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Tabloids rush to cover celebrity paedophiles but they refuse campaigns against the epidemic of family child abuse. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Rolf Harris reaction masks our blind spot on child abuse

Rolf Harris arrives at Southwark Crown Court in London last month.
Credit: REUTERS/ LUKE MACGREGOR

The birthday card had a cheque slipped into it, made out for $20. This was strange enough, but the inscription was particularly suspect: “Dear little Creature Feature, Best wishes and love from ___” The sender of the card was a teacher in a private preparatory school in Perth. We cannot name him, but he’s referred to as YJ in official documents. The recipient was a boy I will call Rodney, his 10-year-old student. The boy’s mother stared at the card, darkly puzzled. She had previously learnt of the nickname and didn’t like it. Nor the other one YJ sometimes used: Beasty.

But the teacher had always been so friendly with her, and so supportive of Rodney. He’d encouraged the boy to join the softball team he coached; once sent him a calligraphy set and offered to provide lessons after school. YJ flattered her son’s abilities. Did she have it wrong? Was she mistaking rare attentiveness for grooming? What was wrong with her?

She looked at the card again. It still didn’t seem right. She began painfully compiling possible evidence: Rodney had recently begun locking the door to his bedroom – he had never done that before. Then there was the issue of teacher’s pet. YJ had been, she thought, irresponsible in so flagrantly broadcasting his favouritism of her son. It marked Rodney, made him a ridiculed pariah in the schoolyard.

But she didn’t quite have enough, she thought. She watched her son closely, talked things over with her husband. She attended Rodney’s sporting lessons, and cooled relations a little with the teacher. She thought her son would be safe, given her involvement in the school as a parent committee member. At the end of the year, 2000, Rodney changed teachers. YJ, though, remained as Rodney’s sports coach.

Over the years other stories came to light: of one student accidentally injuring Rodney at the art trough, and YJ reacting furiously, hitting the child and comforting Rodney. She heard that YJ had asked the boys in his class to use his room as a change place after swimming lessons, and he remained with them as they stripped. Once, she saw him place a lolly directly in her son’s mouth. Another time, the teacher offered to have Rodney stay at his place if the boy didn’t like school camp. “I thought that was a very strange offer,” she said later, “and we declined.”

In 2004, Rodney’s father talked to  his son in his room, asking if anything had happened. Rodney said nothing about abuse, but was uncomfortable and admitted to still being teased as the “teacher’s pet”. A year later, Rodney’s mother watched an episode of Four Corners called “Unlocking the Demons”. It was about paedophilia and it featured a psychiatrist who detailed the grooming styles of child molesters. “It suddenly dawned on me that our family may have been groomed.”

She took her concerns to the school’s principal, and learnt that another teacher had reported suspicions to him previously. A letter was sent to YJ, warning him to maintain proper distance from students. Then, nothing. Rodney still could not tell anybody what had happened, which was serial sexual abuse throughout 2000. In fact, it would not be until 2009 that he broke his silence. Rodney was 18 and asked his best mate on a long car trip. He told him. Later that evening, he told his girlfriend. The following day, steeled by his friends’ support, he told his parents. His mother nearly vomited. They called the police. Up until that moment, YJ was still teaching at the school. In 2010, he was found guilty of 13 charges of indecently dealing with a child under 13. In all, there were five victims abused between 1999 and 2009.

Rodney’s abuse, and the attendant issues of duty of care, has been just one of 15 case studies so far conducted by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The most recent public hearing began this week, when the commission turned its eye to Swimming Australia. Nearly 2000 people have been privately interviewed about abuse they suffered as children, and almost as many have provided written submissions. The number swells weekly. In all, the commission will hold 70 public hearings across the country, running until 2017. It has only the time and money to examine about 60 institutions, but with more resources that number could be hundreds.

Last week, the chairman of the royal commission, Justice Peter McClellan, noted the conviction of Rolf Harris in a speech. “Newspaper reports suggest that as a consequence of the publicity and the jury’s verdict more victims have come forward. This is not surprising. It is becoming apparent as we do our work that as the issue of abuse is raised and talked about, survivors increasingly feel able to bring their own story to the authorities.”

Celebrity distracts from deep problems

It will be tempting now to reappraise Rolf Harris’s putative virtues. To recast his famous conviviality as manipulation; his impish grin as a mask. Everything is spoilt. We will torch the works of this false idol. All will be razed on a pyre of his respectability and our sympathy. Anything less would be tacit approval.

But as much as I sympathise with the impulse to tear Harris down, the symbolic neatness of it gnaws me. For a start, this makes it all about Harris – a myopia allowed by our fascination with celebrity. Australian tabloids fixed Harris to their front pages, accompanied by ostentatious condemnation. Melbourne’s Herald Sun splashed Rolf’s face with the words “You Evil Mug”. It’s not the Herald Sun’s moral denunciation that grates, but the hypocrisy of it. They have serially ignored the issue of child sexual abuse. When I was working at Victoria Police we were keen to share stories with the newspaper, perhaps even establish a campaign, but the prevailing view at the tabloid was that the issue – especially incestuous abuse, the kind most insidious and most prevalent – was too unpalatable and too difficult to grasp. Tabloids enjoy bragging about their fearlessness, but on this matter there was apprehension. Which is where Harris comes in: as a celebrity, the tabloids have their hook and readers can conceive of the squalor as a simple tale of rise and fall. The real stories, however – hundreds of thousands of them – are happening in the suburbs.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr Danny Sullivan has described the scale of the problem. “It’s staggering,” he told me. “It’s a public health epidemic. An epidemic of violence and exploitation. And if you think about the history of abuse, it’s only been less than 70 years that we even talked about child abuse. Before that children were chattels, to be seen and not heard. It’s only in recent times that we got the sense that children need rights, and are vulnerable.”

