New Zealand’s Approach to Institutional Child Abuse – A History of Cover Ups and Denial

Article written July/August 2015

New Zealand holds the dubious distinction of lagging behind most countries in the Commonwealth (and indeed in the Western World) in its approach to child abuse.  Successive Governments, to date, have resisted all calls for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into child abuse in its own country.(Sam Benton)

In July of 2015, a journalist from the Dominion Post, Stacey Kirk, released Official Information Act (OIA) material surrounding the historic claims and the then newly announced Fast Track scheme for resolving claims of historic abuse against the State.  These documents showed that the New Zealand National Government identified the potential for a public inquiry into institutional child abuse as a risk with the potential for them to lose control of a process they had worked hard to tightly contain.

Among the risks the documents specified were: “loss of confidence and trust in the process of resolving claims of abuse; the potential of a renewed call for a public enquiry into historic claims; claimants looking to the courts for resolution… or an alternative process being called for either by the courts or through public opinion and pressure”.

The Cabinet documents highlighted that a backlog of 921 historic claims had built up. The Government was aiming to settle them by 2020.

Contrary to trends in other countries, surrounding cases of institutional historic abuse, any claim that made it to a court “will be defended”, the documents showed. The defense was a technical defense. Any claim, where events of abuse occurred 6 years or more prior to court proceedings being filed, could be defeated on ‘Statute of Limitations’ – a time bar defense the State wasn’t obliged to invoke, but had chosen to do so. This, by design, closed the door to any independent and impartial investigation of claims through the courts where findings and legal precedent could be set – instead leaving claimants with no other choice but to seek redress through the very same institution that was responsible for their abuse. One claimant labeling the quality of this redress as “another kick in the guts”.

None of this was too surprising. It was, after all, the Government of NZ who was largely responsible for child abuse that had occurred historically in institutional care. It was also that Government that had the power to approve or deny a public inquiry that would undoubtedly expose historic systemic failings, along with a litany of cover-ups’.  It was also the Government that would ultimately be responsible, politically and financially for these failings.Not too surprisingly, much like the Catholic Church has done in Australia and elsewhere, the OIA clearly demonstrated the Government’s (the guilty party’s) intent to contain the facts of historic child abuse in its institutions.

Read Dominion Post story here….

Recent History

In November 2012, the Archbishop of Wellington, and President of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference (NZCBC), John Dew, publicly supported the Royal Commission into institutionalised child abuse announced in Australia.

Archbishop Dew said the NZCBC would support any similar investigation in New Zealand.

But the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, said that he didn’t see the need for an inquiry into child sexual abuse, similar to the one announced in Australia, noting a lot of work had already been done in New Zealand to prepare what would become the widely slated ‘White Paper for Vulnerable Children’. Notably, however, the White Paper had nothing to do with investigating historical institutional child abuse (let alone child sexual abuse) and totally failed to address child poverty (the key cause of child abuse in general).

Amongst the various critics of the White Paper were:

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei with, “The [paper] failed to address the single most dangerous thing in a child’s life – poverty.”

Opposition spokesperson for Social Development and Children, Jacinda Ardern with, “a lost opportunity to make New Zealand the best country in the world to be a child… The glaring omission in this paper is the 270,000 Kiwi children living in poverty. Lifting our children out of poverty is one of the best things we can do to improve their lives. The longer we ignore child poverty, the more it will cost us. We spend roughly $6 billion a year picking up the pieces when children do not get a good start in life.

And UNICEF NZ’s National Advocacy Manager, Barbara Lambourn, with: “the paper will improve processes for responding to child abuse, but needed to include poverty issues. Poverty is a factor in neglect, poor health and lack of opportunity – the White Paper does not offer solutions to plan better outcomes for these children.”

Others dismissed the White Paper as “an exercise in window dressing” – a whitewash – with almost $400,000 spent on consultants.

Almost $200,000 was paid to two recruitment consultancies and $9000 to advertisers Saatchi & Saatchi. A communications adviser got $9500 and a copywriter $16,905 for two months’ work.

Perhaps the greatest critic of the White Paper  was ex-patriot billionaire philanthropist Sir Owen Glenn who announced in December 2012 that he was funding an independent inquiry into child abuse in New Zealand. Glenn is quoted with, “this could have been an official Royal Commission of Inquiry, but the government declined my offer to fund it.”

The inquiry came with much fanfare and was labeled ‘the peoples inquiry’. Along with the offer of funding for the inquiry Glenn had pledged millions more for tackling violence against women and children. Much of this money would go towards various New Zealand charities. In total he had promised 80 million dollars towards the campaign.

The Glenn report was to be delivered in early 2014, election year, and Glenn committed to commission a communications firm to sign up 500,000 people to a petition demanding all parties support the findings of his inquiry – or lose their votes.

