A former Dilworth School chaplain already in jail for historic, serial sexual abuse of students had his sentence lengthened today after pleading guilty to a new wave of charges, bringing his total number of victims to 19.
Ross Douglas Browne, 75, was already considered one of the worst offenders to have been convicted as a result of Operation Beverly, a years-long investigation into entrenched paedophilia at the Auckland boarding school in past decades.
Browne is nearly two years into a 6½-year sentence, handed down in the High Court at Auckland in December 2021 after 14 victims came forward. Unable to leave his cell because of mobility issues, he watched via laptop today as Judge June Jelas in Auckland District Court followed his guilty pleas with an immediate sentencing hearing.
For his offending against the five new victims, she ordered a sentence of seven months to be served consecutively with the existing sentence, meaning his combined sentence is now seven years and one month.
“An additional seven months should not be interpreted that the offending was not serious, as of course it was,” Judge Jelas said. “These were vulnerable children.”
Her job was to consider what Browne’s sentence would have been had he been sentenced for offences against all 19 victims at once and to adjust accordingly, she explained.
Browne was appointed chaplain at Dilworth School in October 1979, where he was responsible for religious and sex education. He was also involved in Scouts and amateur theatrical company the Auckland Gang Show. At the time of his arrest in September 2020, he was the vicar of St Luke’s Church in Manurewa.
His offending at the school took place between 1987 and 2002, according to court documents.
Victims have described Browne as someone who projected himself as a fatherly figure but was a predator and monster under the surface.
“As children at Dilworth, we all had such a huge amount of trust we would place in our teachers,” one of his victims said in a victim impact statement read aloud in court today by Crown prosecutor Jacob Barry. “That trust was abused. We were abused. I was abused.”
All the latest victims described continuing trauma from their time at the school.
Another described how everyone told him his acceptance at the prestigious school was the “opportunity of a lifetime”, but he now reflected on “the personal catastrophe that was Dilworth” and how as a result he was now “a high-functioning but critically damaged individual”.
While there were several well-meaning staff, “a small number of bad actors can bring the whole enterprise into disrepute”, he said.
“Everything is tarnished. I wish I’d never set foot in the place.”
In the immediate aftermath of Browne’s first sentencing in 2021, Dilworth Trust Board chairman Aaron Snodgrass issued a video to students and alumni offering an apology. He said he was sorry not just for the crimes committed by the man known on campus as “Father Browne” but also for the school’s inaction when they were discovered.
Snodgrass said Browne was asked to resign in 2006 after an investigation of complaints from former students, and the school notified the Anglican Diocese of Auckland and the New Zealand Teachers’ Council. But the school did not alert police and, after Dilworth, the diocese appointed Browne to a South Auckland parish.
“The school’s decision at the time was to treat concerns and complaints regarding Ross Browne as employment matters, without involving the police,” Snodgrass acknowledged. “What this process has made clear is that our systems and procedures at that time for dealing with such complaints were insufficient and more stringent action should have been taken.
“We failed to prevent abuse occurring in our school and, in doing so, we failed our students and their families.”
The school official issued a similar statement after today’s hearing.
“We deeply regret what occurred in the past,” Snodgrass said.
“The Independent Inquiry Report into abuse at Dilworth School, published on 18 September 2023, was unsparingly honest about our school’s historical failures to protect students. The report makes abundantly clear that it was not their fault – it was their school that failed to protect them.”
Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.