As a student boarding at a non-government boys’ school in New South Wales, Ely often heard his peers say that boarding house master and teacher, Anthony Mullins, was someone to avoid.
‘No one owned up or discussed it except by saying he was a creep and you know, just “Be careful”, that sort of stuff. But it wasn’t really taken seriously by me or anyone that I knew because it was only sort of rumour. But then afterwards, obviously I did take it a lot more seriously. With discussion in the schoolyard and that sort of thing, it became obvious that incidents had happened to others as well.’
Decades later Ely found out that many parents had reported concerns about Mullins to then acting headmaster Geoffrey Denton. The reason no action was taken, Ely thought, was because Denton was worried about the reputation of the school as well as his own position.
Ely told the Commissioner that he was sexually abused one night in the early 1980s when Mullins came into the dormitory, groped his genitals and masturbated him.
‘That went on for about 10, 12 minutes and then I obviously knew it was wrong and I made it uncomfortable for him. I wanted him to go away, and he did.’
For the next two years, Ely was given preferential treatment by Mullins in the classroom. But he began to misbehave and not take his schoolwork seriously and his grades slipped. As well as his ‘rebellion against the system’, Ely found it increasingly difficult to deal with older males, and developed a deep mistrust of people in responsibility or power.
He said he had a ‘bad relationship’ with his father, and thought of his parents as secondary victims of the abuse. ‘I distanced myself from them and wasn’t able to, I think, fully benefit from their wisdom, their counsel, as parents would normally provide to their children. Well, it’s just a reaction I had to them. I guess initially I blamed them because I thought, why would they send me to a school where this could happen. But obviously with the benefit of hindsight and a bit more maturity and experience, they weren’t to know.’
After leaving school, Ely studied at university and built up a successful business career. In the early 2000s the birth of his first child was motivation to report Mullins to NSW Police. ‘I remember thinking at the time if anything like what happened to me, happens to my daughter, I’d be very angry. So I thought, well, I need to do something about this.’
Ely’s experience with NSW Police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions was positive; however their resources were stretched and staff could spend only limited time investigating and prosecuting his case. In the course of their investigations, police found two other ex-students prepared to state that they’d been abused by Mullins. Many others refused. Teachers, who Ely said knew of Mullins’s reputation and behaviour, told police they couldn’t recall anything.
The committal hearing excluded all but Ely’s case from proceeding to trial. The case of one of the other complainants was dismissed because he’d had previous criminal convictions.
‘His life had been so shattered by what had happened to him … that he was not considered a reliable witness.’
In the mid-2000s, Mullins was tried and acquitted. ‘I’ll just be frank,’ Ely said. ‘He had a better lawyer.’ Ely regretted not waiting a few years when he became more financially secure and would have been able to spend money on a barrister.
Ely said prosecution staff were professional and polite but those who’d been at the committal hearing were not assigned to the trial. He met the new prosecution team for the first time on the day of trial and had to go over much of the material again. ‘Invariably through the retelling of the story, the context of certain things and the discussion that goes down a certain path gets lost. That’s frustrating because, you know, through the retelling, sometimes all of that is shortened up and the proper context that underlies it is, therefore, lost.’
He had the feeling that staff were interested in seeing the case to its conclusion rather than wanting any particular result. ‘The explanation given to me was, “Just take it from the point of view that he’s been given a $50,000 fine, because that’s what it would have cost him for his lawyers to represent him”.’
Ely told the Commissioner that his wife worked in children’s services and they’d often discuss child safety measures like background checks and mandatory reporting guidelines. While reporting requirements for allegations made by children and parents about child abuse were well-defined, his wife said that what wasn’t clear were reporting mechanisms and responsibilities when suspicions arose about colleagues. ‘In her observation there’s not a very clear link between what a teacher is to do if a teacher observes misconduct, or whatever, in her colleagues … Here is an opportunity for the law to capture misconduct in that light … to make use of these highly trained people’.
Ely thought that if such reporting was in place in the 1980s, the teachers who were aware of Mullins’ behaviour would have done something. ‘They’re not faced with the dilemma of dobbing their friend in; they’re faced with the easy decision that they have to abide by the law. It’s their professional and ethical obligation to do so.’