‘No one wants to talk to us’: victims of child sexual abuse from Victoria state schools fight for justice

‘We believe you, we support you,’ Daniel Andrews said after George Pell’s death, but those abused in the state’s government schools are still waiting for an apology

Following the death of George Pell, Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, issued a message to victims of child sexual abuse that was widely praised: “We see you, we believe you, we support you.”

But this hasn’t been the experience of Glen Fearnett, who has been fighting for recognition from the government for the abuse he says he and other children suffered at the hands of paedophile teachers at state schools in the 1970s.

During Fearnett’s time at Beaumaris primary school, in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, it is believed three teachers on staff were abusing children. The number of former students coming forward is still rising, with police currently investigating allegations.

Despite this, the government and department of education have never publicly apologised to victims. Instead, it has pursued what has been described as an “aggressive” defence of civil claims, dragging out proceedings and upsetting victims in the process.

“I absolutely 100% support the sentiment of the [premier’s] statement but it was frustrating, as we’ve been trying to get some sort of recognition for what we’ve been through for months and months and haven’t received it,” Fearnett told Guardian Australia.

“We’ve been trying for a very long time with pretty much no response. Silence.

“No one wants to talk to us.”

Locking the pain away

Fearnett was 10 when he says he was abused by teacher Gary Mitchell in 1972.

He didn’t tell a soul until four decades later, when he saw an ABC article in which former classmate Rod Owen, who went to play football for St Kilda, detailed allegations of abuse by Mitchell’s brother-in-law and fellow teacher, Darrell Ray, and St Kilda Little League team manager, Albert Briggs.

“My wife came up to the kitchen and saw me – I’m a blubbering mess – and asked me what was going on, and it was the first time I’d ever told anyone,” Fearnett says.

Glen's pictures of the 'Loud fence
Coloured ribbons of the loud fence in support of victims of child sexual abuse at Victorian Parliament House in September 2022. Photograph: Glen Fearnett

“It was in a compartment in my brain … I knew what was in the box and I never went near it. I didn’t open it.

“As soon as I started to talk, I couldn’t put the lid back on it. It just spilled over. It was a bit of a shock.”

Fearnett is one of several Beaumaris victims currently pursuing legal action against the department of education. The Guardian spoke to two others who asked not to be named, who also came forward after the ABC report.

“When I look at our grade 6 class photo, at those young, smiling faces and I think of how many of our lives have been affected by this, some ruined by it, it just breaks my heart,” one said.

Since the late 1990s, Mitchell has been sentenced five times for child sex offences stretching from 1967 to 2001.

Ray, his brother-in-law, pleaded guilty in 2000 to 27 counts of indecently assaulting 19 boys at two schools between 1967 and 1976.

Mitchell and Ray’s time at Beaumaris primary overlapped with a third teacher, Graeme Steele, now deceased, who is also accused of having abused former students.

Offenders not confined to one school

The horrors at Beaumaris primary were not isolated. Lawyer Grace Wilson helped win millions of dollars in compensation for victims of two other paedophiles who were knowingly moved between Victorian schools.

“The state has a long sordid history of shuffling paedophiles from post to post, prioritising the reputations of abusive teachers at the expense of the children they were supposed to educate and protect,” Wilson told Guardian Australia.

“The only way to make the state pay proper compensation is to build a strong legal case and force it out of them.”

In addition to the private civil claims made, hundreds of victims have applied to the national redress scheme. Of the 1,639 applications made to the scheme as of May 2022 concerning abuse in Victorian government settings, 318 were related to schools.

Lawyer John Rule from Maurice Blackburn is handling several cases against the department on behalf of Beaumaris primary victims. He said the education department had developed a reputation for being “aggressive” in defending claims.

“They run these cases like an insurance company would and they use all sorts of strategies and gamesmanship,” Rule said, adding that his firm has given up trying to resolve matters outside of court.

“They’ll either drag their feet for so long that you end up wasting six months waiting for them to respond … And if they do, they come along and make offensive offers or make no offer.

“It just ends up being a total waste of time and it upsets the client unnecessarily.”

The department is bound by model litigant guidelines, which includes a responsibility to “act fairly in handling claims and litigation brought by or against the state’”, “deal with claims promptly and not cause unnecessary delay” and “pay legitimate claims without litigation”.

The Victorian government has also developed non-binding guiding principles for how departments should deal with civil claims involving allegations of child sexual abuse.

Rule said the department of human services (DHS), which now forms part of the department of families, fairness and housing, closely follows both. He attributes this to the reckoning the department faced during the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

Glen Fearnett who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child is speaking about historic child sexual abuse in Victorian public schools.
‘I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for the others. Because I continue to feel like I let a lot of people down,’ Glen Fearnett says. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“They were forced to grapple with how they were going to be better moving forward and how they were going to fairly engage with people who have been harmed,” Rule said.

