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Tas education system protected pedophiles: inquiry

Tasmania sex abuse
Tasmania's education department was found to be more concerned with protecting itself than children. Photo: AAP
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Serial child sex abusers were allowed to continue teaching in Tasmania for decades as concerns, complaints and ineffectual responses “literally piled up”.

An inquiry into the state education department’s responses to child sexual abuse released its findings on Tuesday, along with 21 recommendations which have been adopted by the government.

It found when handling child sex abuse claims the department was primarily concerned with protecting itself from legal, financial, and reputational risks, particularly in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

“(Department) responses over this period routinely involved deflecting or ignoring concerns and complaints, often by disbelieving or blaming students, and by shielding alleged or known sexual abusers,” it reads.

“We cannot explain this by assuming that ‘that’s just the way things were back then.’

“The evidence in (the department’s) own records shows that (department) officials very often acted in ways that were completely at odds with community expectations at the time.

“We saw many examples of parents and others, including teachers and principals, actively but ultimately unsuccessfully opposing the decisions of (the department) to transfer known abusers to a new school.”

Only the findings and recommendations of the inquiry, which was launched in August 2020, have been released by the government due to a “range of concerns and legal impediments”.

“We have found it deeply disturbing that, as concerns, complaints and ineffectual responses literally piled up in (department) records, serial abusers like (Darrel George) Harington and (Anthony) LeClerc were … allowed to keep teaching for decades,” the report reads.

“(Department) leaders and others so wilfully disregarded the obvious risks and harms to students.”

LeClerc, a priest and former teacher who worked in Tasmania’s northwest was jailed in 2015 for molesting 14 children between 1973 and 1983.

Harington was sentenced to 12 years’ jail in 2015 for sexually abusing nine kids from 1978 to 2013 while he worked as a teacher, physical trainer and massage therapist.

He was sentenced to a further two years in jail in 2020 for abusing two teenage boys in the late 1970s on a Christmas school trip.

He gave one of the boys alcohol before the abuse.

The report found “significant uncertainty” among school principles and staff about who is responsible for notifying police about allegations of sexual abuse.

It determined culture and leadership in the department has changed for the better in the past decade but residual cultural problems remain.

“We have seen very recent examples where students’ concerns and complaints have been assumed to be untrue,” it reads.

Problems with the reliability, validity, accessibility and completeness of department records made it impossible for the inquiry to determine the rate of sexual abuse in state schools in recent decades.

As a result, the effectiveness of safeguarding policies is difficult to assess, it concluded.

The report’s authors, forensic psychologist Steven Smallbone and legal expert Tim McCormack say there is an urgent need for complete records of all sexual abuse concerns.

Recommendations include better student safeguarding policies and record keeping, plus greater teacher training around mandatory reporting.

The report comes amid a broader royal commission-style inquiry into the Tasmanian government’s handling of child sex abuse claims in the public sector.

It is set to hold public hearings early next year.

In a joint statement, Attorney-General Elise Archer and Education Minister Sarah Courtney said the safety and wellbeing of children was a government priority.

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– AAP