When he was 12, Mervyn went on a school camp at a Department of Education sport and recreation facility in regional New South Wales. It was the very first time he had stayed away from home. One of the teachers there was Neil Robertson, who also supervised the boys’ dormitory at night.
It was the early 1980s and Mervyn and his Year 6 classmates had not had any sex education. ‘There was nothing of that sort, nothing that would have guarded us against the activity or made us aware of what the act was’, Mervyn said.
He thought some of Robertson’s behaviour was unusual – like the way he watched the kids shower, and checked under their towels as they came into the bathroom. ‘[But] because he’s an adult, we didn’t question it’, Mervyn said.
Even more discomforting was Robertson’s night-time routine. ‘He would walk through the dorms under the pretence of, he’s checking everybody in the dorms, but what he would do is stick his hand under the covers and fondle everyone.’
Mervyn didn’t know how to describe Robertson’s behaviour. ‘Being 12, I didn’t know it was abuse.’ But he didn’t forget it. He dreamt about it over and over as the years passed. And some 25 years later he watched an investigative program on TV about a man who had been acquitted of child sex offences. The charges had been dismissed on the grounds that the child complainants had conspired in their evidence. The man who’d been acquitted was Neil Robertson.
Watching this program allowed Mervyn, finally, to name what Robertson had done to him. ‘The memory was there, it was at the forefront … It was the understanding of what it was that was triggered for me.’
The program led Mervyn to report to police the incidents that had occurred at the camp. He learned that there had been a complaint to the Department of Education at the time, by another student who’d been there. Mervyn recalled that boy getting very upset and crying, and being taken by Robertson into his room. The boy had left the camp early.
As a result of his complaint, Robertson had been suspended by the department for a year. He’d then been reinstated into a teaching position in another NSW country town.
The police began an investigation into Mervyn’s complaint but lack of evidence meant it came to nothing. He has no criticism of the investigating officer but was concerned that the onus to find evidence was put on him. In fact, it turned out later, the evidence the police sought was held at the sport and recreation facility. ‘Everything was available to them; the presumption was that it wasn’t, and that was a very big mistake.’
The children in the TV program Mervyn saw claimed to have been abused by Robertson after school. ‘He would get them to read, he would get them to sit on his lap and from memory he would also get them to lay down on the floor and read whilst he would basically sit astride them, play with himself and ejaculate on them’, Mervyn explained. ‘It was an escalation of what he did to us.’
Robertson was later prosecuted again, in Queensland this time. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges and served a short prison sentence.
In the mid-2000s, Mervyn approached police again and persuaded them to re-open the investigation into Robertson’s molestation of him and other kids at the camp. It took years more but when Mervyn came to the Royal Commission, a prosecution with multiple complainants was soon to get underway.
Mervyn has not sought compensation but doesn’t rule it out. His main concern though is the systemic failures that have allowed Robertson to remain as a teacher for so many years. Had the Department of Education responded differently to the complaint in the early 80s and the police investigation in the mid-90s been more effective, a lot of kids would not have been abused.
‘This is my regret’, he said.
He also believes the department has further failed in its duty of care to students. ‘Something needs to be done with respect to all those dozens if not hundreds of children who were abused post-1981 because the Department of Education failed to protect children’, he told the Commissioner.
‘Here we have a person that’s worked in a system. The system has records, the system not only has the location of where he was but also the students to whom he was exposed ... There should be an investigation that goes in and walks in there and says, okay, let’s track down these children that he’s had exposure to and let’s go back and see what’s happened …
‘They need a system in place which at least monitors the children and any potential issues that arise so that the person is police-monitored and they act to keep them from abusing again … It’s fair to say, yes, he’s innocent until proven guilty. But there certainly needs to be some form of system whereby they exercise caution in restoring him to a position like that.’
Mervyn believes that teachers need protection, too, from children. ‘Frankly, nowadays they can be quite malicious. They’ve got access to things we didn’t have access to. They know things that we didn’t know. They have the ability to victimise ... So, the familiarity, the ability to obtain that information and go after somebody unfairly and inappropriately can occur.
‘It’s going to be a difficult balance, I can understand that.’