Police data reflects this – some estimates suggest one in four children have been indecently assaulted, but definitive figures are impossible given how underreported these crimes are. Estimates vary considerably. Whatever the numbers, they are made possible by familiar people, not celebrities. But how do we symbolically combat that? What’s our cognitive handle for the family? What does it look like on the front page of a tabloid?

The removal of Harris’s art and honours helps cement the narrative about a solitary figure, an avatar of spectacular duplicity. Let’s not pretend it’s about saving the children. It’s about us, and our need to express our anger. There was an example this week at a hardware store in Caulfield, Melbourne. Back in 1990, Rolf Harris visited the store as part of a promotion for British Paints, and hastily daubed a cartoon image of himself alongside the name of his employer. This week the owner, Frank Penhalluriack, offered to allow abuse victims to come to his store to help paint over it. At time of writing, washed over with red paint, the original image is still visible. It will require a few more layers, and a bit more time, to bury it.

There is catharsis here. But it’s not enough. If we really wanted to save the children, we’d be talking about the cultural fixture that really matters: the family. Rodney’s case is obviously not intra-familial, but is consistent with the profile of the majority of abusers – trusted people with a seemingly legitimate and carefully cultivated proximity. Statistically, we have less to fear from strangers.

Institutional difficulties

After Rodney told his story before the royal commission – the third time he had done so in a court – he was asked what the school might have done differently. Rodney suggested a number of things, including a shift in educational focus. “The only memory of an education of ‘stranger danger’, I believe, was something like a Constable Care van coming to my previous state school … I believe that the education around ‘stranger danger’ needs to be more on ‘friendly danger’.”

Rodney and his mother’s testimony also spoke to the difficulty in institutionally and informally policing the abuse of children. The two of them are in conflict with the school’s version of how well their duty of care was upheld, and the royal commission is yet to publish its findings on this particular case study. But we do know that Rodney’s mother still suffers lashes of guilt and hides herself from friends when she feels depressed, which is often. We know her marriage has been treated with therapy to help solder it against despair and recrimination. And we know of her appalled bewilderment that she didn’t act earlier and more assertively upon her suspicions.

Her response since her son’s admission – she’s been with him every step of the way – is powerful testament to her love. And her earlier doubt, the stuff that still haunts her, is extremely common. Rodney’s mother had witnessed or heard many things that were disquieting, the balance of which left her apprehensive. She wrote those things down – the lollies, cards, nicknames, the unsettling familiarity of it all – to help her when she met the school principal in 2005. But her private suspicions, once voiced, seemed to lose their suasion. Sitting before the principal, she became self-conscious – equally aware of the gravity of what she was suggesting, and the absence of definitive proof.

She wasn’t alone. There was a teacher who had made a formal complaint against YJ after witnessing him inappropriately console a child, but there were many others who lacked the confidence of their perception. It seems to have resulted in quarantined suspicions, individuals failing to share observations because they doubted them or wished them not to be true. As a result, they denied themselves the useful aggregate that would have resulted had they shared their intelligence. It’s a permanent problem of institutions – how to properly handle information when its receipt is so often subjective, and can be used flippantly, maliciously or simply be misinterpreted. When a mother can doubt her suspicions, it’s even easier for a colleague to dismiss them.

Some in the school’s community, though, wished more ardently than others for the allegations to be false. In fact, there were quite a few who refused to believe them. At the front of court during YJ’s trials stood parents of students taught by the accused. They believed he was the victim of a perverse set-up. “He was just the best teacher and the loveliest man,” said one protester. “There is no doubt in my mind that he is innocent.”

No doubt they were sure of their rectitude; no doubt they felt they were helping correct an injustice. But they were operating emotionally. They could not accept they had been deceived. After YJ’s guilt was reaffirmed in a retrial, Rodney’s mother told the royal commission, “I have received no apology from any of the supporters of [redacted] following his convictions and incarceration.”

Rodney still has nightmares, and is deeply distrustful of older men in positions of power. The fact he became erect beneath his teacher’s criminal touch left him for years questioning his sexuality and personal responsibility for the abuse. He is still fearful of sexual relationships with women. “I began to lose my confidence. I became very nervous around other people and often put on fake confidence to hide my insecurities and anxieties.” He was suicidal for years.

These consequences were sowed in a 10-year-old when his mind, developmentally, was still blotting paper. He’s 23 now, and by the quality of his testimony, an articulate and self-aware young man. So far, the royal commission has privately interviewed thousands like Rodney. The interviewed often say the same thing: they know of others who are thinking about offering their stories, but they’re not ready just yet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Putting perversion on trial". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.