Nearly 20 years ago Denise and Gordon’s son, Owen, was found dead. It wasn’t clear if it was suicide or an overdose. Denise feels he was self-medicating that night, to get some relief from the nightmares, sweats and flashbacks he was suffering. ‘I truly believe it was an accident because I believe that he had plans for the future. He wanted to study. He wanted to do a whole lot of things.’
Owen’s early childhood in the 1970s and 80s was ‘free range’. His family lived in Sydney but their neighbourhood was almost completely surrounded by bush. Owen was a friendly, trusting and affectionate boy. He also had a keen sense of justice and a developed sense of empathy. His parents recalled a time he found $20 and shared it with his siblings.
Owen loved school and was able to get high marks without putting in a lot of effort. He was popular with the girls. But in high school he got bullied.
On one occasion he came home, very upset, because a group of school kids had held his head out of the train. ‘He was absolutely beside himself.’ Denise rang the school, trying to get in contact with the principal. The form master rang her back. ‘His exact words to me were “Owen needs to thicken up. He needs to develop a thicker skin”.’
He gave Denise the names of two mentor teachers who would ‘be good for boys under those circumstances’. One of those teachers was Keith Pilger.
‘[Pilger] seemed to be friendly with a lot of parents. And he was like, for want of a better word, the Messiah in that he was a very charismatic man and people used to follow him around – and kids. So all the cool kids hung with him.’
Owen seemed to ‘blossom’ under his mentorship with Pilger, which started from when he was around 15 until he finished high school. Looking back, however, Denise and Gordon can see there were a couple of signs that Pilger was sexually abusing their son.
One sign was when Owen’s younger brother wanted to join Pilger’s class. Denise recalled that ‘Owen said to [his brother] “Get out of that class. Get out of it now. He’s a chester chester child molestor. Don’t bend over, he will get ya” or something like that and I said to him, “Why would you say that?” I feel guilty for saying that but it was just so out of the blue. And he just said “Look, you don’t want to be in his class”.’
Owen applied himself to his schoolwork and did very well in the Higher School Certificate. But after school he fell apart. Denise suspected he was taking amphetamines because he never slept.
‘He went to uni. He deferred. He went and got a job. He changed this job. He went back … did a manager’s course. He was very reliable as far as work goes. He worked until the day he died. But he was just not coping emotionally but he couldn’t tell us why. And I asked him about drugs and … I think he deny, deny, deny.’
At one point, when living interstate, Owen became depressed and would frequently ring his parents in the middle of the night, distressed. Meanwhile, Denise and Gordon became aware, by chance, that Pilger had been arrested for child sex offences. They asked Owen if anything had happened to him and eventually he blurted it out. He was 18 when he disclosed. Pilger had abused him, hurt him and given him drugs.
Later, Denise and Gordon learned that the teacher had warned Owen not to say anything about the abuse because Pilger knew ‘important people’ such as politicians and barristers.
They went to the police, who were fantastic, and Owen decided to press charges. The police decided they would try both cases together – Owen’s and the case Denise and Gordon had previously heard about. However, the other victim took his own life. The case then rested solely on Owen. Although the police had established Pilger was a serial offender, they had very few witnesses.
As Gordon recalled, ‘Although [the police] had spoken to, they said something like 28 I think, students that they’d interviewed and all had stories to tell. But this went back for many, many, many years as Pilger at this stage was about 50 and he’d been teaching since he was in his mid-20s, so over that huge period of time. And some of the people that they interviewed had families and kids of their own, and whatever circumstances, and just didn’t want to come forth with their horror stories.’
One of the positives that came out of going to the police was that Owen was put in touch with a counsellor who was making great inroads. This counsellor expressed disappointment she was never called as a witness.
Denise suggested to the prosecutor that they show a photo of Owen as a 15-year-old because, by that time, he was a tall man. She was told that wasn’t necessary. ‘Well, I think that [photo] says a lot. Because he was a little boy. And he had a sense of wonderment.’
The committal hearing was closed to the public and Owen was relaxed giving evidence. ‘The police came out and said he was brilliant.’ However, for the trial, there was a change at short notice to do with the defence, which meant it would be in open court. Owen was very distressed about this, knowing that Pilger would have all his people there. ‘He was just in a heap.’
Denise, being a witness herself, was unable to be in the courtroom to support Owen. ‘When he came out from giving evidence he said to me “Mum, I didn’t do very well. I just wanted to get it over and done with”.’
Pilger had a ‘cheer squad, a gallery at the court’ and Owen was incredibly hurt and embarrassed to have intimate details spoken about. ‘The reality of that was once again he was going through the same physical, mental humiliation that he’d gone through before’, Gordon said.
Although the judge stated that Owen was a credible and reliable witness, Pilger wasn’t convicted. On hearing the verdict, Owen ran out of court. He was devastated.
‘He was able to continue holding down a job and studying. He’d put things into little compartments and was able to continue but we knew that he wasn’t the same.’
Owen was then asked by the Department of Education to give evidence at their inquiry into Pilger’s suitability to be a teacher. Owen did that and the tribunal decided that, on balance, Pilger was an abuser. However, Denise and Gordon believe he might have resigned before the department stood him down.
The department neither apologised to Owen for the abuse nor thanked him for his assistance in their inquiry. As Gordon recalled, ‘We always had the feeling, the gut feeling that there were forces from the education department that wanted to put a hat on this. That they didn’t want it out. They didn’t want it known that there was somebody in their school community that was doing things.’ Denise agreed. ‘That’s the feeling you get because of the way you’re treated.’
Owen had become addicted to heroin. He had said to his parents ‘I can’t stand the pain’. His new psychiatrist diagnosed him with PTSD and prescribed him medication. Denise and Gordon did everything in their power to make their son well, including taking him to detox programs. They noted that there weren’t many options in the 1990s. But Owen did become clear of heroin, something that Denise believes made him raw to the emotions he couldn’t deal with.
Despite the verdict in court, Owen was eligible for victims’ compensation. However, the family was told that if he received that, he wouldn’t be eligible for compensation from the education department. They started proceedings against the department but then Owen died.
‘The man who abused him is the person that is ultimately responsible for his demise’, Denise told the Commissioner. ‘The judicial system let him down … and the education department should have been ashamed of themselves.’