Tonia first started working for the Catholic Education Office in the 2000s. After working for the organisation for several years, she was offered a position with responsibility for the child protection portfolio in a New South Wales diocese, which she accepted because she believed there was a real need for child safety expertise in that particular diocese.
‘I suppose my passion was with child protection, because that actually was meaningful work in terms of protecting children. Because there are many allegations made against teachers in the system.’
On Tonia’s second day in her new role, she received a letter from the Ombudsman’s Office asking about Brother Lewisham who was a teacher at one of the diocese’s schools. Upon looking at his file Tonia believed he should not have been permitted to work with children as allegations had been made dating back nearly 30 years of inappropriate touching. In most cases the Catholic Education Office had responded with ‘there’s insufficient evidence’.
Tonia noticed a pattern and believed Brother Lewisham was too great a risk to be working with children. She spoke with the director of schools for the diocese and said ‘This man needs to be suspended’. Brother Lewisham was suspended and eventually charged and sentenced to jail for indecently assaulting children.
Later when Tonia spoke with a staff member from the Ombudsman’s Office it was revealed that they had been aware for some time that there was a police investigation into Brother Lewisham.
‘I thought, that’s pretty poor. Because we’ve got a person who has a long history of potential abuse, or allegations at least, and he’s in one of our schools still teaching at that time … I became very wary of the Ombudsman’s Office then.’
Tonia raised her concern that complaints against Brother Lewisham had been poorly managed with the diocese child protection manager, who claimed he wasn’t aware of the seriousness of the file in spite of having written to the Working with Children body regarding it. After this conversation ‘he did not like me at all’.
If the child protection manager had been doing his job correctly and reporting child abuse allegations, then the matter of Brother Lewisham would have reached the bishop of the diocese via the vicar general. However, Tonia has no evidence that the matter ever reached the bishop.
Not long afterwards, there had been other allegations of teachers working at schools in the diocese who had acted inappropriately with children. Tonia investigated these claims and made efforts to report them to the Ombudsman and the police. She also attempted to establish internal protocols for handling such allegations and develop a child protection policy for the diocese, but was met with resistance at every stage.
Tonia began to notice other areas of the diocese that had lax attitudes to recruiting staff who worked with children, for example the out-of-school-hours centres.
‘They operated in the morning and in the afternoon. Staff were very, very hard to come by, so they just used to advertise for staff. So university students would apply, just send their CV in. So the supervisor who worked in the office, he basically would ring them up and say “Can you come and work in such-and-such a centre?” I raised it with [the director] and I said “We need to have proper screening procedures for these people”.
‘I wasn’t met with a “no” but I was met with a bit of a resistance in terms of “Don’t tell me how to do my job”.’
In the early 2010s an internal investigation into allegations of bullying by Tonia began, which she believes was an attempt to silence her. The director spoke to her and said ‘Tonia, I’m sick of hearing about you … You seem to get up everyone’s back … They’re saying you’re the Wicked Witch of the West’.
Later that year Tonia attempted suicide and was admitted into a mental health care clinic. ‘I did return for a short period of time, but they took all my leadership duties off me. They took everything off me and called this meeting … I left the meeting prior to it ending because I just couldn’t handle it anymore. And I think they thought that was it, end of the line you know, that I would resign. Anyway I pulled myself together and rang the director and I said … “Well I’ll see you Monday morning then”. He said “If that’s the approach you’re going to take”.
‘So within an hour I received a letter suspending me and sending me off to a doctor. And obviously the appointment took so long I wasn’t allowed to go back to work, I was certified unfit by the psychiatrist. And then when I was certified they wouldn’t let me go back to work.’
Meanwhile the internal investigation against Tonia resumed. ‘I was told originally it was just going to be on the complaint that had originally been made in January … It went through everything, my personal life. They said I was having an affair with some man they couldn’t name. It was an attempt to destroy me completely.’
Ultimately Tonia was dismissed from her role. ‘So all that work that I had done in cleaning up their dysfunctional system, putting things in place to protect kids, that’s what I got.’
Tonia was unemployed, with her reputation destroyed. She lost confidence and self-esteem, and eventually lodged an adverse action claim with the Fair Work Commission.
In spite of all the roadblocks encountered when trying to ensure the safety of children in Catholic schools, Tonia is still committed to child protection.
‘These men sit in these powerful positions and yet are never held accountable.’