By Liam Rātana
The private boys’ boarding school in Auckland is at the centre of multiple charges of sexual abuse. For Re: journalist Liam Rātana, it’s painful to realise the place that changed his future may also have been one that damaged other young men for life.
Seven men aged between 60 and 78 have been charged over allegations of historical sexual abuse at Dilworth School, said to have occurred over a span of at least three decades from the 1970s until late 2000s. One man also faces drug charges relating to cannabis and LSD. The fact that this behaviour is alleged to have happened at a school full of already traumatised young men sickens me.
Dilworth changed my life, saving me from an uncertain future and providing stability when I needed it the most. But not everyone’s experience at the school has been positive. With Dilworth now front-footing dark allegations, there are concerns that potential students may miss out on what was, for me, a golden opportunity. I wondered how an institute that I had such a positive experience with might also have been an environment that damaged other young men for life.
Dilworth is an all-boys boarding school in Epsom, Auckland for students Year 6 to 13, with around 750 students spread across three campuses. It’s a private school, but you can’t pay to go there - hundreds of scholarship applications are received from families in need from across the country every year, vying for one of only roughly 70 places.
When I was four years old, my mother passed away aged just 34. My dad assumed full responsibility for me and in doing so, became both my mother and my father. We never really had money, but dad did what he could to provide me with a good opportunity in life. By the age of thirteen, I had lived in over a dozen houses in the general vicinity of Whangaparaoa.
It was around this time that I started hanging out with what some might call the wrong crowd. My friends at the time were into skateboarding, girls, alcohol, and weed. Besides getting baked at one of the beaches, there wasn’t really much for us to do on the Coast. We would go around the neighbourhood tagging, getting drunk, and being general nuisances.
One day at school, I walked into the gym changing rooms and saw another student ransacking bags. He was stealing money from a wallet and offered me some cash to keep my mouth shut. I opted for the wallet instead, a black leather Quiksilver one. I had never owned anything so nice before.
Soon after, my friends and I were stealing almost daily. We targeted everything from chocolate and hair wax at the supermarket to cell phones and money from school bags. Eventually, we were caught and it was revealed that we had stolen thousands of dollars’ worth of items and money. Following repeat offences, the principal gave me the option of leaving or being expelled. I chose to leave.
My dad applied for me to go to Dilworth, saying it would be the best option for me. He had first suggested the idea a couple of years earlier, after being told by a relative that I would be a good fit for the school. A couple of my cousins were already there, having been accepted following the passing of their father. They were doing well, benefitting from a free private education. I wasn’t keen on the idea at the time but my sticky fingers hadn’t left many options.
Every boy that gets accepted into Dilworth is given a full private school education for free. The school provides food, uniforms, music lessons, haircuts, and all the necessities in between, even underwear. We were encouraged to play sports, learn an instrument, and participate in as many extra-curricular activities as possible. If a student is from outside of Auckland or their home situation is not appropriate for them to return to, the school also provides weekend boarding.
The school was founded in 1906 by James Dilworth, a banker and farmer, and his wife Isabella. The Dilworth Trust is one of the wealthiest in the Southern Hemisphere, with over $900 million in assets or cash. They continually spend upwards of $15 million a year on educating the students. All Blacks, Prime Ministers, and former Governor-Generals are just a few examples of notable alumni.
However, among the stories of fortune and success, a dark shadow of alleged sexual abuse lingers. The impact of these allegations goes far beyond the green gates of Erin St.
I still remember the day we received my acceptance letter. My dad checked our post box and returned to the car, sitting down and gently whispering “it’s here” to me. I think he was more nervous than I was. Dad started reading the letter aloud, but his voice was breaking by the time he got to “it’s our pleasure to inform you”.
Rarely did that man allow himself to be vulnerable, but that day was an exception. I saw the weight of the stress and worry leave his body as he leant over to hug me, realising that he would never have to worry about clothing me, feeding me, or paying for my education again. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
As a young teenager from straitened circumstances, Dilworth was like a dream come true. I no longer coveted what others had, as Dilworth gave me all that I needed. I went on trips to Parliament, camped on Motutapu Island, and even swam with dolphins on Great Barrier Island. We ate roast meals for lunch and had dessert every night. I formed connections that will last a lifetime, learnt to play instruments, captained multiple sports teams, led the kapa haka, and even joined the choir.
When my father passed away during my final year, the school provided around-the-clock support for me. I could speak to the counsellor whenever I needed to. I even remember an associate principal coming to visit me one evening during prep, just to check on how I was doing. I was constantly showered with love and support. By the end of that year, I had gained NCEA Level 3, won a scholarship for university, had my driver’s licence, and was off to study law and arts.
