Part 1: Disability Services Providers and their response to child sexual abuse – Royal Commission inquiry into Mater Dei School

The Royal Commission is currently hearing evidence from victims, family members, government workers and employees of three Disability Support Agencies.

The first school the Commission looked into was the Mater Dei School located in Camden, NSW.

The Royal Commission inquiry into the response of the Mater Dei School

Mater Dei is a Catholic co-educational school for kindergarten to Year 12 students with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities.  The Congregation of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict established the school in 1957 as a school for girls with intellectual disability.  From 1979 it opened enrolments to boys.

Currently Mater Dei has 143 students enrolled across 12 classes.  It also has an early intervention program which caters for children from birth to six years of age and there are currently about 150 children in that program.

Mater Dei has operated a Family Resource & Residential Program, known now as the Living Skills Program, which included up to four group houses in the Macarthur area.  The program is informally known as the “cottage program” and is offered to secondary students.

The cases of alleged child sexual abuse considered by the Commission all occurred within the cottage program.

One mother told the story of her daughter who attended Mater Dei from the start of 1991 and was abused by her house parent.

In her evidence she explained that:

My daughter looks like every other person.  When she talks, people immediately realise that she has a disability because she talks like a child and can’t have a conversation.  You can understand the words she is saying, but a lot of the time the words strung together don’t make sense.  When you ask her a question, most of the time she will reply with an unrelated answer or repeat back the words used to ask the question.  She also repeats herself over and over again.  Her speech as an adult is about the same as when she was a child.  She doesn’t understand complicated or technical words so things need to be explained to hear clearly, using simple language.”

Because of her disability, her daughter had been to four different schools by the time she was 13 years old. Her mother described how she had to place a lot of trust in the organisations who looked after her daughter and that she could only hope that they would care for her daughter like she would.

Her daughter started at Mater Dei in early 1991 and lived at Arnold Cottage during the week while she was at school. At the Mater Dai homes there were ‘house parents’ who managed the homes. Her daughter had no concept of ‘stranger danger’ and so the house parents even had to travel with her daughter to and from the bus to get to school.

Her daughter’s houseparent was a single man. Her daughter was also the only girl and was in the house with three other boys. Her mother was so concerned about this that she spoke to a social worker and one of the nuns about her concerns. In response to her concerns, the nun advised her to have faith and that only one house parent was necessary.

While her concerns remained, she had nowhere else to place her daughter and didn’t feel she had any options but to keep her at Mater Dei.

Her mother told the Commission how she noticed in around mid 1991 that her daughter was not her usual self.  Her daughter was always very tired when her mother picked her up on Friday afternoons and would be lethargic over the weekend.  This was out of character because her daughter was usually hyperactive.  She noticed that her daughter wouldn’t talk much even though she was normally talkative. She only ever spoke about the animals at the school, not about Arnold Cottage.

In late May 1991, her daughter haemorrhaged and was rushed to Hospital. She ultimately had to undergo surgery. The surgeon who performed the operation advised her that her daughter’s haemorrhage was consistent with anal sexual assault. She told the Commission that the surgeon’s words had haunted her for the past 25 years.

While her daughter was at the hospital, her mother raised concerns with a social worker that she thought her daughter had been sexually abused. However, despite what he had told the mother, the surgeon’s later report which he prepared for FACS, concludes that her daughter’s condition could be consistent with some form of assault or other cause of injury.

When she notified the school that her daughter was in hospital and that it was from a sexual assault, it was not long before her daughter’s house parent called her to ask what her daughters’ diagnosis was. Her first impression was that it was strange that he didn’t ask her how her daughter was doing, instead he specifically asked about her diagnosis.

When her mother had asked the little girl whether her house parent had hurt her, her daughter did not respond, which was unusual because she was normally chatty and hyperactive.

After her daughter had returned home a social worker and a nun went to see them. They interrogated her daughter about what had happened and because of her severe communication restrictions, her daughter could only respond saying “pins, needles, scissors, glass”.

To her knowledge, there was no proper investigation into her complaint and because of how much she was struggling to cope at the time she didn’t follow it up.

Even after her daughter left Mater Dei, the torment didn’t stop, she was still worried that this man was still out there and could be assaulting other children.

She was not offered support or counselling for her daughter or for herself.  She became very depressed herself and was concerned about her daughter’s future safety, suffering panic and anxiety attacks for years.

She stated that the legal system needs to look at methods that will give children with disabilities a voice and won’t disadvantage them more than they already are.

She explained that:

[i]t is so easy for people in positions of trust to abuse children under their care  because they know a disabled child may not be able to communicate and report their abuse as easily as others can.  Matters are not pursued by police or in court because these children are deemed ‘incompetent’ or less reliable due to their disability.    I believe the law needs to recognise a person’s intellectual age over their physical age.  My daughter has the intellectual capacity of a three to five-year-old child.  I believe she should be treated as a child and given the same legal protections that a child would be given for her life.”

The nun who went to see the mother and her daughter after the complaint, admitted to the Commission that it was the church’s responsibility to respond to the complaint. However, not only did they not investigate the complaint properly, they also failed to refer the mother to Towards Healing, which had been set up to specifically handle complaints of child sexual abuse against the Catholic Church.

Mr Gary Groves, the FACS District Director gave evidence to the Commission which confirmed that the actions taken were insufficient and did not adhere to the standard practice expected at the time.

It is clear that one of the biggest barriers which this case highlights is that the little girl was unable to communicate what had happened to her in a way in which authorities could understand and accept. This is not a failing on the little girl’s part though, this is failing on the part of the institution who lacked the necessary understanding and insight into how disabled children communicate. It doesn’t matter if they write it down, type it, mime it, point to a picture or use sign language. These are forms of communication which cannot be simply disregarded as unclear and unreliable because disabled children deserve to be heard, especially because of how vulnerable they are. Failing to hear their cries for help compounds the trauma they experience, and their families experiences.

NLS Law specialises in institutional abuse law and representing survivors of abuse. We are here to answer any questions or queries you may have about child sexual abuse, and have specific experience working with those who are traumatised by abuse.

The hearing continues this week, with the case study concluding on 22 July 2016.

Sherilyn Dunkley

Senior Associate

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