New South Wales Labor will push the government to reveal what steps it has taken to investigate whether there are more victims of an alleged serial paedophile who for decades abused Indigenous boys while working for the state’s education department.
Guardian Australia revealed on Wednesday that in the past two years the NSW education department has quietly settled more than a dozen claims of child sex abuse made against a department employee who rose through the ranks of the state’s public school system over three decades while preying on young Indigenous boys.
During a months-long investigation, the Guardian saw documents which revealed the department had unequivocally accepted liability for abuse allegedly committed by Cletus O’Connor, a teacher, principal and school inspector, during the 1970s and 80s.
The investigation found evidence that O’Connor’s alleged offending was known about by people employed by the state, but that “inadequate” child protection policies meant the state had in effect “harboured” a serial paedophile who “flagrantly” abused young boys.
The education department has so far settled 14 cases in relation to O’Connor’s alleged abuse. The settlements were all made out of court and in line with the state’s model litigant guidelines. In a statement, a spokesman said the guidelines “aim to deal compassionately, sensitively and consistently with survivors of child sexual abuse” and that settlements involved a personal apology to victims.
But NSW Labor says it will push the government to provide answers on whether any steps have been taken to seek other potential victims.
The earliest alleged offending discovered by lawyers acting for victims dated to 1973, the year O’Connor became the principal of the local high school in Gilgandra, a town about 67km north of Dubbo in the state’s west.
By then, O’Connor had worked as a teacher and deputy principal for more than two decades in Gunnedah, Lithgow and the small town of Corowa near the Victorian border.
On Thursday Penny Sharpe, Labor’s deputy opposition leader in the upper house, said the Guardian’s reporting raised serious concerns about the way departments handled child sex abuse claims.
Sharpe questioned whether there should be an onus on departments to investigate the possibility of further victims in cases where there are multiple claims against one employee.
“This is a disturbing story,” she said. “The minister has serious questions to answer about this whole tragic affair.
“The most important question is if there are more victims out there, what action has been taken by the department of education to try and find them.”
According to NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, the Guardian’s investigation also raised issues about the use of confidentiality clauses by state departments during civil cases. Most of the 14 cases uncovered by the Guardian included confidentiality clauses over the value of the payout.
The Guardian understands those clauses were agreed to with the consent of both parties, and in a statement the department of education said it had not publicised O’Connor’s name or the alleged abuse because it was “not requested to make the matter public”.
“The department communicated through its lawyers with the lawyers for the claimants’ and dealt with the matters sensitively in accordance with the requests of the claimants’ lawyers,” a spokesman said.
But the victims who spoke to the Guardian during the investigation said they did not remember asking for confidentiality agreements, nor did they wish for O’Connor’s name to remain secret.
Shoebridge said the common use of confidentiality clauses by government departments at both the state and federal level should be banned in cases where the claimant does not specifically request it.
“I don’t think governments should ever be able to use confidentiality clauses to hush up where public money goes, and, as this case shows, to hush up offending committed by the state,” he said.
“It is an outrageous breach of trust with the public and it is routine in settlements of compensation cases by not only state governments but also the commonwealth. It does two things; it protects wrongdoers and avoids political embarrassment, but it also fails to notify the public and means other victims don’t come forward.”