Sex-abuse cover-up at top SA school

26 May 2014 - 10:38 By BOBBY JORDAN
File photo.
File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

One of South Africa's oldest schools has been engulfed in a sex scandal - prompting allegations of a cover-up spanning two decades.

Cape Town's prestigious private boys-only Diocesan College, better known as Bishops, this week confirmed two alleged incidents of sexual abuse.

The first incident involves a former pupil who alleged he was sexually abused by a fellow pupil. The claims of the former pupil, now living in the US, were published this week in Noseweek magazine.

The Sunday Times has since established that a second incident involving a teacher and a Grade 11 pupil has been kept under wraps since 1990, when the boy's parents lodged a complaint.

Incredibly, the teacher, Leonard Kap-lan, was allowed to remain at the school for more than 20 years despite the matter being widely known among the school community. He retired four years ago.

Although the school declined to give details of the Kaplan incident, former pupils confirmed that he made advances on the schoolboy in his private rooms at the school. Some pupils alleged the boy was given alcohol and shown porn.

Kaplan was told to move off the premises, but he continued his employment at Bishops.

This week, Bishops distanced itself from both incidents and said procedures had been put in place to ensure that future allegations would be thoroughly investigated - and dealt with.

"The reality is that sexual abuse of girls and boys is a social evil which has happened in all schools - boys' schools, girls' schools and co-ed schools - and it is something we all need to acknowledge and deal with," said headmaster Guy Pearson.

"We need to show compassion and support to the victims and ensure that policies and procedures are in place to prevent it in the future."

Pearson confirmed a 2012 meeting between the then Bishops headmaster, Grant Nupen, and the parents of a former pupil from the school's Founders boarding house. The pupil claimed he had been forced to perform oral sex on his "fag master", a senior pupil supposed to act as an older mentor, and had tried to alert his then-housemaster, Tim Hamilton-Smith.

Hamilton-Smith was not aware of the sexual nature of the complaint.

As a result of the incident, Hamilton-Smith subsequently volunteered to step down as secretary of the old boys' union "in the best interests of the school", said Pearson.

He also confirmed the complaint against Kaplan, who was also assistant housemaster and sports coach.

"My information is that all allegations were investigated by the school and dealt with in a manner which was appropriate at the time and in the best interests of the boys, and with the full support of the parents at the time," said Pearson.

The scandal has become a major talking point among Cape Town's elite and prompted comment this week from old boys' union president Raymond Ackerman, the founder of retail group Pick n Pay.

Ackerman said the school managers had taken steps to ensure further abuses could not happen. "The school under [headmaster] Guy Pearson is extremely well run. They have put a lot of things in place to prevent this sort of thing happening again.

"I am satisfied that the school has taken away a lot of the initiation and 'fagging' that was there when I was at the school," said Ackerman.

Other prominent old boys include billionaire "Afronaut" Mark Shuttleworth, former Anglo American chairman Julian Ogilvie Thompson and a host of sports stars, such as cricketer Herschelle Gibbs and rugby star Robbie Fleck.

But some former pupils expressed outrage this week that the school had not acted earlier. "We all knew what was going on, but nothing happened. That is wrong," said one former boarding house pupil.

Commenting specifically on the Kaplan incident, he said: "We were very surprised when he was allowed to stay on as a teacher."

Claims that staff might have turned a blind eye to Kaplan's behaviour was raised in a letter sent by chairman of the Bishops council to Hamilton-Smith during negotiations over his contract. The letter, revealed in Noseweek , refers to concerns that teachers did not intervene against Kaplan despite "good reason to believe - and solid evidence to support - claims he was allegedly [and repeatedly] behaving inappropriately with boys at Bishops."

Kaplan could not be reached for comment.

Brian Robertson, chairman of the Bishops old boys' union, confirmed discussions around "reputational risk" related to the complaint laid by the US businessman against Hamilton-Smith. But the incident itself was not probed: "No, we did not ask for the facts of the alleged incident," said Robertson.

In a letter sent to parents this week, the school assured them that steps had been taken to guard against abuse: "Over the past few years the issue of sexual and other abuse has been the subject of council's attention and procedures are in place to deal with issues of sexual abuse or abuse of any kind."

The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, said he had been briefed on the matter. "We need to respect the rights of the person who has been wronged, but the school will not hide anything."