‘Burnout’ seen as leading to fall

John Nicholl takes part in a recent Dunedin Santa Parade. PHOTO: ODT FILES
John Nicholl takes part in a recent Dunedin Santa Parade. PHOTO: ODT FILES
A respected Dunedin teacher with  myriad extracurricular interests now faces life as a social pariah after becoming a convicted sex offender. Rob Kidd charts the man’s spectacular downfall and the warning signs that preceded it.

John Nicholl was the epitome of a tireless community man.

The 54-year-old Outram resident taught at the local high school, was a part-time church pastor, sat on a youth trust, was a major in a pipe band and during school holidays taught in the Solomon Islands.

He even squeezed training for triathlons into his ever diminishing spare time.

“Life has been extraordinarily busy for a man your age. You seem driven to contribute to the community,” Judge Peter Rollo said.

Nicholl’s seemingly boundless energy, though, had a limit.

A psychologist who assessed him this year said he had suffered from a “high level of prolonged stress”, over-stretched with activities and commitments over decades.

Put simply: “burnout”.

It was that deteriorating mental state that ultimately led to Nicholl’s criminal collapse, his lawyer Deborah Henderson told the Dunedin District Court last week.

The experienced Taieri College teacher was convicted of a sex attack in broad daylight — dressed in bagpiping regalia and without underwear — on a 13-year-old girl and an almost equally strange and deplorable incident involving an older victim a month earlier.

Nicholl employed an outlandish modus operandi whereby he attempted to persuade his victims to tuck in his shirt, pulling it down from under his kilt.

For more than eight months the defendant’s identity was suppressed by the court.

While he acknowledged the impact publication of Nicholl’s name would have on his family, the public had a right know, Judge Peter Rollo said.

Surprise

The news the previously trusted community stalwart was now a sex offender was a shock to those who had known him.

Jeff Shanks, who played with Nicholl in the now-defunct Mataura Kilties pipe band, said they had got on well over the years.

Did the news of the man’s fall from grace surprise him?

“S... yeah,” Mr Shanks said.

Members of Pipes and Drums, with whom Nicholl had played more recently, refused to comment when contacted by the Otago Daily Times.

The defendant had been a pastor at Roxburgh Baptist church where, again, no-one witnessed any errant behaviour.

Lead pastor at Alexandra Baptist Church Craig Ashby remembered Nicholl as “a reasonably normal guy”.

He invited him to the church in 2019 to give a guest sermon, a video of which had been removed from its website.

Mr Ashby would not rule out Nicholl returning in future but stressed it would require a “very cautious” approach.

“It’s about recognising nobody’s perfect but we have a mandate to care for people, particularly vulnerable people,” he said.

“There would be a lot of conversation and careful thought put into it.”

While Nicholl’s sex offending was described as “aberrant behaviour”, it was not the first time he had been before the court.

In 2006, he was convicted of six counts of theft, resulting in a $1900 fine.

Nicholl stole $5200 of goods from supermarkets and hardware stores but, strangely, all the items were recovered by police unused.

The defendant was studying during the day and working at night at the time, Judge Rollo said.

“I suspect that the causes of that offending were similar.”

Scepticism

When Nicholl was interviewed about the events that led to his convictions at the end of last year, he denied it was a premeditated sex attack for his own gratification.

The judge was far from convinced.

The man repeatedly zeroed in on women walking on their own and continually used his shirt and kilt as props to commit the indecencies.

“Mr Nicholl is a very experienced piper and would’ve worn his piping uniform tens if not hundreds of times. He was clearly capable of putting his shirt on under his kilt and sporran,” Judge Rollo said.

“He was also playing in a pipe band with people he knew well ... Why would he not avail himself of his fellow pipers or band members rather than isolated woman on public streets?”

Nicholl claimed he refrained from wearing underpants with his kilt because of “heat and sweat from the heaviness of the material”.

But the judge rubbished that explanation too.

Scottish Society of New Zealand chief Gordon McIvor said traditionally members of the Scottish Highland Regiments might not have worn underwear beneath their kilt, but those days were long gone.

Undergarments were now common for hygiene and aesthetic reasons.

“When pipe bands and Highland dancers are performing in public, of course you don’t want to see something you can’t unsee,” he said.

Unemployed

When charges were laid in December last year, Nicholl informed both Taieri College principal David Hunter and the Teaching Council.

He stepped down from teaching voluntarily and had been on full pay since then, the court heard.

Mr Hunter said Nicholl had contacted him shortly after last week’s court hearing to hand in his resignation.

“He’s obviously not going to be teaching here again,” the principal said.

“My thoughts and concerns rest with anyone who’s been affected.”

The Teaching Council could not confirm when a disciplinary tribunal hearing would be scheduled but it aimed to make 50% of decisions within eight months of referral.

However, in an affidavit before the court Post Primary Teachers Association regional field officer Roger Tobin said Nicholl’s practising certificate would almost certainly be cancelled.

Even without the stain on his criminal record, the council would be provided with the facts of the case and make an independent decision.

At sentencing, Mrs Henderson argued Nicholl should not be convicted over the offences, thus giving him the greatest chance to remain in the career he loved.

Nicholl, she said, was the sole income earner for the family and the permanent blight would have a devastating impact on his future career prospects.

He was committed to continuing therapy and had completed more than 200 hours of voluntary work tidying the grounds of a local historical society and a vintage machinery club.

It was not enough to persuade Judge Rollo.

Sexual offending and indecency came with an inevitable impact on jobs, reputation and self-esteem, the judge said.

What Nicholl would experience was simply the consequence of his crimes.

rob.kidd@odt.co.nz

 

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