A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Passing Judgment on Paedophile Pete
February 27, 2005
Lent 3 Rom 5:1-11 John 4:5-42
Peter Liddell, 59-year-old serial paedophile, caught again, was this week sentenced to preventive detention. He goes inside for a minimum of five years and, if the Parole Board deems him unsafe, forever. He has 18 convictions now to his name. The names of his victims I suspect number many more.
He has been unsafe for a long time. Although there is evidence that he's been offending in this country for some 26 years, it was only in the 1990's he was finally convicted. At that time the media made much of his 'guidance counsellor' role at King's College. His main employer over the decades, various Auckland hospitals, got off light.
In the late 1980's as Vicar of Glen Innes I worked with the local Mental Health Unit running an Anger Management Programme at Tamaki College. In particular there were two of us who worked with the boys - Peter Liddell and I.
If you imagine abusers to be shifty, furtive, unkempt types who wear baggy clothes think again. Peter was an affable, credible, likeable guy who would be genuinely concerned for yours and others welfare.
Ask Jennifer. She was an elderly parishioner who without Peter's practical support would not have been living in her own Council flat. Peter, often out of hours, helped her with seemingly no ulterior motive save altruism.
Peter was a family man with kids of his own. He was the sort of guy you'd have a beer with and talk about the state of the world. He went out of his way to be kind to people. He also went out of his way to befriend boys, give them lifts home, and abuse them.
In the NZ Herald last Saturday, beneath the article about his sentencing, a family whose son Donald had been abused by Peter, disbelieved, and then committed suicide, told their story.  They knew Peter well. He'd befriended their whole family. They were skeptical that Peter would be inside longer than five years. They know the power of his credible charm. I share their scepticism.
While leading that Anger Management Programme I heard gossip, 3rd or 4th hand, about Peter and abuse. I quietly asked others in the team about it, and they'd heard the rumours too. Naively I thought because we were co-teaching, the boys were safe. I knew little in those days of the methods Peter and his ilk use. I had no idea that the friendly face who the boys had seen at school was in a friendly way offering one or two a lift home.
What do you do when you hear such gossip - gossip that could tarnish the reputation of a respected senior social worker? These days, amongst those in the caring professions, it is very clear what to do when you think a child is in danger. You report, regardless of the wishes of the victim or his/her family.
Yet what about gossip? When you hear that the respected social worker is going on his son's school camp, do you ring the school and share your unsubstantiated rumour? Do you have a quiet word with the Principal or D.P.? Or do you say nothing? It feels safest to say nothing. Besmirching someone's good name is no light matter.
Neither is knowing that children are potentially being put at risk because you are keeping quiet. Unfortunately the balance is usually weighted towards protecting adults' reputations rather than vulnerable children. For myself, these days, I am less restrained in following through with rumours when children may be at risk. Secrets generally protect adults, not children.
As for Peter, despite the good work of sex offender programmes, I have no doubt that he needs to remain in a secure environment for the rest of his life. He can never be trusted, and we are fools if we do.
Some will be shocked hearing this from me. I am no advocate for prisons - quite the reverse! I have been in a few and their ability to reform inmates is a joke. One chaplain told me that a stretch of six weeks inside is all it takes for prison to act as a deterrent, after that it's straight punishment and public safety. I think rather than spending on more bars and concrete we should be making our society safer by spending on programmes that involve the offender's whole social structure.
I could write for quite awhile on penal reform, but you catch my drift. I can easily be pigeonholed as a wishy-washy liberal who's soft on crims.
Then there are serial paedophiles like Peter. When he is an old man, shuffling around the block with his walking stick, I still don't want him near children. His destructive weapon is his mind. He spies out the vulnerable and charmingly manipulates them and their families. Listen to the brave victims, like Donald and his family, who tell their stories. Listen and believe.
1. "Ashes sealed until pervert can harm no more" 04.09.2004 by Phil Taylor