From The Guardian, June 22, 2000
Sally Weale meets the victims of Robin Peverett OBE, the man who ran Sophie Rhys-Jones's preparatory school
Jo Evans has not seen her ex-headmaster's study for almost a quarter of a century, but she can remember it as clearly as if she had been summoned there this morning. It's the smell that comes back most vividly - leather, and the sharp scent of polish rising from Mr Peverett's mahogany table. She remembers the slip-on shoes he wore and his perma-crease trousers. And she remembers how he routinely sexually abused her there. Day after day. Again and again.
She was 10 years old when the abuse began. She was shy and quiet, and in the academic shadow of her three elder siblings who were also at the school. Mr Peverett (she still uses the polite title like a schoolgirl responding to the class register) called her to his study after she had a poor report and told her she needed some extra tuition. The abuse began gradually - taking her out of class perhaps once a month for some one-to-one tuition in his office. Then he began to summon her daily.
"Pervert Peverett" as he was known by his pupils (he was always twanging girls' bra straps and knicker elastic) chose victims who were pretty, physically well developed and easily intimidated. Each time Evans was called to his study, she knew exactly what to expect. She never came out of that room without being abused.
The more he abused her, the worse her work became and the more reason he had to summon her for "extra coaching". She couldn't talk to anyone, least of all her parents, who were friends with the headmaster. She was not even safe at the weekend. Peverett told her parents she needed extra coaching on a Saturday, so she was taken to her abuser kicking and screaming and begging not to go.
She felt frightened, powerless, and utterly under his control. If he had told her to walk on hot coals she would have done it. And her life has never been quite her own since. It was not until years later that Evans, now 35 with three children of her own, learned she was not Peverett's only victim. An unknown number of children who were in his care were abused by him in the same way. They were called to his office for so-called punishments. They were made to lie across his knee either naked or with their clothes and underwear pulled down and he would rub their bare buttocks in a circular motion and spank them.
The consequences of his actions will last a lifetime for Evans and others like her. Yet on June 8, Robin Peverett OBE, former adviser to the Thatcher government, Ofsted inspector and headmaster of Dulwich College preparatory school, in Cranbrook, Kent, was sentenced to 18 months in prison suspended for two years. He admitted nine charges of indecently assaulting seven pupils - six girls and one boy - between the ages of 10 and 13, dating back to the late 60s and 70s, yet he walked free from court. The maximum sentence for indecent assault is 10 years. A further seven charges remain on the file.
Peverett's case was originally listed for a three-week trial at Maidstone crown court - police and witnesses realised there would be considerable media interest, mainly because the Countess of Wessex, Sophie Rhys-Jones, was a pupil at the school, though she played no part in the police investigation. Peverett's victims were looking forward to their day in court. "The trial was going to be our chance to say 'Hello. I'm back. I'm going to tell those 12 good men and women of the jury exactly what you did to me,' " says Evans.
In the end, after lengthy legal wrangling, the public hearing lasted less than an hour and a half and as a result of a bit of nifty plea-bargaining, Peverett, 66, pleaded guilty and got to go home that night. The headmaster's crimes were, Judge David Griffiths said, a serious breach of trust which would normally warrant custodial sentence, but because of Peverett's achievements in the field of education - there were glowing testimonies from former pupils, staff, parents, fellow heads and even one ex-cabinet minister - his was an exceptional case.
So the former headmaster, who worked at the popular Dulwich Preparatory school for 30 years until his retirement in 1990, never had to face a jury and he never had to listen to his victims describe his crimes and the anguish they caused. Most of his accusers were not even in court to see him sentenced - Evans, by chance, was there expecting to be called as a witness. "When I saw him in the court, for a split second I was back in his office. That's the power he had."
As children they were betrayed by the man in whose care they had been placed; as adults they feel they have been cheated by the judicial system in which they put their faith. "The sentence will be of great comfort to other headmasters, past and present, who assault children in their care," says another of Peverett's victims, Vicky Bennison, 41. "On the other hand, victims of such abuse will be thinking, is all the emotional upheaval worth it if I go to the police and this is the result? They would conclude that it was not worth it and they would be right."
Evans and Bennison, who were not identified in court, but have agreed to be named here, are now contacting the crown prosecution service (CPS) asking for the case to be referred to the attorney general, who could in turn refer it to the court of appeal to consider whether the sentence was unduly lenient. However, a CPS spokeswoman said there were no plans to refer the case on. The CPS view, it seems, is that at the time the offences were committed the maximum sentence was two years - taking that into consideration an 18-month suspended sentence does not seem unduly lenient, with the emphasis on unduly. Bennison and Evans, who have lived with the consequences of his actions for the best part of their lives, would disagree.
It was Evans who sparked off the original investigation into Peverett, a father of three, after watching a Channel 5 programme about the marriage of Sophie Rhys-Jones to Prince Edward. "Sophie was a good friend of mine. She was in my class. We had had contact up to her engagement. I watched it out of curiosity. Twenty minutes into the programme Mr Peverett came on to the screen. Seeing his face, I just lost the plot. I was inconsolable. I frightened myself. I started chucking things around the room. I frightened my husband. I couldn't believe he was still out there."
She didn't eat or sleep for four days as she struggled to reach a decision about whether she should report him. She plucked up the courage and the inquiry began. "Physically he did the same thing every single time. I got to expect that. It was humiliating and degrading. It was the mental abuse that shattered me at the time and has affected my life ever since. That's what they don't take into account in court."
After Peverett's violations, her subsequent school career was unimpressive; she was deeply distrustful of male teachers and men in authority, worried that one of them would pick up where Peverett had left off. She was introverted and had problems forming relationships; she is still obsessive about covering up her body and is terrified of passing her problems on to her children.
"I'm supposed to be a role model for my children, but there's this thing in my past which has distorted my view of being female. I'm very frightened of passing on my warped view to my two young daughters. It's not OK for him to be infecting them. The main thing I have looked for is some peace in my life. I have not had peace since he did this to me."
Bennison, who was a weekly boarder at the school for her last four terms, was summoned to Peverett's office because he noticed she had started to use deodorant. "He was able to pick up on anxieties of children. He had this thing that I did not wash properly. He would sidle up to me and say, 'Have you washed? I'm sure you haven't.' I had to be punished for this.
"He used to call me out of the dormitory after lights out. He made me take my clothes off and lie across his knees for not having washed properly. I had to be naked in front of this man at the age of 11.
"I did not tell anyone about it. I didn't have the language to tell anyone. I told a boyfriend at the age of 17 and he didn't respond so I thought maybe this isn't important. For the next 15 years I could tell people when I got drunk at parties, but I couldn't tell my family and friends."
Then last year Bennison, who was working on an aid project in Russia, returned to visit her parents and discovered that Evans had made a statement to the police and an investigation was underway. She was one of 20 former pupils to contact the police following publicity about Peverett - not all of them were part of the final case. Peverett, of Battle, East Sussex, admitted the charge of indecent assault relating to Bennison; he admitted two of the three charges relating to Evans.
It should have been the beginning of the road to recovery for Bennison and Evans. Instead they feel cheated. They feel their voices have not been heard and their tormentor has escaped proper justice. "He should have had a custodial sentence. He was an OBE. Big deal. It doesn't mean he isn't guilty," says Evans. "So he was an Ofsted inspector. Big deal. He admitted he was guilty of child abuse. Why didn't he go to prison?
"I would have been happy if he had lost his liberty for just a short period of time. So maybe, just maybe, he might have had time to look back on his life and think about what he has done to us."
See Thanks to Sophie, spanking teacher eludes prison, The Times of India, June 11, 2000