So many suspicions
The report to the commissioner of Pamapuria School tells a sorry story of suspicions not acted upon that might have put an end to paedophile James Parker's abuse of juvenile boys long before his arrest earlier this year.
The shock that greeted Parker's arrest on 49 (so far) charges, all admitted, was clearly not universal. A number of people had long regarded his behaviour as at least grossly inappropriate, although the report also makes it clear that many of those concerns were more for the risk they believed he was taking in terms of allowing a false complaint to be made against him.
That is a recurring theme in the report. The fact that Parker was hosting boys at his home was well known, even if what was going on there was not. The school administration does not seem to have been falling over itself to investigate allegations that swirled around the man, and, according to the report, it might have been the use of one word as opposed to two others in the Education Act 1989 that allowed him to continue offending for as long as he did.
According to the report, based on information available to the author, no steps were taken for any inquiries to be made by the principal (Stephen Hovell) or the trustees regarding the circumstances of a complaint made against Parker by children in 2009.
Rather they had relied entirely on the outcome of CYF inquiries and a police investigation as to whether the allegations raised any matter of concern. Having been advised by the police that their investigation had been completed, that the allegations had been retracted (thanks in at least some part to a child's grandparents who did not wish to see Parker's career destroyed), and that no charges would be laid, what the board of trustees knew at that time did not meet the standard of reasonable belief that would have required an immediate report to the Teachers' Council.
The relevant section of the Act, the report says, refers to whether the board had "reason to believe that the teacher has engaged in serious misconduct", the word "has", used in the past tense, suggesting an established fact rather than an allegation or complaint not substantiated by an investigation.
If the Act had used the phrase "may have", the knowledge of an allegation alone would have required the board to report the complaint to the Teachers' Council. And so James Parker continued to abuse boys for three more years.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but even allowing for semantics it is difficult now to see how the suspicions aroused by Parker's activities were not acted upon more effectively long before 2012. In fact they were not acted upon at all.
In part the report suggests that naivete may have had a role to play in that. It also notes that the concern for many was not that Parker was doing what he actually was doing but that he was making himself vulnerable to a false complaint. There were those, however, who were clearly uneasy but did nothing.
There is another factor that comes into play there, however. The report refers to concerns regarding the potential outcome of making a false complaint against Parker. Even in hindsight it is understandable that anyone who was going to blow the whistle on something they suspected was happening but had no irrefutable knowledge of would have been anxious to have their ducks in a row before starting a process that would quickly have got out of their control.
One of those people was a trustee who spoke to both Parker and Mr Hovell, separately, about her concerns in 2009. She was worried about several aspects of Parker's behaviour at a school camp the previous year, although she described those concerns as being based on a gut feeling (that Parker was too familiar with selected children). A parent had told her she was overreacting. The following morning one of the boys emerged from the tent he had shared with Parker claiming to be wearing Parker's underwear.
That would be enough to have most parents ringing very loud alarm bells, but the trustee had been advised, according to the report (which does not identify the source of that advice) that she should be very careful, because if she was wrong she could be in serious trouble.
That, no doubt, is one thing that paedophiles rely on. Even in this arguably paranoid day and age, allegations of this nature that cannot be substantiated could do more harm to the accuser than the accused. Safer to keep your mouth shut.
That defence would not seem to be available to another interviewee, Parker's then girlfriend, who worked as a teacher aide at Oturu School when he was there in the late 1990s. The girlfriend, the teacher in the class she worked in and a mother had a conversation in which the mother said she would be concerned about boys overnighting at Parker's home if the girlfriend wasn't there. The girlfriend subsequently told the teacher that everyone thought it was "dodgy" but it was OK because she lived there as Parker's girlfriend. "But it's not OK. They (the boys) sleep in his bed with him and I sleep on the couch."
The teacher told his principal of that conversation, she suggested he tell the police, he told her that was her responsibility, and Parker carried on abusing boys for 13 more years.
Meanwhile the glaring omission from this 37-page report is input from Stephen Hovell. As principal at Pamapuria his role in this tragic story is pivotal, and the fact that he declined to be interviewed can lead to only one conclusion, one that is not favourable to Mr Hovell.
The writer has long regarded Stephen Hovell as a passionate teacher and an eminently decent man. That view has not changed. It is not drawing an excessively long bow to describe him as another of James Parker's victims. And there is no point conducting a witch hunt against him. One suspects that he will pay for his lack of effective action with his career, and while that might not be as big a price as some of Parker's pupils have paid or will pay it is not inconsiderable. He must also be allowed consideration of understandable reluctance to expose what, with a few exceptions perhaps, was never more than suspicion. Hindsight, again, does not portray him in a good light, but who would have acted differently, knowing the potential outcome if those suspicions proved to be unfounded?
As one Pamapuria staff member recalled telling a fellow employee, "If James goes down the school will go down" (in reference to the potential for a false allegation), a sentiment that must have weighed on Mr Hovell's mind.
There are degrees of culpability in this story, and some of it belongs to Stephen Hovell. This report makes it clear that a lot of people let these children down, but it should be remembered that James Parker is a very clever, extremely manipulative man.
"Successful" paedophiles must be clever and manipulative, or they will be caught much earlier than this man was. His offending was brazen, cynical and brutal. And we must not forget that Stephen Hovell, his other teachers, his trustees, the school community did not harm these boys. James Parker did. Hopefully the sorry story that has emerged will make it much harder for another paedophile to follow in his footsteps.