“Once we have 500,000 voters people will sit up and take notice,” he had said.

In another sign of serious intent, Glenn had recruited 13 international child abuse and domestic violence experts – from Australia, the US, Canada, Uganda, and including a veteran Scottish homicide officer as well as senior academics – to form a think-tank.

Glenn had also appointed veteran family violence campaigner and former head of the government’s domestic violence unit, Ruth Herbert, to lead the inquiry.

Media surrounding the inquiry informed the public that:


“ Owen Glenn dreams of standing before the United Nations, waving a ground-breaking report into how New Zealand solved domestic violence and child abuse, and saying “here, that’s how you do it”.

Even if they just give him a 20-minute audience, he says, he’ll be pleased.

The billionaire philanthropist says his “People’s Inquiry” – that has just kicked off and, although Glenn is reluctant to talk figures, will cost a considerable part of the “up to $80 million” he’s pledged to help fight child abuse – will certainly have a significant impact on the next election.”

(End Quote)

On paper it looked extremely good. The reality, however, was very different.

History would now tell us that the Glenn Inquiry would lose credibility when key advisers, including Ruth Herbert, resigned en masse , the millions in funding that was promised to charities was not forthcoming, the inquiry, a social inquiry, was based on a business model, data security surrounding highly sensitive information was in question, the communications firm, to sign up 500,000 people, was never commissioned, and it was exposed that Sir Owen Glenn had allegedly assaulted a one time female employee. While some media outlets framed the story as Owen Glenn had been convicted of the crime, the official version of events was far more complex, and the case had been held over and lodged as a no contest and eventually dismissed. However, guilt or no guilt, all the negative publicity was not a good look for an inquiry thats remit was to investigate violence against women and children! Although, one must also ask how it came to be that so much negative press was directed at an inquiry that sought to protect societies most vulnerable citizens? After all, it does seem odd that something (anything) that stood for positive change would encounter so much print vitriol. A keen conspiracy theorist might argue that, on the surface, someone with an agenda had an axe to grind and that person or entity had the ear of the NZ mainstream media. Anyway, after what can only be described as a, at times, shambolic and ethically questionable media lynching along with threats of a criminal investigation over funding issues, Sir Owen Glenn, who sunk over 2 million dollars – some 78 million shy of the 80 million he had initially promised – into his inquiry, feels embittered by the experience and has permanently departed NZ for his home in Monaco (definitely a more civilized and far less hostile location for the man of the people – albeit one that the people he promised millions to in charity, and then reneged, are unlikely to ever visit). The last time I heard from him he had this to say:

“My over $2million spent on the Glenn inquiry into violence against women and children in NZ. And a direct appeal to the UN Sec Gen have elicited no response
I regret to say The people and the politicians who they elect just do not care
The world at large pays lip service”
Read Owen Glenn’s take on things re being targeted and vilified here….  *Story from the Sunday Star Times 29/11/2015)

This shambles aside, and coming back to the New Zealand Catholic Church backing a Royal Commission, while the government declined, the then NZ Social Development Minister, and person charged with handling the White Paper, Paula Bennett backed up Prime Minister John Key’s position stating enough is already being done.

“I think the fact that we have been addressing historical abuse cases in this country, we have been doing it faster than it’s ever been done, we’ve been fronting up to some of the liability around that and settling a number of cases,” Ms Bennett said.

“That includes the confidential listening and assistance service, through which people can raise allegations of abuse or neglect, or who have concerns relating to their time in state care before 1992.

I think we’ve got other things in place that are addressing what, without a doubt, is cases of historical abuse.”

Paula Bennett, then countered criticisms about the National Government’s White Paper stating that  as a one time single mother she found it offensive that poverty and child abuse should be linked and that – contrary to all expert opinion – poverty had nothing to do with child abuse….. Indeed! (There is, actually, no intelligent response that can be made to such a politically depraved statement, other than it appears as if New Zealanders are equal opportunity voters…. intellectual handicaps aside!)

Fast forward to 2015 and, to date, while all other Commonwealth jurisdictions and most other developed countries have held, or are currently holding, Commission’s of Inquiry or Royal Commission’s into institutional child abuse, successive New Zealand Governments’ have steadfastly refused, in conflict with international best practice, to take a similar route.

