8 Mar 2022

Behind the story: The town that backed a child sex abuser

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 8 March 2022
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Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

RNZ's executive editor of longform journalism Veronica Schmidt talks to The Detail about the wider issues raised by her recent investigation into a volunteer firefighter who sexually abused his young son - and the boy's mother's fight to be believed. 

Veronica Schmidt thought she was onto a one-in-a-million story - a town that turned on a mother and her child when the father was accused of sexual abuse.  

But what she discovered was that this was far from uncommon. 

The man, Richard*, faced six charges of indecent assault on a child under 12 and one of assault on a child. 

At trial, he was found guilty of a representative charge of indecent assault and not guilty of the others. He was sentenced to 10 months home detention. 

He ended up taking his case to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court but failed both times. 

Schmidt says from the moment the mother, Rachel*, came to her, she knew it was a story that had to be told. 

"Not just the court case, it was that there were so many other things involved in this.  

"The town had turned against this child and his mother, and Fire and Emergency [Richard was a volunteer firefighter] had a very dubious response to him being charged and even convicted." 

Fire and Emergency has had problems in the past, with victims or complainants saying their allegations of sexual assault were not taken seriously by the organisation, Schmidt says. 

That part of the story was familiar, but to find so many people in a small town had turned against Rachel and sided with Richard was "unbelievable", she says. 

"When I first heard this story, and before I started doing a lot of reading about child abuse and about child abuse trials, I thought this was a really rare, bizarre story - a whole town or lots of people in the town turning on a child and their mother and rallying around the abuser." 

Schmidt double-sourced every fact, but she discovered from research and from talking to experts that "this happens all the time". 

Coupled with that, statistics show only about 10 in every 100 sexual abuse crimes are reported to the police. Of those, about three get to court and just one is likely to result in a conviction. 

"It is incredibly rare to make a complaint, get through all the scrutiny of the investigation and then to get a guilty verdict," Schmidt says. 

* Names have been changed to protect the child's identity


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