‘It started off [with] … enormous guilt. And this went on for a couple of years. Then I came to sort of try and think, “Well, look, would I have done anything different?” It’s now – I hate to say it – anger. And I don’t like anger, it’s a negative feeling. But it is anger.’
In the early 2000s Leanne found some old photos of her son Ricky, taken when he was a student at an Anglican primary school in Melbourne in the 1970s.
‘I gave them to Ricky’, Leanne recalled. ‘I said, “I don’t want these, you can have them”. Anyway, he rang me a few days later and said, “Mum, I’m having real, real funny thoughts about Peter Whitton”. I thought, “Oh no, not another one”.’
By this stage Leanne already knew that many of Ricky’s fellow students had been sexually abused by members of a paedophile ‘cell’ that operated at the school in the 70s. One of these paedophiles was Peter Whitton, Ricky’s teacher.
Ricky explained to Leanne that the photos she’d sent him had jolted his memory. He experienced a series of flashbacks which led to this realisation: when he was eight years old he too had been sexually abused by Whitton. The abuse included Whitton taking photographs of Ricky and forcing him and his classmates to strip naked as part of a ‘game’.
Leanne felt guilty. She had known about this game back in the 70s and complained about it, but she hadn’t fully appreciated the level of abuse involved, so when the teachers laughed it off and told her it was ‘all good fun’, she let the matter lie.
Leanne didn’t realise that the game – along with the rest of the ‘good fun’ inflicted by Whitton and his cohorts – would later have a catastrophic impact on Ricky and the other boys.
In some cases the impact proved fatal. There have been ‘multiple, multiple suicides’, Leanne said. Ricky is still alive but Leanne is not optimistic about his future. Though he’s been successful in his work, he has a ‘terrible drug problem’ and has never been able to maintain a good relationship.
‘I doubt he’ll live that long … he is a ruined person.’
Shortly after he’d disclosed the abuse to Leanne, Ricky decided to take legal action. Whitton was dead so there was no chance of a criminal case, so Ricky spoke to some lawyers about suing the school.
The lawyers opened negotiations and came back to Ricky with the bad news: because of his drug problem he was an unreliable witness who could never build a strong case, so it was best to take the small settlement the school was offering and move on. Ricky did as they advised. Leanne believes he would have decided differently ‘if he’d known what he knows now – that Peter Whitton abused many, many, many kids’.
Leanne sees Ricky’s legal settlement as a typical example of the school’s determination to dodge its responsibilities and conceal its history. She observed that in its public statements the school always used the term ‘alleged abuse’, and when it paid compensation it never admitted fault; rather, it referred to the payments as ‘goodwill’ and required the victims to sign non-disclosure agreements.
In short, the school deliberately tried to ‘cover up’ the abuse. And so far it has succeeded.
‘I’ve spoken to other parents, I’ve spoken to the public, and quite a lot of people are still very sceptical about the whole thing. In fact, I’ve had people say to me “Give up, Leanne. What are you doing?”’
Leanne won’t give up. She’ll keep pushing the school to do the right thing.
‘Just be transparent’, she said. ‘Own up to it. Stop covering up.’