As a onetime New Zealand, now UK based solicitor, Sam Benton argues when discussing the irony of appointing a New Zealand Judge (Justice Lowell Goddard) to head the UK child sexual abuse inquiry (2015):

“Having practised as one of the only specialist child abuse lawyers in New Zealand for over eight years, primarily dealing with abuse in State run institutions, I have to ask – what of Justice Goddard’s independence from New Zealand’s baggage?… In its “exhaustive” worldwide search for an Inquiry Chair, the Foreign Office cannot have overlooked the fact that New Zealand holds the dubious distinction of lagging behind most countries in the Commonwealth (and indeed in the Western World) in its approach to child abuse.  Successive Governments, to date, have resisted all calls for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into child abuse in its own country.” (Read original article)

In fact, as of today, both key political parties in New Zealand (National and Labour) maintain the more than questionable bilateral party line that there is no need for a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse. This is perhaps not too surprising given any such inquiry would present as a serious conflict of interest to the government of the day. That is, New Zealand is perhaps unique, when compared to most other countries, in that the vast majority of historic institutional child abuse occurred in New Zealand Government institutions. Therefore, any open inquiry would be a case of the government being investigated for, among other things, serious oversights, systemic failings, and cover ups that led to horrendous levels of child abuse within its own institutions.  Such a scenario is obviously not one that any government would want. Catch 22! We the accused, with the most to lose, can categorically state… “There is no need for a Royal Commission…” Transparency, accountability and justice denied!

The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) – New Zealand’s hidden institutional child abuse inquiry

“That includes the confidential listening and assistance service, through which people can raise allegations of abuse or neglect, or who have concerns relating to their time in state care before 1992.”  (Paula Bennett, 2012)

The New Zealand Government has, in fact, already held a historic institutional child abuse inquiry – the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service – where 1103 victim stories have been heard. The inquiry cost the New Zealand tax payer over eight million dollars and spanned six years between April 2009 to June 2015. The inquiry is/was only semi-independent of government and it was expressly forbidden from making public or ministerial comment. This has resulted in the information from the inquiry, for all intents and purposes, being censored/suppressed/buried/hidden by the government.

By June 2014, 908 stories had been heard; 509 people claimed to have suffered sexual abuse under State care and 649 alleged emotional or physical abuse. 75 per cent were in child welfare at the time, with the rest in health camps, psychiatric care or education residences.  241 have been to prison, 107 have gone on to physically or sexually abuse others. 78 current prisoners have claimed abuse or neglect with another 76 waiting to be heard. In June of 2015, when the CLAS doors closed, 1103 victim stories had been told.

Victims have described the perpetrators of abuse as being “everywhere” including staff, social workers, cooks, gardeners, night watchmen, foster parents and grandfathers, teachers, nuns, priests, ministers and pastors.

Beyond this, little information is known. The New Zealand public, for the most part, remains completely unaware of what has been allowed to transpire in New Zealand State (Government) run institutions. For all intents and purposes a history of horrendous child abuse has been hidden from the public – swept under a rug of political rhetoric in the hope that it will go unnoticed. As the head of the CLAS inquiry (Judge Carolyn Henwood) is quoted in media: “One part of there not being an inquiry is that the public don’t know about any of this. Findings are kept under the radar”.  

This suppression of the facts has facilitated significant aberrations of justice for victims, and recently (May 2015) the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) called the New Zealand State to task for violating the rights of New Zealand’s historic institutional abuse victims/survivors with:


“19. While welcoming the commitment of the State Party to provide compensation to victims of historic claims of abuse, the Committee is concerned at the fact that victims have not been awarded with full redress, including compensation and rehabilitation, as prescribed by general comment No. 3 (2012) on the implementation of article 14 by States parties.

… The State party should establish the legislative and structural framework necessary for ensuring that all victims of torture receive redress, including medical and psychological assistance, full compensation and the means for full rehabilitation.”

(End Quote)

Other than this, the UNCAT has preemptively made a statement that they intend to focus on four issues from their 54th Session which involved serious concerns for victims of torture and are protective in their nature.  The four issues are: access to fundamental safeguards in connection with the deprivation of liberty; prompt, impartial and effective investigations of allegations of torture and ill-treatment; prosecution of persons accused of acts of torture and punishment if found guilty; and redress to the victims of torture or ill-treatment. States will be expected to comply with the UNs recommendations within a year.

This preemptive statement has telling implications for New Zealand which is currently dealing with over 1000 cases of historic child abuse that occurred in their institutions pre 1992.

Prior to these UN findings/conclusions, in May 2012, Felice Gaer from the UNCAT had written to the NZ Government asking if they intended “to carry out an impartial investigation into the nearly 200 allegations of torture and ill-treatment against minors at Lake Alice” and prosecute and punish the perpetrators. This question came after years of advocacy work and lobbying by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights NZ (CCHR NZ) surrounding what amounted to torture being meted out by a deranged psychiatrist, Selwyn Leeks, and other so called “mental health care professionals” in NZ State run psychiatric institutions such as the onetime Lake Alice.  In this case, while the NZ Government had made financial settlements and tendered an apology to onetime child psychiatric patients of Lake Alice in the face of overwhelming evidence from the testimony of multitudes of victims they failed to arrest and prosecute key perpetrators of the abuse.  The obvious question here is why? Why did the government, in essence, clearly admit to the criminal behavior of some of its past employees and then, “in the face of overwhelming evidence”, fail to pursue and prosecute perpetrators? This is perhaps even more relevant, given the key perpetrator, the now disgraced “shock doctor”, Selwyn Leeks has since been found guilty, in civil proceedings, of sexually abusing an Australian patient in 1979 – 1980.

