Beth and her husband Peter have told their younger children about what happened to their oldest child, Michelle, who is now in her final year of high school in the town where they live. ‘We had to tell the children, because we weren’t functioning and you had to put a reason to it’, Beth said.
‘Sixteen years ago we had one of the best marriages you would ever see’, said Peter. ‘People would look at us and go “You guys are fantastic”. Now, we struggle to stay together. It’s changed both of us and it’s changed the way we look at everything … You know, there was four years where my wife couldn’t cook tea. There was years when she was drinking a bottle of vodka a week and I was doing a carton of stubbies - 30 cans of beer every two days, just to cope.’
The upheaval in the family is the result of a series of events that began in the late 2000s. Michelle was in Year 4 at a Catholic primary school. She was being sexually abused by her classroom teacher, John Dunleavy. She wasn’t the only one – he was assaulting other girls in the class too, and eventually it was reported by one of them to the school principal, Matthew Baxter.
Halfway through the following year Dunleavy retired from his position. But just a month later Baxter re-appointed him as a relief teacher. For several more months, Dunleavy molested Michelle and other girls in his care. The assaults ended with his arrest at the end of that year on child sex abuse charges. Just over a year later, after pleading guilty to 44 offences, he was convicted and jailed.
The role played by Baxter and the district’s Catholic Education Office in allowing Dunleavy’s abuse to continue was examined by the Royal Commission in one of its public hearings. In their conversation with the Commissioner, Beth and Peter wanted to talk about what happened afterwards.
‘I think the thing that sticks with Michelle is – one of my wife’s favourite sayings is, you know, “If you do something wrong then you have to face the repercussions”. And as Michelle sees it, Baxter hasn’t really had any repercussions’, Peter said.
The Royal Commission hearing found there had been multiple failings on Baxter’s part. He didn’t follow the procedures outlined in the school student protection kit. He didn’t report Dunleavy to police. He didn’t pass on relevant information about Dunleavy to the Catholic Education Office. He re-appointed Dunleavy as a teacher in the school, despite the allegations against him.
Baxter later lost his job as principal, and was tried but not convicted on a charge of failing to comply with a mandatory reporting obligation. Throughout the trial, he continued to be supported by staff at the school and the wider school community. According to Beth and Peter, several of the police officers investigating the case had close connections to the school: one was married to a teacher there and two others had children who were students. Beth, Peter and other concerned parents asked for the investigation to be transferred to a specialist police taskforce, but the request was declined.
Beth and Peter, and other families of children who’d been abused, found themselves ostracised. Everyone believed in Baxter, Beth said. And Peter: ‘We got told that we were wrecking a great school community and ruining a good man’s life’. Just one teacher apologised to them for what had happened to Michelle. No one else, including the diocese, offered support of any kind.
The couple continued to pursue the matter. Baxter wasn’t alone in his failure to protect children at the school – the Royal Commission also found grave errors on the part of other teachers and staff at the Catholic Education Office. Beth and Peter believe they should have been prosecuted too, but they have been told by police that the statute of limitations now prevents this. They have been shocked to discover that Baxter has now been re-employed within the Catholic education system, while others named in the Commission’s report have since been promoted.
Beth and Peter feel frustrated and let down by all parts of the system: police, the Catholic Church, government agencies. When they asked officials in their diocese to investigate Baxter’s reappointment as a teacher, they were told the decision had been made by a different diocese and nothing could be done.
The diocese’s inaction confirmed to them that the Church’s commitment to change is hollow.
As Peter put it, Catholic bishops ‘spruik and prattle on at all the Commission hearings that they’re moving forward and they’re trying to change the system, when all they’re doing is what they’ve been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. When they have a problem, “Let’s move it so no one knows where it is” … They’re not changing anything’.
As well, they said, Baxter has infringed the requirements of the non-state school accreditation board, but it hasn’t acted either. ‘Government agencies, they’re nothing. They’re lapdogs. They run around and want to look good, but not one of them is doing anything to stop the failures.’
Both Beth and Peter believe that independent oversight of institutions such as the Catholic Church to ensure they’re following their own rules is essential. And there needs to be significant consequences when failures occur. In Baxter’s case, ‘It‘s “Give him a smack on the wrist and send him out”’, Peter observed. ‘If you’ve got a dog that rips up your shoes, to change his culture of ripping up your shoes you punish him. And there’s no punishment.’
Michelle didn’t disclose the abuse to her parents until the day Dunleavy was arrested. She’d tried months before, but at the time Peter was away and the phone rang just as Michelle started to tell Beth. ‘I said “Hang on a second darling, I’ve got to take this call”’ – and, Peter continues, ‘Then Michelle lost her nerve’. It was only a short while later that one of the other girls in the class told her parents, who took her to see Baxter.
‘All of the girls knew that she’d gone to him’, said Beth. ‘And they saw that he did nothing.’