HARASSMENT

Hong Kong performing arts academy in HK$1 million sexual harassment payout to ex-employee

Ex-head of acting at APA tells Post of students’ allegations of sexual harassment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 April, 2016, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 April, 2016, 11:39am

The publicly funded Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, along with Ceri Sherlock, chairman of its school of drama, are going to pay HK$1 million to Peter Jordan, who was head of acting at the school from 1998 to 2013.

Jordan sued the academy and Sherlock in April last year under the victimisation provisions of the sexual discrimination ordinance, which provides protection to victims or advocates of victims. In the case settled on Thursday, Jordan was an advocate for students who were allegedly victims of sexual harassment at the academy.

The case raised questions over the transparency of the judiciary following an initial denial of access to the notice of claim as requested by the Post.

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Jordan, now a professor at City University of Hong Kong – which is unrelated to the case – claimed he was victimised after reporting sexual misconduct cases at the academy involving Sherlock, and raised concerns over a lack of adequate procedures to protect students there.

Alumni and current staff also called for better mechanisms to encourage students to report cases as well as clearer guidelines on what is acceptable in class and during productions.

“I am not happy with this, what I wanted was an apology,” said Jordan of the settlement. “But this was getting incredibly expensive, so I wasn’t able to continue.” Prior to going to court, Jordan filed a claim at the Equal Opportunities Commission.

He said he also wanted to “vindicate the students” and regretted that the academy had not updated its sexual harassment and victimisation policy.“I am concerned that the academy do not have robust enough procedures,” he told the Post. “Students should know that they can complain without fear.”

According to Jordan, the trouble began in 2010. “Two students stopped me in the corridor and said that Ceri Sherlock had played with their nipples,” he recalled. “I reported it to the director of the academy.”

Jordan said nine students made written statements, which he submitted as a report on what had transpired. On March 9, 2012, he filed a professional misconduct claim against Sherlock, who was formerly with BBC Wales. The school then set up a hearing panel comprising internal and external staff.

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Later, the sexual harassment was investigated by an internal staff member, Jordan said. A disciplinary committee investigated the professional misconduct claim. No professional misconduct was established and no mention of victimisation was made, he added. Sherlock was not suspended during the investigation.

After reporting the cases, Jordan continued working under Sherlock. “He was making my life very difficult,” Jordan recalled.

In an email sent to drama school alumni in May 2012, Sherlock called Jordan “a disgruntled” and “extremely lazy” member of the academy.

Jordan’s contract with the school was not extended in 2013.

The academy said on Friday the court case had been “resolved” and declined to comment. It also refused to share with the Post the academy’s sexual harassment and victimisation policy, contending that such documents were “for internal use.”

Sherlock did not answer several inquiries from the Post. His lawyer, Will Giles, said yesterday he had no comment.

Staff and alumni with whom the Post communicated expressed concerns over the academy’s transparency. “In the academy, often we don’t know where the boundaries are,” said an alumnus and current staff member at the academy who declined to disclose his name for fear of dismissal. “I don’t see any mechanisms students can use to report if they feel uncomfortable.”

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He said he witnessed one of the cases involving Sherlock that triggered the sexual misconduct investigation back when he was a student. Now, as an employee, he said he would be highly cautious before reporting such cases. “I would be afraid of losing my job,” he said, adding that the academy should explain why it was to pay HK$1 million.

An alumna and staff member said the academy offered no incentives for students to report sexual harassment. “We are in a Chinese society. If you are being abused or molested, many boys and girls will just let it go,” she said. “They don’t want to be perceived as troublemakers.”

She added that teachers held power over the students, such as when casting or directing plays. “They can give you the leading role or shove you under a rock.”


Judiciary reverses itself on access to documents

The judiciary withheld documents for almost two years from the public and promised now to change such practice.

Following a verbal request at the registry of the District Court to gain access to a case, the Post was told that since 2014 the general public could not access documents relating to equal opportunity cases.

Only after filing a written application was the Post allowed to read the notice of claim for the case filed by Peter Jordan against the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and school of drama chairman Ceri Sherlock.

The judiciary said in an email yesterday that it apologised and would take “necessary follow-up” to ensure it would “not happen again”.

Michael Vidler, Jordan’s lawyer, said he found it “worrying that for a period of two years people making applications would have been rejected”.

On March 24, the registry of the District Court declined the Post’s request invoking the new Equal Opportunities rules put in place in November 2014. Simplified procedures were introduced, but they did not mention any limitation on access for the public or media.

According to the court’s rules, “any person shall, on payment of the prescribed fee, be entitled ... to search for, inspect and obtain a copy of any of the following documents filed in the Registry, namely the copy of any writ of summons or other originating process.”

The Post filed a written request on March 30 challenging the registry’s refusal and a day later permission was granted without explanation.

“Your query has prompted us to review the matter,” said a judiciary official yesterday.

Vidler said the rules were misapplied and noted that discrimination cases often touched on matters of public interest. He said the fact that the public and members of the press had been denied access to cases because of an incorrect application of rules was “appalling” and “a concern”.

According to filing records, the District Court received 10 equal opportunity cases between January 23 and November 26 last year.

Raquel Carvalho