The head of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne has publicly apologised to a former patient who was repeatedly molested by two of the facility’s volunteers.
Hospital chief Professor Christine Kilpatrick was called to give evidence after Tuesday’s harrowing testimony from the female former patient who was sexually abused in the 1980s.
The victim known as AWI was molested by two hospital volunteers when she was 12 years old in 1981, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard.
On Wednesday, Professor Kilpatrick acknowledged the victim’s bravery.
“I sincerely apologise for the suffering that you experienced whilst you were a patient in our hospital, under our care. There is no doubt we failed you, and for that I am sorry,” she said.
AWI said she tried to kill herself in the ward after she was abused.
One of the perpetrators was a youth worker who was never identified. AWI named the other as Harry Pueshel, who is now deceased.
“My abuser was extremely predatory. He targeted unwell, vulnerable and isolated children who were being cared for by a benevolent institution,” AWI said.
Hospital would treat complaints differently today: chief
When AWI tried to complain three years after the abuse, her phone call to the hospital was dismissed as a prank.
“The professional staff did not have the training or experience to enable them to suspect child abuse,” she said.
Professor Kilpatrick assured AWI’s lawyer, Ian Fehring, that these days, the switchboard would respond appropriately.
She also told the hearing the new hospital building, which opened in November 2011, was designed and built with patient safety in mind.
“It is a very open facility,” Professor Kilpatrick said.
“The walls of the rooms are glass, the doors are glass so it is a very visible transparent environment.”
Professor Kilpatrick was asked if the circumstances of a girl being molested behind a closed door of the playroom could be repeated.
She replied “no”.
AWI said she was molested often multiple times a week, as she sat on Pueshel’s lap in a playroom.
Pueshel was dismissed in the late 1990s after the victim wrote to the hospital’s former chief John De Campo.
But the hearing was told the volunteer was found back on the hospital grounds a year later.
Professor Kilpatrick said that would not happen now, telling the hearing that volunteers were monitored with rosters, lanyards, badges with barcodes, and access cards.
She said volunteers also experienced a lengthy recruitment process to gain permission to enter the ward.
“They are then invited to a two-and-a-half day training program, and again their behaviour at that event is also assessed,” Professor Kilpatrick said.
“They may finally be accepted as being a volunteer, provided they then pass a police check and working with children check, and are put on a three-month probation.”
Two sexual abuse claims in past seven years: hospital
Professor Christine Kilpatrick said since she was appointed as chief in 2008, there had been two allegations of child sexual abuse within the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Both complaints related to the sexual abuse of patients by staff.
“I’ve been at the hospital since August 2008, and there have been two allegations of child sex abuse of current patients, whilst in the hospital,” Professor Kilpatrick said.
“Both were reported to the police … there have been no criminal recordings.”
On Friday, the royal commission will hear from two former New South Wales Healthcare complaints commissioners after last week’s damning evidence about Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.