Benson-Pope steps down as bully inquiry looms

By Audrey Young

David Benson-Pope stood down from the Cabinet last night until an inquiry decides whether he administered cruel punishment to former pupils and assaulted one of them.

If the inquiry supports the claims, the Associate Education Minister will have to resign not only as a minister but almost certainly from Parliament as well. Prime Minister Helen Clark said this morning that she had to accept his denial of the allegations made in Parliament last week.

The allegations were raised again last night on TV3 after three of the five accusers identified themselves. One included a man who says that as a 14-year-old he had a tennis ball stuffed in his mouth.

They were all students of Bayfield High School in Dunedin, where Mr Benson-Pope taught for 24 years. They say there are other witnesses to some of the alleged incidents.

The accusations against him include throwing tennis balls at students to keep them quiet, striking a pupil with the back of his hand and making the pupil's nose bleed at a school camp, and caning a student hard enough to draw blood.

Mr Benson-Pope denied the allegations in Parliament last week when they were raised by Act leader Rodney Hide and National MP Judith Collins, just a few days after the minister had launched an anti-bullying campaign.

Helen Clark watched TV3 news last night with Mr Benson-Pope and senior colleagues.

She said this morning: "He could see that the people coming forward were making allegations of assault. At that point, the matter has to be settled one way or the other and the credibility of the allegations has to be investigated."

Helen Clark said she had not asked Mr Benson-Pope about the specific allegations but she added: "I accept the minister's word. The minister's given his word in Parliament."

Mr Benson-Pope asked to be relieved of his portfolios, the compulsory education sector and fisheries.

Helen Clark will seek the advice of Solicitor-General Terence Arnold, QC, before deciding what sort of inquiry should be held.

Options include handing the claims directly to the police, or ordering a ministerial inquiry by someone such as a Queen's Counsel.

Two of the accusers, Phil Weaver and Aaron Tasker, live in Perth.

Mr Weaver told TV3 political editor Stephen Parker Mr Benson-Pope had "a fetish for tennis balls", either throwing them at people or banging pupils on the head with one attached to the end of an archery arrow.

He said that one day Mr Benson-Pope took the ball off the stick and put it in his mouth.

"Once it's lodged in your mouth you can't get it out again and, in fact, I did take it out again and that was when it was put back in and my hands were taped securely to the desk so I couldn't pull it back out of my mouth."

Mr Weaver said he was left in that position for about 30 minutes.

His account was supported by Mr Tasker, who said he was sitting next to Mr Weaver at the time.

Mr Weaver said there was "a multitude of witnesses to account for these actions".

An unnamed former student, now a 38-year-old and known to TV3, said in a written statement that Mr Benson-Pope assaulted him at a school camp in the Catlins.

"I was struck in the face by David during a school camp at Pounawea. This was in front of three witnesses. I am concerned that David has denied that the event took place (he may have forgotten)."

It was reported that one of the reasons the 38-year-old did not want to be named was that he was a Labour Party supporter.

Another man, Tony Piggott, said he was clipped over the head by Mr Benson-Pope, whom he described as a bully.

TV3 said it began its investigation three months ago after being approached by a former student who said Mr Benson-Pope caned him until his backside bled.

In a statement given to TV3 yesterday the former pupil, now 37, said of Mr Benson-Pope's caning methods: "BP used it to brutalise and terrorise children in his care. He laughed and seemed to get great enjoyment from what he was doing. The end result for me was a bleeding backside."

Helen Clark referred to the allegations as "the start of what is a rather ugly election campaign, where a desperate and dateless Opposition will drag out whatever it can to smear the character of whoever they can".

Mr Benson-Pope will be expected to resign from Parliament if the allegations are credible.

The allegations are serious enough, but misleading Parliament is considered a sackable offence.

* Were you at Bayfield High School during Mr Benson-Pope's time? Email the Herald newsdesk with your experiences using the link below.

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