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Abuse of Trust Pt 3: Victims ignored

Sat 10 May 2014 In: True Stories View at Wayback View at NDHA

Abuse of trust: Pt 1 - The trap Abuse of trust: Pt 2 - The assaults Silipa Take At the time of the first formalised accusation of sexual assault by counsellor Silipa Take in 2009, the NZAF's Wellington Awhina Centre was operating without a full-time manager. The manager of the Christchurch branch of the NZAF was dividing her time, week on week off, between the two locations. There had been rumours of imminent restructuring swirling around the Awhina Centre for some time. For years staff in Wellington had been all too willing to voice their disdain for 'the suits' in Auckland. And from Auckland there was a frisson of frustration that Wellington would not 'get with the programme' sufficiently. There was a culture gap, and as we shall see later, possibly a communications gap as well. When the first of the sexually assaulted men to pluck up sufficient courage, or indignation, reported his concern to the NZAF the organisation swung into action. The Auckland-based manager of support services at the time, Eamonn Smythe, jetted down to the capital and took charge of the response. We don't know the fine detail of what transpired. Those involved at the highest level of the organisation, such as the then-executive Director Rachael Le Mesurier and the then-Chair Mark Henrickson, have long been reluctant to engage. Henrickson has generally countered questions on the matter with statements to the effect that appropriate advice was sought, appropriate processes were followed and that they are happy with the way things were handled. As recently as three weeks ago Henrickson stated, advising that he was also speaking for Le Mesurier and Smythe, “I have full confidence in the way this very unfortunate matter was managed, with the information and advice that was available at the time.” They declined to comment on the detail of what transpired as "it is "not useful" to comment further “because of the passage of time and distance from key documentation.” Le Mesurier herself has never spoken directly to about the Take affair despite repeated attempts to make contact with her. But this much we know, or have been told by Henrickson and current Executive Director Shaun Robinson: The Foundation's lawyers were consulted, as was Take's union. The matter was discussed with the police and due to the reluctance of the complainant to formally press charges the police could not progress the matter. All the NZAF's counsellors were required to be accredited members of a professional body, or to be working towards accreditation. The organisation Take represented, The New Zealand Association of Counsellors, apparently said it could not take action unless they received a formal complaint from the police. ( would later seek broad and specific comment from the NZAC as the Take affair eventually publicly unfolded, they never formally responded, concerned that by then charges had been made and the matter was before the court.) But on the basis of the first formal complaint lodged with the NZAF, Awhina Centre staff were consulted and Take was confronted with the allegation, which he initially denied. But when it appeared to have some basis in fact it was suggested that he resign, and he did so within 48 hours. The months, indeed years, passed and the whole thing vanished off the radar. As a usually reliable and informed ex-staffer describes it, the affair was "shut down." Not a peep escaped the NZAF battlements, except word indirectly reaching Daily News that there was a problem with one of its counsellors. When informally followed up, that seemed to lead nowhere. But there's a glaring gap in the Foundation's investigation handling of this matter under the then management: the possibility of other victims. No attempt was made to check with Take's many other clients, at least ten of whom it later turned out he had sexually assaulted. This is the part that has people shaking their heads. Past NZAF chairs Jonathan Smith and Michael Stevens, for example, both expressed degrees of uneasiness about this lack of care for the other men who might have fallen prey to Take's fondlings and gropings under the guise of unauthorised medical examinations. Past NZAF counsellors and gay counsellors never associated with the organisation are incredulous at the lack of action. Even the current Executive Director, Shaun Robinson, has stated several times, including again yesterday, that "follow-up and investigation with other clients should have occurred." The gay community is small and in specialised areas such as sexual health promotion and support everyone tends to know everyone. In instances like this people with insights and inside knowledge of the affair are reluctant to speak out publicly. But, guaranteed confidentiality, several have spoken to One ex-middle management person who left the NZAF some years ago has defended the top management of the time, saying they were poorly advised and suggested that as counselling was not their personal area of expertise they rather unfortunately deferred to the poor advice. In the statement from Henrickson, Le Mesurier and Smythe provided by Henrickson in response to Daily News questions they say that they could not approach other possible victims because "The [complainant] informed staff at the time that he did not wish any further action, and specifically that he did not wish staff to contact any other clients on the basis of his case." It's a position that an NZAF insider took strong exception to and contacted to claim it is "bullshit." It's certainly hard to credit that intelligent, professional and supposedly caring people would acquiesce to that request rather than tactfully reach out to what were likely to be other victims - some of whom, it is now confirmed, are suffering ongoing emotional difficulties. Another informant, who has agreed not to identify, has in the last few days suggested that the then-management's main objective was to protect the NZAF's public persona and professional reputation and that it was very convenient to not dig too deeply. He then corroborated that historical claim obliquely floated to about something being known to be amiss with an Awhina Centre counsellor. He advised that at least one Awhina staffer had already been advised of Take's sexual interference with a client or clients some time before the initial complainant came forward. And in retrospect, our informant claims, that staffer had clearly done nothing, or if he or she did report it up the chain of command it wasn't followed up, thereby allowing the abuse to continue. asked current NZAF Executive Director Shaun Robinson if there were any records of indications such as rumours or suspicions, by staff or other clients, that something may have been amiss regarding Silipa Take and his clients prior to the first complaint which led to Take's resignation. Of course Robinson and the current management team weren't at the Foundation at the time the Take affair initially unfolded, so he has to rely either on management records from the time or on information supplied more recently by one or more of Henrickson, Le Mesurier or Smythe. "Prior to the first complaint the management of the time were not aware of any concerns raised," Robinson says. And in a follow-up conversation to clarify that statement Robinson says he understands that as soon as the initial internal investigation was launched it did indeed become apparent that some Awhina Centre staff had been aware of allegations against Take, "for weeks rather than months." "Shortly before the formal complaint some staff started to have concerns and these staff were listened to in the initial investigation," he says. But, clearly, Auckland management had not been alerted by the Wellington staff and in the interim it appears Take continued to see, and possibly sexually assault, more clients. In part four, tomorrow, we jump forward to late last year when action was finally taken to bring Take to justice and to identify and support other victims.     Jay Bennie - 10th May 2014

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Saturday, 10th May 2014 - 11:03am

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