Wesley used to work for the Western Australian Department of Education as a school psychologist. He came to the Royal Commission to talk about issues of recognising and reporting child sex abuse in schools that he had observed over his years in the job.
One case in particular still bothered him. In the early 1980s, a Year 7 girl at a school where Wesley worked had been digitally penetrated by her teacher, Richard Hopton. This had happened on several occasions, in the classroom and outside during lunch. The girl’s parents reported the assaults to the principal.
‘There was no doubt in the principal’s mind that it happened. We discussed it’, Wesley said.
But that discussion didn’t really lead to action. One night after school the principal asked Wesley to go with him to Hopton’s house. When they got there Wesley waited in the car while the principal went inside to speak to Hopton.
‘There was a big concern about Hopton’s welfare’, said Wesley.
Hopton didn’t lose his job and seemed not even to receive any official reprimand. Wesley was told the student and her parents didn’t want to make any formal complaint. The matter just seemed to fall off the radar.
At the time Wesley was relatively new to his job. He didn’t have the understanding of child sexual abuse and its impacts that he came to have as the years went by. As his knowledge grew he became more bothered by the episode with the girl and the inadequacy of the official response to it.
‘I was changing in awareness. And that’s when my mind kept going back to two things. One: the girl. The impact on her. But the bigger concern … was really, what Hopton was still doing.’
Paedophiles, he told the Commissioner, ‘don’t stop. And not only do they not stop, the first incident you hear of is not the first incident that’s happened. I know that for a fact’.
Some 20 years later, Wesley tried to prod the Department of Education into action. He met with an official reasonably high up in the hierarchy, who took notes of the story Wesley told him. Wesley didn’t hear from the official after the meeting, so several weeks later he got in touch again. ‘He said oh, nothing on the record, nothing we can do.’ In essence: ‘We know nothing and we can’t do anything’.
Wesley later reported Hopton to another department official but again got nowhere. ‘These roadblocks with the Department of Education led me to contact police directly.’ He gave a statement over the phone, and was told that there were already records for Hopton on file. ‘They weren’t talking about a speeding fine’, Wesley said.
At this point, Wesley felt some relief. The matter had been ‘plaguing’ him for years, but he felt now he’d done as much as he could. He was shocked to learn later that Hopton had been appointed a school principal some time before. But Hopton retired in his 50s – unusually young, Wesley noted.
Wesley said that as years went by he began to recognise that sexual abuse in schools was widespread. It became knowledge that he tried to share with those around him. ‘I’m not saying I made this a crusade, but as part of my role I would try and educate the principals and teachers to that reality, so they’d be more effective and aware.’
Despite growing mainstream awareness of the problem of child sex abuse, school principals didn’t really believe it, Wesley said. ‘They were like I was when I started. It didn’t exist, therefore they didn’t see it, therefore they didn’t respond to it; they never saw it. It didn’t happen.’
Wesley has moved on to another career now. But he believes there is much that still needs to be done in schools to protect children from abuse. Training is one area that needs attention. ‘A lot of the training is slowing down’, he said, ‘because of changes in the Education Department.’ In general, he would like to see a focus on changes that mean schools are places that encourage disclosure of abuse, and respond promptly, effectively and with empathy to the problem.