Wealthy family staunch after sex case

SEX-ABUSE CHARGES: Peter Stewart arrives at court for an earlier hearing.
Sunday Star-Times
SEX-ABUSE CHARGES: Peter Stewart arrives at court for an earlier hearing.

Christchurch's high-society Stewart family is standing staunchly by Peter Maxwell Stewart, who has been named as the prominent Canterbury man found guilty of historical sex-abuse charges.

Stewart, 62, the son of Christchurch plastics magnate Sir Robertson Stewart, who died in August, is married to the owner and managing director of New Zealand Fashion Week, Pieter Stewart. They have four adult children.

The wider Stewart family, now led by Adrienne, Lady Stewart, has played a major role in Christchurch affairs and is a generous benefactor of many causes, including the arts and Christ Church Cathedral.

Although the Stewart family was not making an official comment yesterday, a close friend of the family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Press that family and friends of Peter and Pieter Stewart would "stick by them through thick and thin".

"Anybody who knows Peter and Pieter well just cannot believe he would do these things," she said.

"He's just not that sort of guy. I've never, ever believed it. He is a kind, very thoughtful man. It's just insane."

The Stewarts were devastated about having the family name dragged through the mud but were determined to fight on, she said.

Pieter Stewart's New Zealand Fashion Week business is heavily dependent on sponsors and is expected to be the most vulnerable to bad publicity.

However, main sponsor Air New Zealand said yesterday it remained committed to its sponsorship.

John Durning, principal of Christchurch firm Durning Public Relations, said Peter Stewart's lack of involvement in Fashion Week and the distance between his business affairs and those of his wife made fallout among sponsors extremely unlikely.

The Stewarts would be going through a terrible time, but many families weathered similar shocks without their general good name suffering, he said.

A public relations consultant close to Christchurch's network of movers and shakers said the Stewarts were a powerful but down-to-earth family who had done a great deal for the city, and she had detected no "malicious glee" over their predicament.

"People genuinely feel a deep sadness about the whole thing. The Stewart family have a good reputation and people don't want to see it tarnished because of this," she said.

The Stewarts had provided thousands of jobs for Cantabrians and "I'm just glad Sir Robertson is not alive to see it is because it's pretty shocking", said a businessman who knows the family well.

Members of the complainant's family, including her brother and her elderly mother, were in court to see the suppression lifted yesterday, but declined to comment. "Maybe in a few weeks," a spokesman said.

The complainant cannot be identified but she was closely involved with the Stewart family from a young age. Facing a jail sentence of about four years, Stewart will be home for Christmas.

Justice Panckhurst, in the High Court in Christchurch yesterday, remanded Stewart on bail to February 12 for sentencing and directed the preparation of a reparation report if counsel thought it was warranted.

Counsel for Stewart, Jonathan Eaton, told the court he was not seeking permanent suppression of Stewart's name because it was now well-known Stewart was the "so-called prominent Canterbury man" convicted of sex charges.

Eaton did not pursue a previous argument that publication of Stewart's name would impact on other Stewart family business interests.

Stewart was found guilty on December 7 by a jury on one charge of sodomy, one of rape, three of indecent assault and two of inducing an indecent act.

He was acquitted on five other charges, and three charges were dropped during the trial.

The complainant alleged the offending, between 1967 and 1978, had started when she was eight and continued until her late teens.

Stewart never worked for any length of time in the family business, PDL Industries, which his father took over in 1957. Sir Robertson built the business, which was strong in exporting, to an annual turnover of about $350 million.

It was sold to French firm Schneider Electric in 2001, with the Stewart family receiving $97m.

Stewart, the second son of his father's first marriage, to Gladys Stewart, went almost straight from school to his own farm in Hawarden, where he stayed until the late 1960s.

He met his wife, whose family owned the Zetland Hotel in Cashel Street, in central Christchurch, at the races in 1967, and they were married a year later.

The Press