Former top school staffer escapes conviction on child sex charge

A former communications manager at a top Auckland private school who was found guilty earlier this year of having sexually abused an 11-year-old girl has been granted a discharge without conviction.

Jemma Taylor, who continues to deny the charges, wept as Auckland District Court Judge June Jelas announced the decision at a sentencing hearing today.

Lawyers for the 38-year-old had said their client had a lucrative new job offer but it was contingent on her not having a conviction on her record, which might hamper her ability for international travel.

The victim came forward nine years after the offending upon learning her abuser was working at St Cuthbert’s College, where the victim was also employed.

The now-adult victim did not appear for today’s hearing but indicated in a letter to the court that she would feel disheartened and disappointed in the justice system if the application for discharge without conviction was to be granted. The application was opposed by the Crown.

“I feel as though it’s an injustice,” said the victim’s grandfather after the judge asked the courtroom if there were any questions about the decision. “It looks to me like you’ve just wiped it, it hasn’t happened.

“It has really affected her life.”

The judge said she could appreciate those feelings but she needed to apply the law, which allows for such a scenario when a conviction is found to be out of proportion to the gravity of the offending.

“I do wish your granddaughter well,” Judge Jelas said. “The jury did accept her evidence on that charge.”

Jurors found Taylor guilty in July of one count of sexual conduct with a child under 12 and could not reach a verdict on two other charges, which prosecutors are no longer pursuing.

The victim said Taylor had gone into her bedroom and groped her three times over the course of one night in March 2012, during a loud birthday party for her stepfather at a Mt Wellington home.

In a 2021 interview with police that was later played for jurors, the victim said Taylor pinned her on the bed, forcibly kissed her and groped her.

“Your father doesn’t love you,” she recalled the defendant taunting her. “You know you love me.”

The victim described herself as having been a “tiny” child, easily outmuscled by the defendant, who at the time would have weighed about 40kg more than her. She recalled yelling out for help each time but not being heard over the noise of the party, which involved about 15 people drinking and listening to music.

The victim didn’t initially make an outcry but decided to go to police about nine years later, upon realising she and the defendant both worked at St Cuthbert’s College. Taylor was senior marketing communications manager for the private school at the time, after having previously worked as international public relations manager for the New Zealand Film Commission.

Had the case gotten to the sentencing stage today, Taylor could have faced up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Defence lawyer Marie Dyhrberg KC said she would have suggested a sentence of community service, with perhaps an emotional harm payment. The Crown indicated it would have sought community detention.

While the charge itself is serious, the circumstances of this case “place it at very much the lower end of gravity”, Dyhrberg told the judge.

Crown prosecutor Ryan Benic suggested there was “moderate” gravity when taking the effect on the victim into account. A victim impact statement referred to by the judge but not read aloud in court noted that the victim still suffers anxiety, depression and PTSD as a result of the offending. She also suffers from nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia and has trouble attending parties or large gatherings, she said.

The judge noted that Taylor’s prosecution has been the subject of media coverage, which has been described as causing the defendant “extreme distress and anxiety”. The judge also noted that there are no allegations of sexual abuse or any other crimes before or after the incident for which she was convicted.

A Department of Corrections report assessed the defendant as being at a low risk of offending again, the judge also noted.