Monica Doumit: Five years after the Royal Commission, govt schools come under scrutiny

The Catholic Weekly [Archdiocese of Sydney NSW, Australia]

July 7, 2023

By Monica Doumit

It would be terrible if a focus on the Catholic Church and other religious schools meant that the victim survivors in public schools were not given the opportunity to share their story publicly and, in doing so, encourage others to come forward.

Along with an estimated 60 million others around the world, I was an avid listener of The Australian’s Teacher’s Pet podcast. Released in 2018, the investigative-journalism-meets-true-crime serial led to the conviction of former rugby league player and high school teacher, Christopher Dawson, for the murder of his first wife, Lynette. The motive for the murder, the court found, was Mr Dawson’s desire to have unfettered access to his young lover, one of his students to whom the court gave the pseudonym AB. AB moved into the family home just two days after Lynette’s “disappearance” and married Mr Dawson shortly after.

Last week, Mr Dawson was convicted of carnal knowledge of AB—having a sexual relationship with her while she was under the age of consent. Simultaneously with news of Dawson’s conviction, there were calls for an inquiry into Cromer High School, where Dawson taught, and the surrounding schools of Beacon Hill High and Forest High. Allegations made in the podcast and to media since its airing suggest that 20 former teachers from these schools are now being investigated for predatory behaviour by Strike Force Southwood, a NSW Police taskforce established to look into the allegations made in the Teacher’s Pet.

NSW MPs Michael Regan and Dr Joe McGirr have supported calls from Lynette’s family for an inquiry into the schools. Advocate Nina Funnell told media that the scope of such an inquiry should not necessarily be limited to the 1970s and 1980s (the time period covered by these allegations), because “as of now children are still being condition and groomed for sexual abuse in schools.”

Across the border, an inquiry into child sexual abuse at another government school has just been announced. The Victorian Government has signed off on an inquiry into abuse that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s at Beaumaris Primary School, as well as ongoing abuse by Beaumaris employees perpetrated at other schools. In a similar call to that made by Nina Funnell, Victorian MP Brad Roswell—in whose electorate Beaumaris sits—has said the inquiry needs to be extended to all Victorian government-run schools. Roswell described Beaumaris as just “the tip of the iceberg.”

It remains unclear whether an inquiry will be called in NSW, or whether the Victorian one will be expanded to cover other schools. Reading each of these stories this week, I couldn’t help but ask why a previous public inquiry hadn’t already examined these schools.

It’s been just over five years since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its final report and recommendations. The Royal Commission ran for five years and heard from around 8000 survivors of child sexual abuse. Of these, 35.7 per cent reported that their abuse occurred in a Catholic-run institution, while 32.5 per cent reported that their abuse occurred in a government-run institution. Despite the relative similarity in the proportion of allegations, the Catholic-run institutions were the subject of twice as many public hearings as the government-run ones, and no government-run school was considered during a public hearing.

There were five separate public hearings into Catholic schools and another six into schools run by other faith groups. But no government school was considered, other than a couple of special schools no longer in existence. Indeed, the closest the Royal Commission came to publicly looking at normal government schools was hearing from a single witness from the NSW Department of Education about sexual abuse perpetrated by students on other students.

Given this, one has to question why the grooming and sexual abuse of students in public schools like Beaumaris and Cromer was not the subject of a single public hearing by the Royal Commission. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting for a second that the Catholic Church should have received any lighter treatment by the commission. I have said many times before that Jesus tells us: “But that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Lk 12:47-48). The Catholic Church holds the fullness of the truth and so we can expect to be judged more harshly, and it’s better that we receive it now than at final judgment.

However, that we should be held to a higher standard does not mean others should not be held to any standard at all. It would be terrible if a focus on the Catholic Church and other religious schools meant that the victim survivors in public schools were not given the opportunity to share their story publicly and, in doing so, encourage others to come forward. If the Victorian inquiry is expanded to more government schools and the NSW one goes ahead, perhaps they should also consider why government schools did not receive proportionate attention from the Royal Commission.