Peter Whall still has nightmares about waking up at his Otago boarding school, a hand clamped over his mouth.

As a young teen, he explained to his housemaster how an older boy climbed into his bed every other night. He had seen the man’s two “beautiful” daughters at church and thought he might care.

But he was wrong. The abuse continued for six years.

Published in Stuff

Whall turned 40 before he told anyone else about those nights at Campbell Park School. After a lifetime fearing sexual intimacy, he had his first romantic relationship with a prostitute at age 50.

Whall’s claim of historic abuse is one of 27 Ministry of Education has settled out of court since 2007. Under a system established to “fast track” 500 claims of abuse in state care, government assessors meet victims, hear their stories, and reach settlements.

Most claimants were abused in state homes, foster care and psychiatric hospitals. Just two per cent of historic abuse claims are from former students of residential schools.

Those claimants, who say they were raped, beaten and drugged as students, have received average payouts of less than $11,000. Settlements and legal costs for 49 open claims are expected to cost about $2.6 million, a June report to Treasury said.

The total number of active claims against the ministry is about double that and victims’ advocates say “literally hundreds more” will never receive justice or compensation. Critics decried the Government’s resolutions process as “an absolutely appalling and abusive system” that failed to engage those left emotionally scarred, and victims who are intellectually disabled.

They hope a promised inquiry into abuse in state care prior to 1992 will be broad in scope, including faith-based institutions excluded from its precursor, the Confidential Listening and Advice Service. The service “only scratched the surface” of abuse among prisoners and the disabled, according to chair Judge Carolyn Henwood, who says it’s likely the damage runs deeper than official records estimate.

Whall, now 58, says being abused “ruined” his life. Illiterate and unemployed, he lives alone in a Christchurch City Council flat he’s occupied for more than 30 years, with the exception of several stints at Hillmorton Hospital’s mental health unit.

Six years ago he sat down with government assessors for about 20 minutes. “At the end, they says ‘Peter, we believe your story’.

“They said ‘we will be in touch with you in 12 months’.” He didn’t hear from them for more than two years.

He eventually accepted a $12,000 settlement – half of what his lawyers advised he could get – at the height of his battle with bipolar and attention deficit disorders, addicted to party pills and in debt to his cable company.

“It really hit me about two or three years later that I was ripped off,” he says. “They dangled a carrot under me and I grabbed it with both hands.

“When I was young, at a time when I was needing to be understood, I was abused. What you see of me now is the damage that’s been done.”

Low settlement offers and unsatisfactory investigations have prompted six civil court claims against the Ministry of Education – an outcome the government’s system was established to avoid.

As more victims come forward, the time it takes to reach resolutions – usually less than two years, according to the ministry – grows longer.

Lawyers handling about 100 residential school abuse claims fear one client, a 74-year-old who started the resolution process in 2002, “may very well die before he gets a settlement he can feel good about”.

They say the ministry’s process is one of “settlement by attrition”, which leans on a lack of documentation to “minimise” the severity of the abuse.

“They will say it’s ‘slightly outside protocol’ [when] it’s actually assault,” solicitor Courtney McCulloch says.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Katrina Casey reject suggestions the department had “acted inappropriately or sought in any way to disadvantage the claimants”, saying it had worked hard to ensure the process is fair.

If the Ministry upholds a claim, the victim can receive up to $30,000, an apology, or other assistance “so that the person can move forward with dignity,” Casey says. About two-thirds of resolved claims have resulted in a payment.

Ken Clearwater, of the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust, says the resolutions process needed to focus more on education, health services and counselling than payouts, which were often wasted on alcohol or drugs. Whall says he spent $5000 of his compensation on “jewellery, a little bit of alcohol, and helping my friends”. The rest, which he withdrew to buy a car, was stolen by a “lady friend” as he slept.

“These guys have been brainwashed into [thinking] ‘how do I survive every day?'” Clearwater says. “That’s what they’re still doing.”

By Adele Redmond
Published in Stuff
28 October 2018