Nell’s teaching career was repeatedly threatened when her complaints about paedophile activity were continually shut down by a ‘boys club’ within a state education department.
In the early 1980s Nell was asked to help supervise a music camp for a regional government high school.
There were no problems during the day but at night one of the teachers, Dave Newhouse, ‘was like a Svengali over the children’, specifically targeting girls of about 14 or 15, as well as boys, Nell said.
After plying them with alcohol, Newhouse and Phil Robbins, a musician assisting at the camp, ‘removed girls’ clothing from them by diving into the pool and pulling their bikinis off with one hand and their bra off with another hand’.
When Nell confronted Newhouse, ‘his comment to me was “I have a problem and I need your help to stop it”’.
But it went on – ‘we’re talking Sunday, Monday, Tuesday’. Nell’s call to the school for the principal or ‘somebody’ to come and witness the behaviour was met with ‘no response’.
When Nell told the head of the parent body at the end-of-camp concert, the response was, ‘Oh no, it’s not still happening, is it?’
Nell was also called into the boys’ dormitory to find a naked, shaven and spray-painted boy tied to the bed legs. Nell was told ‘Mr Newhouse has done this’ as ‘payback’ for the boy being cheeky to another music teacher.
‘I had to cut him down and fix him up,’ Nell recalled. Another night, teachers with torches searched for a boy who ‘disappeared’ because he was scared that he was going to be similarly treated.
Nell again confronted Newhouse about her intention to consult the principal, Lyle Jenkins. He begged her not to as he was hoping to be appointed to a prestigious new position.
After waiting for days outside the principal’s office the following week, Nell found Newhouse had seen Jenkins at the first opportunity.
Jenkins told her, when finally granted an audience: ‘If you say what I think you are going to say, your job’s on the line’. Nell was then falsely accused of allowing a boy to buy beer during the camp.
Despite Nell’s additional complaint to a supervisor from the department, Newhouse got his prestigious appointment and continued teaching at the school – for years.
Afterwards, a long-term music camp supervisor who had not been present that year told Nell: ‘Why do you think I didn’t go?’
That teacher later took her daughters on music camps and implied they would be safe from inappropriate behaviour because ‘my girls aren’t like that’.
Nell’s first whistleblowing episode ‘had a very traumatic psychological effect in that I felt thwarted, hopeless, useless – probably naive … I felt that I couldn’t do anything more. It didn’t occur to me to go any further – higher up’.
There was no handbook at the time that spelled out mandatory reporting. Nell reported it to Jenkins and the department ‘because this is what human beings do’.
Years later, teaching at another school, Nell went on stress leave and consulted a psychiatrist, having flashbacks to the Newhouse episode in the process. The psychiatrist reported Newhouse to the police, as coincidentally another teacher from her old school mentioned Newhouse’s behaviour around the same time.
Newhouse was jailed in the 1990s after pleading guilty to charges in relation to a number of girls that dated back to the time of the music camp and earlier.
Around the same time Nell testified at a high-level public inquiry. So did the then-principal of the school where Newhouse was still teaching, Robert Foley, a successor to Jenkins.
Foley killed himself shortly after giving his evidence. Afterwards Nell felt harassed by one departmental officer, Henry Longman, apparently a friend of Newhouse, who headed three inquiries into allegations against the paedophile teacher, one of which included Nell. Each time Longman concluded there was ‘no foundation to the allegations’.
A teacher, who previously worked in the department’s head office and who Nell believes help shred documents in the late Robert Foley’s office, actually asked her later if she ‘felt responsible’ for Foley’s death. She agreed with the Commissioner that it was a ‘shocking’ question to be asked.
At another school in the '90s, Nell said some cleaners witnessed instances of inappropriate behaviour towards a female students by a teacher, Lloyd Fairweather. Nell arranged for them to see the principal about what they had seen in the shower block.
‘The principal told them they were cleaners and not to make charges … it’s not their job.’
Although the school later settled a civil action brought by the victim, Fairweather continued teaching, she said.
Some years later, at yet another school, Nell was stopped in the corridor by her principal, Cal Farrell. It was the day before she was due to testify about Newhouse at the public hearing.
Nell said Farrell told her: ‘This is the advice I was given from area office – "You saw nothing, you heard nothing, you know nothing".’
At the hearing, several other teachers also testified about Newhouse, albeit during different periods of the time he was at the same school. All of it was ‘consistent’ with her own evidence, Nell said.
Despite the public hearings, and critical findings afterwards, to Nell’s knowledge the principals and those more senior in the department, ‘stayed in their jobs’ and were not disciplined.
One teacher, who knew about Newhouse but said nothing, was promoted, Nell said.
After the hearing and Newhouse’s jailing, Nell thought that would be the end of child sexual assaults in her region. ‘It doesn’t seem to have been a deterrent’, she said, due to ‘parallel’ abuse in the Catholic education system.
Nell’s whistleblowing was never acknowledged positively, although she did receive a letter of apology from the director-general of her department after she ‘wrote to him about the harassment and vindictiveness of people’ following her public testimony.
‘I think in [my region] the boys’ network has been broken, finally. It’s taken a long time,’ Nell said.
Over three decades, Nell made a series of Work Cover claims regarding time off work for post-traumatic stress. Some of them, initially disputed, were only recently settled with a ‘small’ lump sum.
While her post-traumatic stress ‘comes and goes’, she is clear on the ultimate outcome.
‘I would still have done what I did’, Nell said. ‘It had to be done.’