The quest for criminal justice over the torture and punishment inflicted on children at the infamous Lake Alice psychiatric hospital in the 1970s is over.

In Wellington’s High Court on Tuesday, Justice Andru Isac granted a permanent stay of charges against John (Dempsey) Corkran, 91, a former psychiatric nurse at the infamous Lake Alice’s child and adolescent unit. The reasons were suppressed.

It was yet another blow for survivors who, for decades, have pushed authorities to hold someone accountable for serious abuse.

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Corkran was the last person standing. In December 2021, the police, after their third inquiry into Lake Alice (their first being in the 1970s), announced they were charging one person with wilful ill-treatment of a child. The Marton man pleaded not guilty to eight charges.

Police said there was sufficient evidence to charge two other people, including Dr Selwyn Leeks, the unit’s head psychiatrist, but they were medically unfit to stand trial. Leeks died a month later.

“I initially didn’t have strong feelings about Dempsey being criminally charged,” says Aucklander Leoni McInroe, an anaesthetic technician, who is a survivor of what she calls “LA”.

“I was and have always been more focused on Dr Leeks being criminally charged and found guilty.

When she was told the charges against Corkran had been stopped, McInroe was surprised it brought her to tears.

“I cried at the realisation that there is no winding back of clocks, not for the children of LA, alive, and those who have left this world never seeing or knowing justice for any of the perpetrators of torture and harm they themselves directly inflicted upon us.

“It will never happen. Never.”

Survivor Paul Zentveld, an Auckland fishing skipper, asks: “Where’s the justice in this country?” He adds: “We’ve had the piss taken out of us all.”

Malcolm Richards, of Hastings, another survivor, says the result is “as I expected”. He sees a bright side, however – that the Government can’t use the shadow of the court case as a reason to delay redress, which includes compensation payments.

Police acknowledged the court’s decision.

“The result is disappointing for former patients who made allegations of ill-treatment, while at the Lake Alice Hospital child and adolescent unit in the 1970s,” Detective Inspector David Kirby said in an emailed statement.

“Police will not be making any further comment on this matter.”

Tortured, and then failed by the state

Lake Alice’s children, many of whom weren’t diagnosed with psychiatric problems, often came from social welfare or education department care. Once they arrived, they were punished with electric shocks, painful paraldehyde injections, and seclusion.

The psychiatric hospital had, according to a report by the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care, “a culture of mistreatment, physical violence, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, threats, degradation, and other forms of humiliation”.

Further mistreatment and humiliation was handed out by the state, in the form of whitewash reports, and empty, mishandled inquiries. Leeks left for Australia in the 1970s with the Medical Council’s blessing.

Court claims by survivors were fought tooth and nail by Crown lawyers based on legal defences – not on whether the claims were likely to be true.

That is despite retired High Court judge Sir Rodney Gallen, who interviewed half of the initial 95 claimants in a class action, finding, in 2001, “in the main the allegations which have been made are true”.

Helen Clark’s Government apologised in 2001 and ex-gratia payments, totalling millions of dollars, were paid to survivors, to settle the class action.

But, as admitted by Solicitor-General Uga Jagose during testimony at the Royal Commission hearings in 2021, no one assessed whether the sums were enough to deal with the damage done to people who had been tortured.

Jagose said Crown Law had enough evidence by the mid-to-late 1990s to know the complaints were potentially criminal, and should be referred to police.

No charges were brought in the first two police inquiries, in the 1970s and 2000s. Announcing the result of the latter investigation, in 2010 police said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Leeks.

Momentum started to shift in 2018, when the Abuse in Care Royal Commission was announced.

(Survivors have relived their darkest moments at the hearings, but at least they’ve heard apologies from the police, Crown Law, and the Medical Council. The commission’s final report isn’t expected to be delivered until March next year.)

In 2019, another bombshell development. The UN Committee Against Torture – investigating a complaint by Zentveld – found previous investigations into Lake Alice were effectively a sham, prompting police to re-open their investigation. That culminated in Corkran being charged.

Now, with the charges against him being stopped, no one from Lake Alice will face criminal justice – despite hundreds of children being tortured and abused there at the hands of the state, and the evidence of this having sat with Crown lawyers 25 years ago.

“The evidence of these crimes has always been there.”
– Leoni McInroe

“This new criminal investigation was always going to be too late,” says Mike Ferriss, the New Zealand director of Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group aligned with the Church of Scientology which has advocated on behalf of survivors for decades.

He notes the UN Committee Against Torture is about to hold its seventh periodic review.

“We will be updating them with the outcome of this case, as well as the responsibility the Government now has to provide the Lake Alice survivors of torture [with] redress, as a priority.”

McInroe, who pursued a claim against the state for nine gruelling years, was confronted, as were many others, by a state legal machine adept at using hardball tactics.

“The evidence of these crimes has always been there,” McInroe says.

The perpetrators should have been charged 20 years ago, she says, when they couldn’t hide behind dementia, ill-health from old age “or their graves”.

“That didn’t happen, and those responsible for it not happening must now be held accountable.”

As reported last year, McInroe is one of five Lake Alice survivors who have filed a criminal complaint alleging high-profile individuals conspired to defeat the course of justice.

It is an “unforgivable injustice” that no one will face criminal charges over the abuse and torture at Lake Alice, McInroe says, an injustice now sitting “in the hands of those who deliberately and intentionally prevented and have stolen our right to natural justice”.

She returns to Corkran. How did he feel after the court stopped the case, she wonders.

“Did he have a celebratory glass of bubbles with friends and family? Did he sleep well, relieved he’s off the hook? Does he think he is innocent?

“And I wonder about the hands now holding this heavy, heavy burden of complete and utter injustice, the terror, torture and lifelong trauma the children of LA feel. I wonder if that aches in their hands, if it feels hard to hold, or not even noticeable at all.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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