“The education department has never been looked at in that way. There were no case studies about Victorian state schools [during the royal commission]. There’s never been an inquiry or an investigation into child abuse in Victorian state schools.”

A spokesperson for the education department said it responds to matters of alleged sexual abuse consistent with Victoria’s model litigant guidelines.

The department invited any legal representatives of abuse survivors to meet and discuss any concerns relating to the model litigant guidelines – and say they have also done so previously.

“When survivors of sexual abuse come forward, we respond compassionately and sensitively to their circumstances – with personal apologies and acknowledgments, direct personal responses when survivors access the National Redress Scheme, and written personal apologies when a formal claim is resolved,” the spokesperson said.

“We encourage anyone who has experienced any form of abuse as a current or former student at a Victorian government school to report it to both the department of education and Victoria police so we can support them and take appropriate action.”

‘They just want to be heard’

In September 2022, Justice party MP Stuart Grimley called for the premier to publicly apologise to victim-survivors of child sexual abuse within government schools between the 1960s and 1990s.

His motion, which also urged the government to comply with its model litigant guidelines, passed the Victorian parliament’s upper house before Grimley lost his seat at the November election.

Liberal MP Brad Rowswell, whose electorate of Sandringham also takes in Beaumaris, has met with Fearnett and other victims from the school and has written twice to the attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, urging her to do the same.

“If she took the time to do so, she’d soon realise that these victim-survivors simply need help; they just want to be heard,” Rowswell said.

“As it currently stands, they don’t feel seen, heard or believed by the Andrews Labor government.”

Symes has been approached for comment.

Before November’s election, the government announced a redress scheme for victims of abuse in Victorian orphanages, children’s homes and missions, which will be accompanied by a formal apology delivered by the premier.

The premier’s accompanying statement made no mention of those who suffered historical abuse in government schools.

Fearnett has nothing but respect and admiration for people who were abused as a child while in institutional care, some of whom have been fighting for decades for recognition from the government. His fight began a little over a year ago, but he similarly won’t stop until he gets an apology for government school students.

“I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for the others. Because I continue to feel like I let a lot of people down,” Fearnett said.

“Perhaps if I had said something, others may not be in the position that they are. We’ll never know, we can’t wind the clock back. I live with that every day.”

  • 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

Related Content

Article image
‘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

Benita Kolovos

29, Jan, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Victorian government to apologise to victims of sexual abuse at state schools later this year
Daniel Andrews will meet with campaigner Glen Fearnett on Monday ahead of a formal apology

Adeshola Ore and Benita Kolovos

03, Feb, 2023 @7:37 AM

Article image
Victorian public schools to get free lunches under opposition election pledge
The opt-in program would be implemented by the end of 2026 in an effort to ease cost of living pressures and support nutrition of students

Adeshola Ore

30, Oct, 2022 @4:12 AM

Article image
John Herron to run for Justice party in Victoria state election to ‘fight for’ daughter killed in Royal Park in 2019
Navy veteran and lawyer joins Derryn Hinch’s party but expert warns against calls for harsher bail laws

Adeshola Ore

17, Oct, 2022 @1:56 AM

Article image
Pressure builds on Victoria to overhaul bail laws in response to Indigenous woman’s death on remand
Ahead of coroner handing down findings into death of Veronica Nelson, her partner says she ‘shouldn’t have been in jail’

Benita Kolovos

24, Jan, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Victoria vows to overhaul child protection as Yoorrook Justice Commission begins public hearings
Daniel Andrews says too many First Nations children taken from families and plans to work with minister to ‘devise a new system’

Benita Kolovos and Australian Associated Press

05, Dec, 2022 @5:22 AM

Article image
Victorian Indigenous leader calls for urgent changes to child protection and justice systems
Co-chair of Victoria’s First Peoples’ Assembly says ‘we can’t wait until 2024 for a state-wide treaty and then begin negotiations on this work’

Adeshola Ore

13, Dec, 2022 @7:11 AM

Article image
Call for free university degrees and interest-free mortgages for Indigenous Victorians
Former treaty advancement commissioner Jill Gallagher says independent fund should seek to alleviate economic disadvantage

Adeshola Ore

24, Aug, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
‘Barbaric’ practices still used in Victorian prisons, human rights advocates say
Andrews government urged to establish independent watchdog to comply with anti-torture obligations ratified by Australia in 2017

Adeshola Ore

10, Oct, 2022 @4:30 PM

Article image
Daniel Andrews ‘couldn’t think of anything more distressing’ for victims than a state funeral for George Pell
Victorian premier says those abused ‘at the hands of the Catholic church’ are foremost in his thoughts

Benita Kolovos, Michael McGowan and Adeshola Ore

12, Jan, 2023 @12:45 AM