Face of 'the feeler' - former students accuse principal of sex abuse

Police have launched an investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse at an Armidale public primary school following revelations made in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday. 

The former principal of Ben Venue Public School in Armidale, Peter Garland, is accused of sexually molesting children at the school between 1971 and 1986. Victims allege that not only Garland but two or more teachers regularly and often blatantly abused students, in classrooms, storerooms and offices.

Several more victims alleging they were abused have come forward in response to The Herald’s article, bringing the number so far to 15. Many more people have written to say they witnessed the abuse or heard about it. 

One man recalled seeing Garland fondling the buttocks of a young boy in his class at Woodstock Public School in 1964. 

At least one woman now in her 50s alleges abuse by Garland and another teacher at the same time. Several of those alleging abuse say their siblings were abused as well, and in some cases they had not discussed it between them until after speaking to The Herald.

A police spokesman confirmed the New England Local Area Command has launched an investigation into the allegations. 

People with information that could assist the investigation are invited to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000. 

“As the investigation is ongoing it is not appropriate to comment further,” the spokesman said. 

At least five families reported Garland’s conduct to police but no charges were ever laid. The Herald has been told of three occasions when those who complained to police were fobbed off on the grounds that Garland was a “respected member of the community”. Another family said they complained to the NSW Department of Education about Garland’s abuse of their son but were told the word of a child would not be believed against that of the principal. 

A spokesman for the NSW Department of Education and Communities said the department was co-operating with the police investigation. The alleged incidents reported in The Herald were “against the values of public education.”

The spokesman said since the period of the allegations, the Code of Conduct for staff and child protection training had been greatly strengthened to protect children. 

“Any reports of this nature are thoroughly investigated by the department  and/or police and action taken against any staff involved,” the spokesman said. 

Stephen Dolan and Vanessa Moloney who were classmates of this reporter at Ben Venue Public School in 5th and 6th grade aged 11 and 12 are among those to reveal they were regularly sexually assaulted at the school. It appears many victims were selected by Garland to appear in the school operetta or be school captains. It was common for children to be half dressed or naked in Garland’s office as they prepared for school performances. He was known among children as “the feeler”.

Garland was awarded a medal of the Order of Australia for services to the community. He died in 2010.

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