Beyond their official explanation that a lack of evidence exists (even though they have hundreds of witness statements from victims) only the government would truly know why they haven’t at least charged “shock doctor” Leeks… it’s not as if he could cite, in defence, his high moral character and lack of abusive behavior towards his  patients since his days at Lake Alice in any court proceedings. This is just one of the many questions that would need to be addressed in a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse; i.e. why did the NZ Government seemingly do everything in its power to cover up what had occurred at Lake Alice and other State run psychiatric institutions? Was there a cover up? And was Leeks acting with government knowledge/sanction when, as a standard and regular practice,  he used Electric Convulsive Therapy (ECT), described by one judge as a “regime of terror”, on children that were housed in Lake Alice?

Read Lake Alice apology letter, signed by PM Helen Clark (Dec 2002)….

The Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) is perhaps one of the most appropriately named inquiries ever, in that it is so “confidential” that the New Zealand tax payer, who has funded it to the tune of over eight million dollars, knows very little about its existence and far less about its’ findings.

When compared to other Commonwealth child abuse inquiries this raises serious concerns as to transparency and accountability along with serious questions as to just what it is that New Zealanders are getting for their tax dollars. It also raises very serious concerns as to just what quality of justice New Zealand’s victims of institutional abuse are receiving at the hands of the same State that was responsible for their abuse in the first instance. In fact, one could reasonably argue that Australian victims of the Catholic Church fared much better in their treatment by the Church than many of New Zealand’s victims at the hands of State.

A rather obvious philosophical question presents here and that is, can those responsible, as the party who is liable, both politically and financially, for the abuse, be entrusted with impartially investigating their own?  Such a scenario seems fraught with conflicts of interest. Certainly, given what is now being exposed through inquiries such as the Australian RC, history tells us that when institutions investigate their own (e.g. the Catholic Church), aberrations of truth and justice invariably result.

It is  notable that the Australian RC, is everything the CLAS is not. That is, independent and transparent, based on international best practice and with the intent of making public knowledge RC inquiries and findings. As outlined in the Terms of Reference of the Australian RC, the word “institution” refers to both public and private bodies that have allowed for adults to come in contact with children. Should it emerge through the commission’s investigations that abuse in public, or State run, institutions was prevalent, distance between the government and the commission will be crucial to ensure its legitimacy.

No such sureties of integrity and impartiality exist with the CLAS.

To date, the New Zealand Government denies systemic abuse and/or systemic failings in its institutions. However, this flies in the face of all known facts/findings that have come out of all other institutional child abuse inquiries from every other country around the world. As Sonja Cooper, a lawyer who represents many victims has pointed out:

“ (If) there is no evidence of systemic failure …that would be contrary to the position of every other Commonwealth country….. There is no doubt that the paper “Institutional Perpetrators of Abuse”, completed by Cooper Legal in 2006 (when the client base was significantly smaller than it is now) reveals systemic abuse. For instance, in the case of one staff member, 16 individual claimants identified him as physically abusive. Another staff member was identified as physically abusive by 14 claimants. Yet another staff member was identified as physically abusive by 30 claimants.

Another named staff member was identified as physically abusive by 29 claimants. A further staff member was identified as physically abusive by 27 claimants. There are also significant numbers of claimants making similar allegations about sexual and physical abuse by various individual staff members…”  link –

Author’s note: Since publishing this story, the Media ran coverage of the CLAS findings after its final report was accessed through the Official Information Act by Dominion Post journalist Stacey Kirk. A story on the CLAS final report (New Zealand’s hidden child abuse inquiry)  can be found here….   




2 comments on “New Zealand’s Approach to Institutional Child Abuse – A History of Cover Ups and Denial

  1. Ray smith on said:

    It is no surprise the finds of these reports. NGOs face the frustration everyday at the governments indifference to historic child abuse. Good reading

  2. Rawiri on said:

    The national government has a lot to answer for. Their continual human rights abuses, poverty, breakfast in schools, lunches, are just a small sign of keeping the people “where they deserve” (as if we were all criminals)”. Take a look at the minimum wage.. Their employers can not afford any increases, and they get a whacking huge increases (annually), but the “worker” screwed to the backbone. Yes inquiries and commission term of references must be controlled so to cover up and avoid exposure of their manipulations to put them as if they were doing something constructive. But in reality is is planning their strategies to maintain the benches of government when they are corrupts as. This corruption is rifted out into the community, Ecan and many councils, just to give a tinkling of this is more fodder to be chewed on

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