By Tammy Mills
February 1, 2020 — 4.30pm
Prestigious Melbourne school Trinity Grammar has paid out more than $1 million to a former student for the historical sexual abuse he suffered.
John Turner, abused in 1974 when he was 16 by boarding master Leslie Wiggins, said he felt vindicated.
“It makes me feel whole again. It makes me feel like a person. I never felt adequate as an adult, I always felt I was hopeless,” he said.
“The feelings of inadequacy and extreme anxiety have been present with me my entire life since the sixth form.”
Mr Turner, now 62, was sent to Trinity as a 14-year-old, moving from Papua New Guinea where his step-father was the vice chancellor of its university.
Boarding school life in Melbourne was at first fun and full of mischief in the shadow of some of their masters who Mr Turner described as a “procession of weirdos and oddballs who came and went”.
The boys would make jokes amongst themselves when they knew they were being watched in the showers by one master, and Wiggins, the assistant school chaplain, was known to have “liked little boys.”
Wiggins targeted Mr Turner after he and his friends were caught smoking marijuana. Awaiting to hear whether he’d be expelled, Wiggins came into Mr Turner’s bedroom at night on the pretext of wanting to help him. Wiggins assaulted him twice before the teenager asked to be moved into a shared dormitory.
Mr Turner told his sister, then his father found out and called a meeting with headmaster John Leppitt, who asked Mr Turner to leave the boarding house. Mr Turner didn’t fight back.
“I felt that I was saving my fellow boarders from a disastrous outcome because they’d been threatened with expulsion and I’d been told I was the ringleader. They were country boys so if they were expelled, it would have been life-long shame,” Mr Turner said.
Mr Turner left the boarding house to live with his father in Richmond, and he said he was thrown into the “abyss”. He started an arts/law degree at Monash University, and his father had plans for him to go into politics. But riddled with anxiety, he couldn’t finish the degree and lurched from job to job. He now runs his own cleaning business.
“I could never hold a job down and it’s almost a direct result of that. I would just get restless,” he said.
Mr Turner said he chose to go public in an effort to try and get in touch with his school friends, as well as a close friend from Ruyton Girls’ School who was assaulted by a Trinity master.
“I don’t know what’s happened to them in their lives and I want them to know I was trying to protect them,” he said.
By coming forward, Mr Turner also had to disclose to his wife what had happened to him as a boy.
“It was difficult, but she has always been very supportive. She was terrific. And for her it explains a lot,” he said.
“Now that I’ve told everyone, I’m not ashamed of it.”
Wiggins was convicted in 1991 of indecently assaulting three boys on the Mornington Peninsula. He died several years ago.
Mr Turner praised the school’s current administration for their handling of his claim.
“Right from the start, they accepted responsibility,” he said.
School council chairman John Gillam said historical cases of child sex abuse has darkened Trinity’s history, but the school was committed to ensuring support and action for those affected.
“We are deeply sorry that these abuses have occurred. The school will not forget nor underestimate the impact these historical incidents have had,” Mr Gillam said.
Rightside Legal senior associate Laird Macdonald, who represented Mr Turner, said institutions are “slowly waking up to the devastating consequences of child abuse and the compensation they have to pay to deal with this dreadful legacy”.
Trinity signed up to the redress scheme in 2018 and Mr Macdonald said, had his client gone through that system, he would have received a maximum $150,000 in compensation.
The way the school dealt with Mr Turner’s claim signals a shift in a school that had struggled to grapple with historical abuse claims.
This came to a head when allegations were made against a once revered school figure, Christopher Howell, who taught at Trinity for more than 40 years.
Howell took his own life before he was due to face court on an indecent assault charge, and, even though they knew about the allegations, former headmaster Dr Michael Davies and his deputy Rohan Brown penned a tribute calling him a hero.
The tribute caused deep divides in the school, culminating with Dr Davies’ resignation in 2018. His exit from the school was not over the handling of abuse allegations, but from intense backlash for sacking Mr Brown after he cut a student’s hair.
If this story has raised concerns for you, the following services can assist:
Lifeline: 13 11 14 lifeline.org.au
Sexual Assault Crisis Line: 1800 806 292 (free call)