Tasmania’s Education Department misled a regulatory body about a teacher who had been accused of sexually abusing a student, the child sexual abuse commission of inquiry has heard.
- The Tasmanian Education Department secretary said the department’s response to allegations of abuse made by a student in the mid-2000s was “woefully inadequate”
- Tim Bullard said another victim-survivor could feel “betrayed” by the way the department handled her case
- He also told the commission several improvements had been made and the allegations would be handled differently today
CONTENT WARNING: This story contains details that may cause distress.
On Wednesday, the commission heard evidence from a woman known as Rachel* who said she had been groomed and sexually abused by a teacher, Wayne*.
The commission heard Rachel’s mother made a complaint in 2005 about Wayne’s behaviour towards her daughter.
Those allegations were upheld but were determined not to have been a breach of the State Service Code of Conduct because they happened away from school.
After a two-year investigation, during which Rachel said there was no support for her or her mother, Rachel made further allegations, including that the teacher kissed her, sexually touched her, told her that he loved her and that they could “have a relationship” after she finished year 10, and gave her alcohol.
Rachel also made allegations in 2007 about what were referred to as dirty jokes and videos.
Education Department secretary Tim Bullard told the commission on Thursday that the dirty jokes and videos were investigated, but none of the other allegations made in 2007 were.
“The department’s response to this was woefully inadequate,” Mr Bullard said.
He said as part of a review of historical child sexual abuse allegations within the department, he read the file relating to Wayne.
“I was distressed reading the file and the way in which the allegations had been undertaken,” he said.
He said the department would no longer consider allegations of a teacher’s behaviour outside of school towards a student as not related to their employment, as happened in the 2005-07 investigation.
Department ‘misled’ regulator by omission
Mr Bullard said because some of the later allegations against Wayne were never investigated, he was able to re-open an investigation.
He told the commission Wayne was suspended and reported to police.
In 2007, after Rachel made her allegations, the Education Department wrote to the Teachers Registration Board telling it that the investigation into the 2005 allegations against Wayne had concluded.
It made no mention of the subsequent allegations.
“It is important that the regulator has full and frank disclosure from the Department of Education, isn’t it?” counsel assisting the commission Elizabeth Bennett SC asked Mr Bullard.
“The department, by omission, misled the regulator — do you accept that?” Ms Bennett asked.
Mr Bullard: “Yes.”
‘The system never believed me’
Mr Bullard, who has headed the Education Department since 2017, has said there were failings in the way the department responded to other cases of child sexual abuse.
“I have come to this role and believe I have made significant improvements. I’m not saying that by any account it’s perfect, but I also accept that a number of those improvements as they stand rely on my personal way of operating and the expectations that I set and the disposition I come to those matters with,” he said.
Mr Bullard was asked about another case the commission has heard evidence about.
Kerri Collins on Monday told the commission she was about seven years old when she was sexually abused by a teacher — John* — at her primary school in the 1980s.
Ms Collins told the commission: “The system has never believed me.”
She said she disclosed the abuse when she was about 11 years old and made a report to police.
The police did not take any further steps at that time but the matter was the subject of a criminal trial in the early 2000s, though the trial did not proceed.
Department letter ‘inappropriate’
The Education Department wrote to the Teachers Registration Board five months after the trial was discontinued, encouraging the board to approve John’s registration.
The commission has heard the letter was influential in John getting his registration.
“It is not for me to tell you how to undertake your work and I choose to do so only on this occasion because of the major negative impact that the ongoing delay is having on one of our valued employees,” the letter’s author wrote.
Mr Bullard told the commission the letter was “confronting” and inappropriate.
“Why were we more concerned around an adult feeling uncomfortable or disgruntled or disenfranchised than we were around the child or young person who was involved?
“That is a very, very clear example of the crux of the cultural change that we need to embed in every aspect of our organisation, and that is that children have a right to feel safe and be heard.”
Teachers Registration Board registrar Ann Moxham, who was not involved in the matter, told the commission there had been a review of the processes that led to John’s registration.
Some gaps were identified and led to changes in legislation, but no change was made to John’s registration status.
Ms Moxham said it was a “nasty black mark” against the board’s name.
“It’s really unforgivable,” she said.
“I am really sincerely sorry that the board has failed in this situation.”
Lawyer Zoe Papageorgiou, speaking outside the commission, said she hoped “significant changes” had been made.
“Unfortunately we’re still getting inquiries from survivors of abuse of allegations happening very much in the present day, so I think it’s one thing having a really strong policy framework, and another thing implementing that policy framework,” said Ms Papageorgiou, who specialises in abuse claims at Maurice Blackburn.
“We can really get a sense of this being such a current issue, and by no means is it historical or a problem of the past.”
Mr Bullard will give further evidence to the commission on Friday.
*Names have been changed.
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