Tasmania’s commission of inquiry exposes systemic failings that allowed child sex abuse to happen
It was a week of failings laid bare.
Four courageous victim-survivors of child sexual abuse gave powerful accounts to the Tasmanian child sexual abuse commission of inquiry in Hobart.
CONTENT WARNING: This story contains details that may cause distress.
Kerri Collins, Katrina Munting, Sam Leishman and Rachel* were all school students at public schools when they were sexually abused by teachers.
While their experiences were all different, the abuse had, and continues to have, a profound effect on each of them.
Their stories also highlighted the many systemic problems that covered up or allowed the abuse to happen, or allowed teachers to continue teaching when they should not have been anywhere near children.
The department also failed them because it did not offer them support — not when they made their disclosures or in the years that followed as their cases received the attention of the police or the public.
Education Department secretary Tim Bullard, who gave evidence several times over three days, acknowledged failings in the department’s handling of complaints: not investigating some allegations, advocating for a teacher accused of child sexual abuse to be re-registered, not supporting victim-survivors — including those who gave evidence to the commission — and not putting victim-survivors at the centre of responses.
Teachers, too, had felt unsupported by the department, the commission heard.
Nigel Russell, a teacher with 20 years of experience, told the commission about an alleged sexual assault that happened in his classroom.
He told the commission a boy who had been displaying “challenging behaviour” all day — and as a result, should not have even been in class that afternoon — sexually assaulted one of the girls in the class.
Mr Russell said not only did the school do nothing to address the boy’s behaviour earlier in the day, although the matter was reported to police, the school, as far as he could tell, took no action of its own.
“The school did not address the perpetrator’s behaviour, support the victim-survivor, or provide support to other students or teachers,” he wrote in his statement to the commission.
He said the principal “refused to acknowledge the incident for what it was: a sexual assault”.
Mr Russell said he “fell in a heap” after that day and did not return to work for several months.
“I drop my children off to school every day. I leave them with a group of adults that I trust will return them back to me in the same state that I delivered them and on this day I didn’t, I couldn’t extend that same trust to this girl’s family, her friends,” he said.
When he did return, he told the commission, he said nothing had been done to address the issue.
“I asked whether there had been any education or assistance provided to the class to help them appreciate that what had happened was wrong. I was particularly concerned about those students who had condoned the actions of the perpetrator,” he said.
“No such education or assistance was provided, and I was told that it was ‘too late’ to embark on any such education now.”
He said it was only when he was on his way to give evidence to the commission that someone from the department contacted him to check on his welfare and offer support.
Mr Russell said in his 20-year career he did not remember receiving any training from the Education Department about child sexual abuse or harmful sexual behaviours.
Mr Bullard spoke about cultural change he was trying to implement in the department that would put children at the centre.
When Mr Leishman gave evidence on Friday, he told the commission about standing up in court when his abuser was sentenced and giving a victim impact statement.
He said he felt like the biggest person in the room that day, that he was “speaking up for the child I once was”, something he said had not been done before.
“We hear this evidence, commissioners, as a call to this commission and to the Department of Education to stand up in defence of young children and young people today,” counsel assisting the commission Elizabeth Bennett SC said.
*Name has been changed.