he told him he wanted to go to sleep.

Wilson replied saying: “We’re still friends, but don’t tell anyone’.”

The victim never did until 1990 when he revealed what happened to his brother.

Six years later he was at Maraetai and saw Wilson near the beach. The shock was enough to make him decide it was time to go to the police.

His complaint led to Wilson leaving the school at the end of 1996. He was convicted in February 1997 but the man was left furious after Wilson’s name and that of the school were both suppressed, and his former teacher walked away with a $3500 fine.

That suppression was lifted today after being challenged by the Herald, allowing the victim to tell his story for the first time.

Inappropriate sleepovers

Meanwhile, Wilson’s other victims kept their abuse to themselves. Some were repeatedly abused and over several years.

One was a young scout Wilson formed a close relationship with, to the point the 9-year-old boy would stay over at his house at night.

During the sleepovers the boy would put his sleeping bag in the spare room but Wilson would encourage him to sleep in his own bed. Over the course of four years Wilson indecently assaulted the boy about 12 times.

Sometime between 1978 and 1982 he indecently assaulted another boy after inviting him for dinner at his place. He supplied the boy with a glass of wine. The boy’s next memory was waking up groggy in another room wearing only his underwear and Wilson touching him.

'It's just a little love bite'

Ten years later he turned his attention to a 14-year-old boy who we will call Paul to protect his identity.

When Paul started at the boarding school he had already been sexually abused by a relative, his father had left when he was younger and his mother had recently passed away.

It was a challenging time and Wilson, his house master, knew what he was going through.
“He was very much aware of my personal circumstances,” Paul told the Herald.

Wilson by this stage was married to the school nurse and had a son who attended another school. According to his lawyer he had not offended for several years.

But, in 1992 the temptation was back. Wilson was one of several teachers who took boys away to a school camp in Huia.

The camps were for what Paul calls the most “vulnerable of the vulnerable” students at the school.

They involved bush walks, activities and afternoon counselling sessions where the boys shared personal, and often difficult or traumatic experiences, with each other.

Paul said there had been rumours about what went on at school camps but they were just rumours and he had never expected anything to happen — the boys were afterall with teachers they thought they could trust.

During one session Paul opened up about the loss of his mother — seeing her collapse at the airport after suffering a seizure caused by brain cancer and guilt of not being able to help her.

“She died two weeks later, that element was hard for me back then … I shared that story.”

The sessions finished with the boys supporting each other.

“You’ve got lots of people standing up and giving each other a hug. You’ve got lots of people around, but not lots of people noticing.”

It was at this stage that Wilson made his move. He leaned in for what Paul thought was going to be a cuddle but he instead crossed all boundaries.

“He nibbled my earlobe … and I pushed him back and said ‘what the****’ and he goes ‘oh, it’s just a little love bite’ but it was just so cavalier.”

Wilson never went near Paul again and while he said what happened could have been far worse, it did affect him in the future.

When news broke about seven men with links to Dilworth being arrested Paul picked up the phone and called police.

“I saw it on the news in September. I was shocked, I wasn’t surprised, but I was thinking that’s going to be hard for those people from the 70s so I’ll come forward and I’ll make my statement and I’ll leave it up to the police to decide if it’s chargeable or not.”

He said he feels guilty he didn’t say something at the time.

“I could have raised that something was wrong but I didn’t trust the school. If the people who are more of less the people in power then what do you do?”

“I was just a boy against an adult… (there’s) no way I would win or come out better in that situation. You are in a boarding school and you are making an allegation against a teacher.”

His shock turned to anger when Wilson pleaded guilty late last year.

“It surprised me how I reacted to it. I just felt so much rage. It wasn’t necessary for myself, it was how could this person have done this to those boys.

Paul said he self-harmed at school, never had children and there were failed relationships. He’s also a very insular person now.

He’s refused a restorative justice session with Wilson and says it’s difficult knowing it’s taken this long for him to be held to account.

“He got away with it for so many years, 70s, 80s, 90s. If I put that in perspective, he’s an old man now. A lot of these boys were 14 or younger. They were innocent at that time. He took that innocence for his gratification and now at the end of his life he’s had that gratification and he’s not got much time left and it feels totally unfair.”

Justice

For Harding, the man who brought triggered the events that led to Wilson finally being held accountable, today’s sentence was irrelevant.

“The benefit of that for me is I get a guilty plea and as a survivor … that’s the ultimate validation.”

After being turned away by police in 1997 after trying to report his abuse Harding had given up on getting any justice.

But, in 2017 his experience came up at a counselling session for something else and he decided to write to the school.

“I approached the Dilworth Trust Board with a report of my abuse and also asking questions of the trust board about their child safety policy and their pathway for dealing with historical abuse and I wrote it in a way that they would have no choice but to do something.

As a result he worked with them on a new child safety policy and when it was publicised it generated a flood of calls from old boys and ultimately police launched Operation Beverly to investigate allegations of historical abuse.

“Once I heard about Operation Beverly I got in touch and gave them the statement I would have wanted to give them in 1997 that they didn’t want to hear.”

He says being believed and told and seeing Wilson charged within two months was an amazing feeling.

“In that moment it was suddenly like ‘wow, finally I do get justice’ and what happened to me is bad and is worthy of someone being accountable for.”

Following the arrests Harding said he heard people asking why it took so long for the survivors to come forward.

“I did come forward but it was like the public wasn’t ready.

“It’s like a social media has driven change where people are putting their hand up and demanding something be done and the police have had to move with that … finally at last people are being heard and things are happening.”

In court Wilson apologised to the men in a statement saying he took full responsibility for his actions.

“I’m sorry, so deeply and completely sorry for the harm I caused you — none of it is your fault.

“If you can, I hope you can find some way to heal from my actions.”

GUILTY:

1997: Fined $3500 for indecently assaulted a boy in 1978
2021: Jailed for 3 years and 7 months for the indecent assault of five boys:
• Indecently assaulted a boy numerous times in Auckland and Dargaville between 1975 and 1977
• Indecently assaulted a boy between 1978 and 1982
• Indecently assaulted a boy on 12 occasions between 1979 and 1982
• Indecently assault a 14-year-old boy in 1992

EDITOR’S NOTE

It has been a shock for New Zealanders to learn that several former staff at Auckland’s Dilworth School have been charged with sex and drug offences against boys over more than three decades. We want you, our readers, to know that the Herald will follow this story wherever it leads. We have a team of journalists prepared to investigate and we want to hear from you. If you have any information please contact us at [email protected]

Murray Kirkness, NZ Herald Editor

Where to get help:

• If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
• If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334. (available 24/7)
• Male Survivors Aotearoa offers a range of confidential support at centres across New Zealand – find your closest one here.
• Mosaic – Tiaki Tangata: 0800 94 22 94 (available 11am – 8pm)
• Alternatively contact your local police station
• If you have been abused, remember it’s not your fault.

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