Former Armidale teacher admits to assaulting 7 students

BEHIND BARS: John Ferris walks into Armidale Local Court, dragging a suitcase, with his solicitor on Wednesday, before his bail was revoked. Photo: The Armidale Express

BEHIND BARS: John Ferris walks into Armidale Local Court, dragging a suitcase, with his solicitor on Wednesday, before his bail was revoked. Photo: The Armidale Express

AN ELDERLY Armidale man has been taken into custody after he admitted to sexually abusing young girls while he was a teacher more than 40 years ago.

John G Ferris was working at Ben Venue Public School in Armidale when he preyed upon his young victims, mostly on school grounds and sometimes in a home, sexually and indecently assaulting the girls in the late 1960s and ’70s.

On Wednesday, the 77-year-old had his bail revoked in Armidale Local Court, after pleading guilty to a raft of historic sex offences.

Several other counts will be taken into account when he learns his fate in the district court.

“They are serious facts, and they are disturbing ... a tremendous breach of trust in a position of authority,” Magistrate Michael Holmes told the court.

Ferris pleaded guilty to 21 counts of assaulting a female under 16 and committing an act of indecency, and two counts of detaining for advantage, after he assaulted seven students as well as another young girl in the late-1960s and ’70s.

The Leader revealed Ferris had been charged by New England detectives after they raided his Armidale home in July, as part of investigations by Strike Force Flair.

Following the guilty pleas on Wednesday, solicitor for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Rod Behan asked for Ferris’s bail to be revoked and said that, despite him being elderly, there were no special circumstances in his medical conditions.

“There are no issues that Justice Health would not be able to deal with,” he said.

Mr Behan submitted Ferris was a clear flight risk if he was to remain on bail as his sentencing hearing approached.

“They are show-cause issues under the bail act ... they are strictly indictable offences that carry a maximum of five years’ imprisonment,” he said.

“They involve sexual intercourse as defined in the crimes act, by a person above the age of 18. A custodial sentence is inevitable.”

Solicitor Joel Eng tendered medical evidence, doctors’ reports and a summary of medications, submitting his client had battled cancer and other conditions in recent years and should not be detained.

He argued that Justice Health “might not have adequate resources” to deal with “the difficulties faced by my client”.

“My client has no criminal history, there are no fail-to-appears,” he said.

“He has always shown up to court ... and up until now there has been no unacceptable risk.”

Victims of Ferris and supporters were seated in court for the proceedings, and gasped and shed tears as Ferris was denied bail.

Mr Holmes acknowledged Ferris’s medical conditions, but said it was a matter of a month before he would be sentenced.

“A very lengthy custodial sentence is very likely,” he said, pointing to the “strong case”. 

“I believe bail ought to be refused; I do not believe the accused has shown cause ... the court believes he should remain in custody.”

Ferris showed no emotion and reached for a packed suitcase he had wheeled into court before he was led into the dock, and down into the cells by police.

On Wednesday afternoon, he was transported to Tamworth Correctional Centre to start serving his sentence, which will be determined at a hearing in the Armidale District Court in February.

Strike Force Flair was launched to investigate claims of sexual abuse at Ben Venue Public School, after a referral to police by the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sex Abuse in 2013, and culminated in two arrests and dozens of charges.

Retired teacher Ian Berryman was charged with 33 historic child sex offences but died days after facing court.

Former Ben Venue principal Peter Garland died in 2010 and was also accused of sexually molesting children at the school in the 1970s and early ’80s, after a Fairfax Media investigation.

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