BREAKING: Good behaviour bond for teacher who kissed student
UPDATE 4PM: GERARD Stephen Benfield, a former "inspirational out of the square" teacher, has been put on a good behaviour bond for kissing and touching a 15-year-old Trinity Catholic College student almost 30 years ago.
At the time of the offences in 1989, Mr Benfield then 32, was grieving over the loss of an infant child to SIDS.
The schoolgirl was dealing with her own family tragedy and it was while sitting alone around a fire during a week-long religious retreat that the pair bonded over their mutual experiences of grief.
It was a "clearly very emotional" situation that night when the trusted teacher crossed the line and kissed the vulnerable student in his care, said Lismore Magistrate Jeff Linden.
In pushing for a more severe sentence, the Crown prosecutor argued some of Benfield's answers from the witness box "sought to excuse" his behaviour.
He also argued the offence was not isolated because it occurred on two occasions.
But Magistrate Linden noted that while there was a second kissing and touching event, at the school's Lismore campus a few weeks later, it ceased completely after that.
Benfield's lawyer Tracey Randall said the accused had already suffered the loss of his beloved teaching career, and public humiliation as a result of the charges against him.
Grappling with the task of how to punish the former teacher, Magistrate Linden said it was "extraordinary" that Benfield had freely admitted he did the wrong thing in a conversation with the victim last year which was secretly recorded.
He cited a "huge" number of positive character references from former students which indicated nothing similar had occurred before 1989, nor did it appear afterwards.
He said a psychologist report described Benfield as "deeply and genuinely remorseful" and had become a "shadow of his (former) self".
He was clearly a "very good teacher" who had made a mistake.
"I feel for her," Magistrate Linden said of the victim, now in her 40s.
"It is a very difficult situation, but in the end a lot of water has gone under the bridge."
He said Benfield, in his opinion, had showed "complete contrition".
"I feel confident that this can be treated as an unfortunate one-off."
Benfield was given a Section 10 good behaviour bond, which means no conviction will be recorded against his name.
UPDATE 2.15PM: SHE was an innocent 15-year-old struggling with a home environment marred by the grief of a death in the family.
He was her teacher, an "inspiration" to his students, yet hiding his own crippling grief after losing a child to SIDS.
He supported her during a time of need.
But late in the evening during a week-long religious school camp, then 32-year-old Gerard Stephen Benfield crossed the line.
In a moment of intimacy while others were asleep, he passionately kissed the vulnerable teenager.
Then a few weeks later, back at the school campus, he did it again.
During his appearance in the witness box ahead of his sentencing in Lismore Local Court, Benfield at times stammered and stumbled over his words.
The now 60-year-old admitted his behaviour was "unacceptable" and an "abuse of trust", and the "emotion that flowed through me was a darkness" on that night in 1989.
"She talked about the things that were hard in her life," Benfield recalled.
Back at the school, he said his "rawness" over the loss of his child and what he perceived as a "warmth" between the victim and himself prompted the second offence, but he said "I didn't stop it".
Asked whether he appreciated the "wrongness" of his conduct, Benfield said he "didn't have a full appreciation of its significance" at the time.
The Crown prosecutor said, "you appear to be trying to excuse your conduct by saying contextually [tragic] things were happening [in your life]."
"What I would suggest to you is that you were also [acting on] sexual desire."
"It wasn't just a peck on the cheek, was it?"
Benfield replied that no, it was "passionate kissing, body holding, body touching".
"Have you heard of the expression 'grooming'?" asked the Crown Prosecutor.
"What would you say if I suggested to you that what you did was grooming?"
Benfield said it wasn't grooming.
He said he was sacked from his most recent teaching role once the principal was informed of the charges against him, which have been ongoing for some time.
The now adult victim aged in her 40s told the court the impact of the experience had been devastating on her life.
She struggled with depression on a "daily basis" and drank alcohol to cope with the guilt, shame, and loss.
She told the court she agonised for years over whether to file a police complaint, saying to keep it a secret would have "protected him" but to tell the world was "protecting me".
"Your choice on that retreat was for your benefit only," she said.
"We are all here today because of choices you made.
"You were attracted to my vulnerability and innocence, not me.
"I will not give you any more of my life."
She accused him of "tutoring me in sexual touch" and choosing to "satisfy your needs above mine".
"I wanted to help you. I put my own stuff away because you said you needed me.
"You broke my trust."
The woman said it was not until her mid-30s that her depression was diagnosed, and she had been in counselling for the last eight years.
The experience had impacted her marriage.
"I never feel completely at ease, I am always looking at what men want of me," she said.
She had also become hyper vigilant about her own children, one of several coping strategies she had developed in the wake of the experience.
She said she hoped the court process would finally bring her closure.
UPDATE 10.50am: THE lawyer for Gerard Stephen Benfield has provided a Lismore magistrate with 27 character references on behalf of the former teacher before his imminent sentencing for historical indecent assault offences.
The 60-year-old's solicitor Tracey Randall told Magistrate Jeff Linden that her client's sentencing, due today, was "fairly complex" and required a "great deal of reading".
Magistrate Linden agreed to put the matter on hold until at least noon while he considered the sentence.
Benfield, a former teacher at prominent schools in Lismore and Ballina, has pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault on a female student under his authority while he was a teacher at Trinity Catholic College in 1989.
The first offence occurred during a religious retreat at a school camp north of Nimbin, while the second offence occurred a few weeks later on the school campus in Lismore.
The victim is now aged in her 40s.
Benfield's offences consisted of kissing and fondling the teenager.
THURSDAY 9.16am: A NORTHERN Rivers teacher is being sentenced in the Lismore Local Court this morning for historical indecent assault offences on a female student.
Gerard Stephen Benfield, of East Ballina, pleaded guilty to two counts of category 4 sexual assault - indecent assault of a child under his authority between the age of 14 and 16 years.
The 60-year-old taught at two well-known schools in the Lismore and Ballina area.
* This story was updated to correct the sentence details.