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.
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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.
“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.
“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