So why wasn’t there a Whistle Blowing Service in place that allow them to report? January 1, 2020 was the deadline given to all schools to comply. So why are many schools still not compliant?
The most recent principal appointed at the troubled St Kevin’s College in Melbourne vowed on his first day on the job that, “Every decision I will make, every action I will take into the future will be about what’s in the best interests of the boys”.
That’s an unusual thing to have to announce publicly. Is that not something that every parent, child, teacher and community member could expect to take for granted at a school? A bare minimum requirement? An absolute necessity? Do schools not exclusively exist for the education and wellbeing of their students? Weird.
Obviously, the circumstances and atmosphere at St Kevin’s this week dictate that a real leader might need to get on the front foot to make such a pronouncement. Particularly one who has been dropped into the school to mop up the mess resulting from the disastrous allegations against leaders, staff and volunteers at the school in relation to the development of a toxic culture and an environment where a staff member was sentenced to a community corrections order and placed on the sex offenders register for the obscene grooming of a 15-year-old boy.
The previous principal, his 24-hour replacement, the dean of sport and two senior teachers have all resigned in the last week. Something needed to be said.
But hang on, should we be talking about reputational damage at all? Should we not be focussing on the extreme psychological damage done to the boys at the school? How can we look past the devastatingly troubled face of the young man at the centre of this particular furore? This young man who was brave enough to speak up despite the obvious personal cost.
And only a few days later, we hear about the eulogising by a Sydney school via email of a recently deceased staff member who was described as ‘a legend’ and ‘at all times a gentleman’. A few days after, several former students wrote to the school to say that this was not their experience of him.
The school issued an apology as a result of ‘looking at their own records’ and has now contacted police who are starting an investigation. Sorry what? They discovered information that has now led to a police investigation by looking into their own records!
Obviously, what they found was extremely disturbing, as the principal subsequently wrote: “We deeply regret sending the email. I again apologise for any distress the email has caused those students or anyone else.” How does this continue to happen? Who protected this man and allowed him to stay at the school for 35 years?
Occasionally we are tested in ways which challenge us enormously. At such times, true leaders and outstanding humans have the opportunity to prove themselves. When we are overwhelmed, when we are scared, when we don’t know which way to turn, when we are shocked beyond our understanding, we benefit from wise, empathetic and humane individuals to help remind us that things are OK and we can move forward.
The bushfires over the summer were just such an opportunity, and there is general consensus that the Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, took the opportunity and impressed all of us with his ability to behave in a way which was informed, honest, brave, vulnerable and showed great character and leadership.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded to the horrifying mass shootings of Muslims at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch in April last year with such dignity at the forefront of her decision making, at a time when her people, and millions of others around the world, needed brave and wise leadership.
Ardern took the road of grace and genuine leadership by respectfully wearing a hijab and famously hugging a female Muslim mourner. The image was extraordinarily powerful as it was incredibly authentic, heartfelt and it came from a place of deep empathy and respect.
It was not an awkward and forced handshake. Ardern’s act brought comfort to the Muslim community of Christchurch and calmed the cheap and lazy hate speech that some politicians chose. As Guardian journalist Nesrine Malik stated: “the distressing dimension of Ardern’s compassionate poise, is that it is so unfamiliar, so rare”.
Another extraordinary recent test of character was the horrific death of four children in Sydney when they were run over by an allegedly drunk driver in mid February. The incomprehensible tragedy of this accident has devastated all who heard about it. What amazed us all however, was the incredible grace and strength of the parents of three of the victims. On the day following the tragedy, their mother Leila Geagea (Abdallah) was quoted as saying in relation to the driver of the car who killed her children “I think in my heart, I forgive him…I’m not going to hate him, because that’s not who we are”.
Journalist Kylie Beach mentioned in an article she wrote about the Abdallah family that “when we share someone’s grief, we confer dignity upon them”. In essence, they are also sharing the grief of both the driver and his family. We help the Abdallah family heal by sharing their grief and they help us confer dignity upon them when we add to the dignity they have shown.
When sufferers of sexual abuse are ignored and left to suffer in silence, we fail to empathise authentically with their grief and instead we demean them. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse by the clergy has taught us that when the focus is more on the reputation of the institution than on the individual who may have been grievously wronged by that institution, we diminish them. And we do this when they need and deserve our dignity most.
Confounding the terrible tragedy of abuse at St Kevin’s was the response of certain conservative commentators who minimised what had happened to the victim, stating that the principal writing a reference for the perpetrator – after he had been convicted – was “not at all” terrible.
Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundation, an organisation set up to support victims of childhood trauma, stated that “sadly some commentators irresponsibly perpetuate ignorant and dangerous myths, minimising the crime of grooming and the impact on child victims of predatory behaviour”.
The executive director of services for Act for Kids, an organisation set up to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect, Dr Katrina Lines, agreed, saying: “By downplaying what really happened, we are only going to further damage and cause trauma to those that have experienced this kind of inappropriate behaviour”.
Not every leader has Jacinda Ardern’s ability and desire to confront problems head on and with the dignity of the victim at the forefront.
The principal at St Kevin’s who oversaw the atmosphere of negligence in relation to stamping out inappropriate staff behaviour and dealing with the awful abuse of minors chose a different type of response.
Extraordinarily, in the days before the Four Corners expose, he posted lines from a poem by Irish poet John O’Donoghue onto the school website: “This is the time to be slow, Lie low to the wall, Until the bitter weather passes.”
No. A thousand times, no. Who is advising this guy? This was not a time to be slow, stick your head in the sand and hope it all goes away. This was a time for action, for courage and for accountability. It was a time for conferring dignity upon 15 year-old Paris Street and the countless others he represents.
Leadership is not a title, it is our actions and behaviours.