Melbourne private school Trinity Grammar has paid out $500,000 to a former student sexually abused by a teacher the school heads had labelled a “hero”.
Christopher Howell was a senior teacher at the exclusive school for more than 40 years. He took his own life in January 2016, three days before he was due to face court on an indecent assault charge.
On the day of the scheduled court appearance, then headmaster Michael Davies and his deputy Rohan Brown paid tribute to Howell’s “extraordinary legacy” despite knowing he had been charged with the child sex crime.
“To many, including those penning this letter, Chris Howell was, is and always will be the best educator we have known,” they wrote in the letter to the school community.
“He was a hero to many who worked with him and walked alongside him…he always worked in the best interest of the boys.”
The letter led to the president and treasurer of the Old Boys board to resign in disgust, and it also prompted John – not his real name – to come forward.
John, now in his 50s, said he was sexually assaulted twice by Howell in 1973 when he was a 15-year-old boarder at Trinity. One incident occurred in a tent during a bushwalking trip and the other happened about two weeks later in a storeroom on school grounds.
He told his parents about the attacks the following year. His parents reported them to boarding master Leslie Wiggins, who was later convicted of molesting boys in Rosebud. They also told then headmaster John Leppitt. Both men rubbished John’s claims.
John sued the school last year, with Trinity recently settling for more than $500,000 just before a civil trial was due to start.
The school apologised to John for the 2016 tribute letter to Howell, and in a statement to The Age called it an error of judgment.
“Christopher Howell was a child abuser and his abhorrent acts of sexual abuse have had a catastrophic impact on the lives of those he abused as well as their families and friends,” a school spokeswoman said.
Six men have approached lawyers with allegations about Howell.
John told The Age the school’s apology and its acknowledgement that Howell was a child abuser was more important than the money.
“This apology is not just for me it’s for the school community that they lied to and it sets the record straight,” he said.
“This is one step closer to closure. It’s about those who came before me and who came after me and those who haven’t felt they could stand up. To move from victim to survivor you have to stand up.”
His lawyer Michael Magazanik, of Rightside Legal, said Trinity had a child abuse problem in the 1970s. Four former teachers have been accused of assaulting children in the same era.
“It takes enormous courage to demand justice in the way that John did, and we’re proud to have worked with him,” Mr Magazanik said.
“Historically, it’s been incredibly difficult for survivors to get justice. But that has changed. The law is more on the side of survivors than ever before.”
Dr Davies resigned as school headmaster earlier this year after an outcry over a haircut. Rohan Brown was initially sacked for chopping the hair of a student, but then reinstated after a campaign from parents and alumni that pressured Dr Davies to resign.
“The parents were so upset about a haircut when this is a school, and Rohan Brown was a man, who defended Chris Howell. I just couldn’t believe the school was in such a crisis over that,” John said.