Australia: Tasmanian Education Department shielded paedophiles, disbelieved students, inquiry finds

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The Tasmanian Education Department has been found to have acted © Provided by ABC NEWS The Tasmanian Education Department has been found to have acted "completely at odds" with the expectations of the community. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

The Tasmanian Education Department's predominant response to child sexual abuse complaints has for decades been to ignore students, shield abusers and protect itself from legal, financial and reputational risks, an inquiry has found.

The Tasmanian government has released the findings and recommendations from an independent inquiry into responses to child sexual abuse in government schools announced last August, prior to a commission of inquiry being established.

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It was conducted by professors Stephen Smallbone and Tim McCormack, who made 21 recommendations, which the government has fully accepted.

The full report has not been made public due to legal impediments.

The professors said that across the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the department's primary responses to allegations "routinely involved deflecting or ignoring concerns and complaints, often by disbelieving or blaming students, and by shielding alleged or known sexual abusers."

"We have found it deeply disturbing that, as concerns, complaints and ineffectual responses literally piled up in DoE's records, serial abusers like Harington and LeClerc were not just allowed to keep teaching for decades, but that DoE leaders and others so wilfully disregarded the obvious risks and harms to students," the professors said.

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Darrel George Harington, who was a teacher and sports coach at New Town High School, was found guilty of historical child sexual offences last year.

The department knowingly moved him between Hobart schools.

The department also shifted paedophile teacher and former priest Anthony LeClerc between schools in the north-west.

"We cannot explain this by assuming that 'that's just the way things were back then', because the evidence in DoE's own records shows that DoE officials very often acted in ways that were completely at odds with community expectations at the time," the report's findings say.

'Recent' examples of students not being believed

They said while the culture and leadership of the Education Department have since changed for the better, there were residual cultural problems, and "very recent" examples where students' concerns and complaints had been assumed to be untrue.

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The professors said they were unable to determine whether the incidence of sexual abuse in Tasmanian government schools had declined, increased or remained stable over the last five or six decades due to problems with record keeping.

They recommended the urgent implementation of a complete record of all sexual abuse concerns, including both substantiated and unsubstantiated incidents that could be regularly analysed to monitor patterns and trends.

The report recommends a range of new measures around safeguarding students, and that the University of Tasmania's education courses be updated to include content on understanding, preventing and responding to sexual abuse in schools.

'Uncertainty' over who should call police

The report found there was "significant uncertainty" amongst schools principals and student support staff about who should notify Tasmania Police about allegations, and in what circumstances.

Tasmania's Education Department has apologised to victims and survivors of abuse in schools, and said it was fully committed to making schools safe.

Education Minister Sarah Courtney said she shared the Department's deep sorrow and regret about the experiences of some Tasmanian students.

"The stories and experiences that have come to light are deeply concerning and confronting," she said.

"However, I'm also really pleased that we did commission this report, we did so that we can continue to progress positive steps forward to safeguard our children.

"We found there are a lot of matters raised that aren't acceptable.

"To those Tasmanians that contributed to this report, and others in the community that have been impacted by abuse within the Department of Education, I am deeply sorry."

The full report has been provided to the commission of inquiry.

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