Warning: This story discusses issues related to rape and sexual violence.

Survivors have extended an olive branch to those running the Royal Commission of Inquiry into state abuse. Laura Walters reports on growing frustrations over a lack of communication a fortnight on from revelations survivors were exposed to a convicted child sex offender.

Published in Newsroom

Child sex abuse survivors who were retraumatised by the presence of a convicted child sex offender feel shut out by what they describe as the royal commission’s “cone of silence”.

Members of the Survivor Advisory Group, a first-of-its-kind group that runs in tandem to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in Care – are frustrated at the lack of communication from the commission and an inability to get answers about how the commission handled the saga.

A member of the advisory group has contacted the Prime Minister and the minister in charge, Tracey Martin, in an effort to get answers, and assert their version of events.

Martin responded by suggesting the survivor members request an urgent meeting with the commissioners.

Tony Jarvis, a survivor who has been fighting to be heard for 43 years, has written to the commissioners to request the meeting.

“The ball’s in their court,” Jarvis said.

“All we want them to do is tell the truth. Because if you can’t tell the truth now, what does it say for the whole inquiry?”

One survivor has now also laid a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner relating to commission staff allegedly carrying out vetting and background checks on members of the group without their consent. More survivors are expected to follow suit.

The commission confirmed some background security checks were carried out without members’ authority, but said no formal vetting took place without permission.

Meanwhile, Newsroom understands a staff member at the commission is facing disciplinary action in relation to the the checks.

This comes as the commission gears up to hold its first public hearings later this month, and replace outgoing chair Sir Anand Satyanand, who has also been unable to avoid controversy during his time at the commission’s helm.

A raft of contradictions

Last month, Newsroom reported a convicted child sex offender had been allowed into informal meetings, gatherings and social situations with survivors.

The man is the partner of one of the members of the Survivor Advisory Group and travelled as her support person to three out-of-town meetings.

For two of those meetings he stayed at a Wellington hotel that backs onto a school, and is within a block of another school.

Commission staff were aware the man had a serious criminal conviction in May, but did not ask the man to disclose the nature of his conviction until August.

In the meantime, the man interacted with survivors from the advisory group – many of whom experienced sexual abuse as children, while in state care.

“We thought this was the avenue that our voices will be heard and whatever we had to say would be very important. But obviously not.”

The commission responded by saying it had put in place measures to make sure the man did not interact with survivors, and had begun the process of vetting the group’s members and their support people.

Commissioner Judge Coral Shaw said the commission had planned to tell the advisory group members of the man’s background in the appropriate way, and support them through the situation. However, that plan had been scuppered by media breaking the story in late September.

On Thursday, an unnamed spokesperson said the commissioners were not available for interviews, but in a brief written statement said the survivor group members have had meetings, both in person (where possible) and on the phone, with the royal commission.

The spokesperson said survivor members had also been offered wellbeing support and ongoing care from the royal commission, which was in constant contact with members of the group.

This statement directly contradicts that of survivors, three of whom told Newsroom they had not received any support from the commission, or received any phone calls to check in on their wellbeing.

The survivors said they were frustrated at the lack of communication and the contradictory statements put forward by the commission.

They also said they felt the commission was questioning their integrity and implying they had lied by repeatedly, publicly stating the man was not at meetings with survivors.

These statements made in the media, and through a newsletter update, from commissioner Judge Coral Shaw contradicted survivors’ experience of what happened.

The statements also contradicted photos of the man sharing a meal with survivors following the first advisory group meeting. Newsroom has seen these photos.

A question of integrity and credibility

Jarvis said the fact it had come to this point was “very sad”.

“It’s not a little hiccup.”

Jarvis, and survivor group members Kath Coster and Tyrone Marks, said they were being treated the same way they had been their entire lives, with members of authority questioning or denying their version of events.

“You’ve got to remember, we’ve done nothing wrong,” Jarvis said.

While he said he believed in the purpose of the inquiry, its goals and terms of reference, there was a lack of honesty, integrity and credibility. And those running the inquiry had been found wanting.

Everyone in the advisory group wanted the inquiry to succeed; they saw it as a chance for the truth to be heard, and to make a difference for current and future generations of children in care.

But in order for that to happen, the commissioners needed to meet with the survivors, hear and accept their side of the story, and collectively figure out a way forward, they said.

“I hope the commissioners will take the olive branch… the ball is in their court,” Jarvis said.

“There’s a cone of silence… They just want this to disappear.”

Survivor member Kath Coster said being told she was lying, and being told off for speaking out, made her feel like a naughty child – the same feeling she had when she was in state care.

It was the same controlling mentality Coster said she faced as a child.

“All we want them to do is tell the truth. Because if you can’t tell the truth now, what does it say for the whole inquiry?”

Tyrone Marks made similar statements about the way the commission has dealt with this problem.

“There’s a cone of silence… They just want this to disappear.”

But Marks said he saw himself, and the other members of the advisory group, as “watchdogs”.

They were fighting to make sure the terms of reference were adhered to, and survivors’ voices were heard and valued.

Marks said this response was similar to those received by survivors from agencies like the Ministry for Social Development for many years.

“We thought this was the avenue that our voices will be heard and whatever we had to say would be very important. But obviously not.”

The commissioners met on Thursday to discuss the Survivor Advisory Group. Tracey Martin’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.

Where to get help:

Rape Crisis – 0800 88 33 00 (Will direct you to a nearby centre), follow link for information on local helplines

Victim Support – 0800 842 846 (24hr service)

The Harbour, online support and information for those affected by harmful sexual behaviour

Women’s Refuge (For women and children) – crisis line available on 0800 733 843

Safe to talk – 0800 044 334, text 4334 or web chat

Male Survivors Aotearoa (For men) – follow link for regional helplines

If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.

By Laura Walters
Published in Newsroom
11 October 2019