‘Tip of the iceberg’: hundreds of victims allege sexual abuse at Victorian state schools

Exclusive: Pressure builds on government to apologise, as lawyer likens ‘trail of destruction’ to that wreaked by Catholic church

Almost 400 civil claims have been made against the Victorian government for historical child sexual abuse in state schools in the past 12 years, with more than half settled out of court, documents obtained under freedom of information laws show.

Since 2010, 381 claims have been made for abuse that occurred in Victorian state educational settings between 1960 and 2018, including primary and secondary schools, specialist schools, early learning centres and after-school care.

Of those, 212 have been settled out of court with a payment made to the complainant, two went to trial, 136 claims are ongoing and 29 have been discontinued, while the outcome of two is unknown.

Former Justice party MP Stuart Grimley.
Former Justice party MP Stuart Grimley. Prior to losing his seat, he passed a nonbinding motion in the Victorian parliament urging the premier to publicly apologise to victim-survivors of child sexual abuse within government schools. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

The figures were provided to the office of Justice party MP Stuart Grimley under a freedom of information (FOI) request submitted to the education department prior to the November state election, in which he lost his upper house seat.

He also requested the number of nondisclosure agreements entered into in relation to the claims but this information was not provided by the department.

The civil claims are in addition to the hundreds of victims who have applied to the national redress scheme, which offers capped compensation and apologies to survivors of abuse in institutional settings. Of the 1,639 applications made to the scheme concerning abuse in Victorian government settings as of May 2022, 318 were related to schools.

The two civil claims during this period to have resulted in a judgment and court-ordered payout by the education department involved convicted paedophiles Robert Leonard Morris and Vincent Henry Reynolds, who worked in state schools between the 1960s and 1980s.

In both cases, the Victorian government accepted it was legally responsible for the men’s crimes.

An analysis of the FOI data shows a spike in settlements between complainants and the education department following the judgments. In 2020, 59 settlements were made, preceded by 49 in 2019.

The spike can also be attributed to increased disclosures following the royal commission into institutional response into child sexual abuse.

Grace Wilson, from the law firm Rightside Legal, which represented the victims of both Morris and Reynolds, said the cases “inspired a huge increase in the number of people standing up for themselves” and demanding compensation.

“Both cases told other abuse survivors what they needed to know: that the courts could recognise their pain and compensate them properly for it. That the blame doesn’t lie with them but the education authorities who failed to protect them from predators,” Wilson said.

She said the FOI figures confirmed that crimes well documented within the Catholic church were more widespread across society.

“Unchecked abusers in positions of authority leaving a trail of destruction across generations is not a problem that’s confined to the church. The state and other institutions are also reckoning with their own similar legacies,” she said.

Grimley, who was a Victoria police sexual offences and child abuse detective prior to entering parliament, said the figures were likely a conservative estimate of how many victims there have been in government school settings.

“I’d say this is the tip of the iceberg. From my experience with dealing with victims of sexual abuse we know most don’t report, or if they do, it can be years or even decades later,” he said. “These are the ones that we know have decided to go through the civil process – there’ll be a hell of a lot more out there that we just don’t know.”

Prior to losing his seat, Grimley successfully passed a nonbinding motion in parliament urging the premier to publicly apologise to victim-survivors of child sexual abuse within government schools between the 1960s and 1990s.

That apology has not taken place; currently, a written personal apology is provided by the department when a formal claim is resolved.

Glen Fearnett, who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child and is calling for a public apology.
Glen Fearnett was a victim of sexual abuse in primary school. He is calling for a public apology by the government. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Glen Fearnett, who has been calling for a public apology after he says he was abused by Beaumaris primary school teacher Gary Mitchell in 1972, said he was hopeful the release of the data would give rise to a new approach from the education department.

“Now we know they’ve given at least 200 of these individual apologies. Surely at some point, someone has to look at the bigger picture and go, ‘God we’ve done a lot these,’” he said.

“Wouldn’t you want to get on the front foot rather than have all this going on behind closed doors? Surely those days have passed.”

  • In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International


Benita Kolovos

The GuardianTramp

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