Next week the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse will hold public hearings in Brisbane the first outside New South Wales. But unlike the investigations so far it will concentrate on relatively recent allegations of abuse at a Catholic school in Toowoomba.
(MATT WORDSWORTH SPEAKS WITH JANETTE DINES)
MATT WORDSWORTH: Janette Dines thanks for joining us. Why did you need to bring these hearings to Brisbane?
JANETTE DINES, ROYAL COMMISSION CEO: We’re a national Royal Commission and we’ve been operating for the past 12 months around the country in every State and Territory we’ve done private sessions. We’ve had calls from around the country. So the reason we’re in Brisbane is really to reflect that national focus and we’ll do public hearings across all States and Territories in Australia over the next couple of years.
MATT WORDSWORTH: What’s the background to the case that you’re investigating here?
JANETTE DINES: The case that we’re examining in this public hearing is the case of a Catholic primary school in Toowoomba and a male primary teacher sexually abused 13 young girls over a period of around 12 months.
MATT WORDSWORTH: And I understand the Principal was warned?
JANETTE DINES: That’s right. It appears that over a course of just a couple of days two separate communications were made to the school that Mr Byrnes was behaving inappropriately towards young girls and it was decided both by the Principal, in consultation with the Catholic Education Office, which is the governing body, it was decided not to report the matter further but to simply speak to the teacher.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Now I understand he was allowed to retire but he also then continued to molest these children over the period of a year.
JANETTE DINES: That’s right. Unfortunately in this case the abuse in fact escalated after the period of the Principal first speaking to the teacher and that’s I think the very sad and traumatic thing for the parents and the families concerned here. The feeling that this abuse was preventable but in fact it continued following the period that concerns were first raised.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Now it was law and still is law that the Principal and any teacher must report to police any suspicions of child sexual abuse. How concerning that they failed in this case?
JANETTE DINES: What is very concerning in this case is that there appeared to be a set of principles and procedures in place at the school that did describe what should happen and that parents were entitled to rely on to prevent this sort of situation occurring. Now those principles and procedures had been endorsed by an outside body an independent school accreditation board. So what we’re looking at here is why when there were systems and procedures in place did we still get the situation where what children were saying wasn’t believed sufficiently for an investigation to occur and in fact this behaviour only ceased when eventually a parent telephoned the police and the teacher was arrested quite quickly after that.
MATT WORDSWORTH: I guess the big difference between this leg of the hearings and what we’ve seen so far is this only happened in 2007 before it was quite historic, decades old. Some of these children are still at school.
JANETTE DINES: That’s right. All of these girls are still children. They’re all under 16. I think what we think probably in the community is that the as you call it the historical abuse if you like, the sorts of stories we’ve heard in the last couple of weeks about Salvation Army homes that are now closed. We tend to think that perhaps that happened because institutions that didn’t have systems and procedures but what is confronting in this case is the fact that there were systems and procedures in place but children were still let down, children didn’t feel that they could report this behaviour. When they did report it they weren’t believed and the sense of powerlessness that the victims’ families describe and the lack of trust that the children then had in the school and in the ability to tell adults things that mattered and were dangerous for them was really destroyed.
MATT WORDSWORTH: I guess this case had extra shock value in the fact that one of the things the Catholic Church did was put in child protection officers yet this teacher was the child protection officer.
JANETTE DINES: That’s right. I think that is an extra shocking aspect of the story and what it tells us when we’re looking at what we can do to build strong and safe institutions for children is that that’s one of the things we have to look at: how do you put checks and balances in so that you don’t get the situation when the student protection officer is actually the one that complaints are being made about? How do you make sure that people who can properly investigate these sorts of complaints or allegations are able to do so?
MATT WORDSWORTH: Now I’m sure there will be some witnesses perhaps some children even who might give evidence in the next couple of weeks. What support is there for them after they’ve poured their hearts out in front of you?
JANETTE DINES: We put a lot of effort into having a very comprehensive system of support for witnesses. We’ve been in touch with all of the witnesses who will appear in this hearing and particularly making sure that we’ve got counsellors available to help the parents of these victims who will give evidence and this is really part of what the Royal Commission does in fact right from the time someone first calls in to say they have a story and they want to talk to us about whether they’ll share that story. From the time someone first calls they will be speaking to a trained telephone counsellor. If someone comes to a private session there are counsellors on site and we do follow-up with people. And we also work very closely with local community support groups and mental health organisations. And if people aren’t already connected to support we’ll make sure that they know where to go to get that support.
MATT WORDSWORTH: So just looking at the wider issues what lessons have you already learned from the hearings so far?
JANETTE DINES: Well it’s too early to talk about any findings and recommendations that the Royal Commissioners might make about how to improve systems. But what we really have found is that there are many thousands of people around the country who were affected by sexual abuse in an institution as a child and they want to tell their story. What is striking is that in residential situations sexual abuse was accompanied by horrific levels of physical abuse and what we’ve learnt as well is that the impact that this abuse has had on people’s lives has been devastating. It’s affected people’s ability to form relationships, to continue their education, to gain employment and that many thousands of Australians are suffering with the long term impacts of abuse as are their families.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Alright Janette Dines thanks very much for your time and good luck with the hearings over the next couple of weeks.
JANETTE DINES: Thanks very much.
MATT WORDSWORTH: And the teacher involved in that case could be out of jail in two years’ time.
Royal Commission Website: http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/