Looking back at the path I was on living in Whangaparaoa, and then where I ended up, it’s clear to me that Dilworth is what changed my life for the better. God only knows where I would’ve ended up, had I not been gifted a scholarship. I will forever be grateful for all that was given to me while there and what the school continues to provide to this day. I still haven’t lived anywhere for as long as I stayed at number 2 Erin St, Epsom.
But the recent allegations of historical sexual assault illustrate that the impact of Dilworth School hasn’t always been positive. Dan Reddiex began as the new principal of the school in 2019. He and the school say they are now front-footing the issue. In Court, they chose not to seek suppression of the school’s name, citing a desire to remain transparent. Dilworth and the Police have been encouraging any other victims to come forward. Reddiex said at a press conference that “the Dilworth School I know and lead today has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind."
What worries me then, is the impact this will have on potential future students of Dilworth. Boys who, like myself once upon a time, are on the wrong path and would benefit from stability in their lives. Young men who require a loving and supportive environment so that they may reach their full potential and become good and useful citizens. Understandably, parents may now be apprehensive when considering Dilworth as an option for their child.
“Dilworth is a big part of who I am. For me, it’s almost like a bit of a home,” says old boy Angus Ta’avao-Matau. “When people ask me what school I went to, I’m always proud to say Dilworth.”
The thirty-year-old All Black left Dilworth in 2009 and has since gone on to represent New Zealand at an international level in rugby and established himself as a stalwart of both the Chiefs super rugby and Auckland’s Mitre 10 cup squads. However, Angus says his future wasn’t always looking so bright.
“We were living down in Raglan. I had one year at Raglan Area School and I said to my mum, ‘I think I need to get out of here, otherwise I’m probably going to fall into a hole, get into drugs and those sorts of things’.”
Soon after, Angus was at Dilworth. He says the discipline and structure taught during his time there continues to help him today, some nineteen years on from his first day.
“We always had a good meal on the table and those sorts of things set us up for life. Discipline was a massive thing; it’s probably still helping with my rugby career today.”
Hearing about the alleged offending has been hard not only for Angus but all of those with links to the school.
“When I say that I went to Dilworth, people bring up what’s going on and it hurts that people just automatically think about that. Obviously, this needs to come to light and justice needs to be served but – except for my first two weeks spent crying for my mum – I loved Dilworth,” says Angus.
Like me, Angus is worried about the effect the allegations could have on the future of many potential Dilworth students. “The school is great for the students but it also helps families a lot. It takes stress and pressure off families that aren’t so well-off. On the other side of that, what the kids can achieve and the things they get from Dilworth is second-to-none.”
Another old boy who has been vocal in his support for the school is radio host Astley Nathan. For the last six years, Astley has been steadily rising among the ranks at NZME and now hosts his own morning radio show on Flava. The 29 year old says the biggest impact Dilworth had on his life was the freedom it gave his mother to pursue her own dreams and aspirations.
“My mother didn't have to take care of me [when I was] nine years old, she could focus on herself and whatever she was doing in her life. She didn't have to worry about food, school uniforms and dropping me off or picking me up. She got to focus on her life, which is important for me. Dilworth School gave me and my family that opportunity and hand up, so I'll forever be grateful.”
Besides the freedom it provided his mother, Astley says Dilworth gave him friends for life.
“We go to school together, we eat together, we play sport together, we laugh together, you know, we spend so much time of our lives with these other kids in similar situations that there just becomes this kind of bond that will never be broken.”
“For us to have to front it and accept what’s happened and still have pride in our school but also to have that reputation is hard. It’s real hard,” he says.
I’m inclined to agree with Astley. The Dilworth I know is a loving and nurturing place, a safe home for those who need it most. Unfortunately, this hasn’t always been the case. I’m hopeful all alleged victims are able to find justice. I’m also hopeful that parents of potential students won’t be scared away from chasing an opportunity for their sons and themselves.
Re: News requested interviews with Dilworth School and a range of past Dilworth employees for this story, but they declined on the grounds that the case is still before the court.
Police are encouraging anyone with information relating to the Dilworth School investigation, which they have named Operation Beverly, to contact them on (09) 302 6624 or email [email protected]. All information will be treated in confidence.
SEXUAL ABUSE HELPLINES
24 hour nationwide helpline Safe2Talk: 0800 044 334
24/7 helpline Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP: 04 801 6655
RapeCrisis directory to services across the country: www.rapecrisisnz.org.nz
Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Aotearoa: www.malesurvivor.nz
To report your experience to the police, call 111 or the non-emergency line 105