Inquiry blames authorities inaction for tsunami of abuse'
30th June 2012
Updated 2nd July 2012
For nearly four decades Kieran Stephens has carried the enormous strain of believing that if he had been “stronger” and convinced his father that he had been sexually abused by his hostel warden the “tsunami” of abuse that was later committed against scores of boys would not have occurred.
But a step towards justice was made yesterday when a special inquiry examining the systemic abuse at St Andrew’s Hostel in Katanning concluded with 21 adverse findings recommended against 10 people accused of failing to act on information that the former warden Dennis John McKenna was inappropriately dealing with the children in his care.
Among those blamed was Mr Stephens’ father, Keith.
Mr Stephens, now in his 50s, was barely a teenager when he told his father McKenna had sexually abused him at the hostel in 1977.
Mr Stephens senior accused him of lying and no action was taken against McKenna, who has since been convicted of sexually abusing 11 boys and is facing 66 new charges.
Outside the inquiry yesterday, Mr Stephens told WAtoday.com.au that he was “happy” his father had had three adverse findings recommended against him for failing to properly handle his son’s complaint as a parent and chairman of the hostel board.
“He deserves every one of them and probably more,” Mr Stephens said.
He believes he was among the first of McKenna’s victims – and probably the first.
He has never lost the feeling of frustration that if he had fought his father to investigate his complaint McKenna’s tirade may have been prevented.
But his subsequent bravery in coming forward years later was yesterday praised during the inquiry. It led to a flurry of others revealing what they knew at the time and could ultimately uncover the truth of why one man was able to abuse so many children for so long.
“It’s been cleansing in some ways,” Mr Stephens said of the long inquiry process.
“It’s been a journey. At least it’s out in the open now, everyone knows and hopefully everyone believes us.”
If one thing is learnt from the inquiry, Mr Stephens wants it to be greater awareness of child abuse.
“If a kid comes up to you, don’t dismiss it just as a lie,” he said.
“Listen to them when they make a complaint so this sort of thing doesn’t manifest itself in the future.”
The inquiry heard from more than 40 witnesses over four months of hearings.
During his concluding remarks, counsel assisting the inquiry Phil Urquhart said McKenna had groomed the students in his care and convinced the Katanning community he was a “good and decent” person.
He displayed all of the three characteristics synonymous with a paedophile, he said.
“He groomed the students he was supposed to take care of. He groomed the people of Katanning to the point he was adulated,” Mr Urquhart said.
“He self-groomed, rationalizing his offending to justify his behaviour to himself.”
Indeed during his evidence to the inquiry in March , McKenna said he could not explain how he escaped prosecution for more than a decade.
“I had a high profile in Katanning...that's all I can put it down to,” he said.
Mr Urquhart said the hostel was “an ideal” setting for McKenna to prey on victims, with ready and unsupervised access to them at night-time. A significant portion of the hostel staff also were his relatives.
“I couldn’t think of a better situation,” a clinical psychologist who gave evidence during the inquiry, Rosemary Cant, said.
“That clearly leaves the children absolutely vulnerable to that person. It’s the exact situation of a fox guarding a pen house – there is absolute free access to the children without hindrance.”
Mr Urquhart said the evidence given to the inquiry had been “breathtaking”.
McKenna not only ran the hostel but also the board that was supposed to oversee what he was doing.
He had the power to suspend and expel students, even on false accusations, and hire and fire staff who questioned his behaviour.
“Virtually overnight he became a law unto himself within the hostel, within the hostel board of management and even within Katanning itself,” Mr Urquhart said.
“He made life intolerable for those students he disliked, for those brave few students who stood up to him life at the hostel would become a misery.”
“Tragically, it appears that for some boys it was better to be this warden’s favourite and be subject to his abuse rather than be subject to ostracism, bullying and ridiculing that would be orchestrated by Dennis McKenna if they dared not comply with his overtures.
“[It was] the lesser of two evils.”
Mr Urquhart said teachers observed his inappropriate behaviour as far back as 1976. That inappropriate touching would become “normal” behaviour even in public areas of the hostel.
Behind closed doors it was far worse.
But even when concerns were raised, the complainants were dismissed, told they were lying and even threatened.
Evidence to the inquiry showed former Katanning Senior High School principals and teachers, hostel board members, a police officer, public servants, the clergy based in Katanning, a shire councilor and representatives of the Country High School Hostels Authority were made aware of the abuse and failed to act.
One parent, Noel Parkin, fought for an investigation into sexual abuse of his son as early as 1980.
Had his concerns raised with numerous people in authority been acted on, a decade of abuse against scores of boys would have been avoided, the inquiry heard.
“By then the tsunami that was Dennis McKenna’s offending was well under way,” Mr Urquhart said.
“His ability to avoid prosecution was truly staggering and a sad indictment on those who heard the complaints about him but refused to listen and refused to behave.
“The tragic outcome was that this man continued his sexual abuse to further victims with all the attendant misery and suffering that such abuse causes to these victims and their loved ones.”
The inquiry was expanded to also examine allegations of abuse at St Christopher’s Hostel in Northam, Hardie House in South Hedland, Craig House in Bunbury and Narrogin Hostel.
Three adverse findings were recommended against a former Bishop in Northam, Michael Challen.
The inquiry heard he ignored initial complaints that the St Christopher’s Hostel warden Roy Wenlock had abused a student in his care.
He later asked Mr Wenlock to resign, offering a glowing reference, which was then used to gain employment at another hostel where he also allegedly abused a boy.
Several people gave evidence to the inquiry that Mr Wenlock forced students to strip to their underwear and "wrestle" him, from which he would derive sexual pleasure.
Mr Wenlock was never charged and died in 2002.
The adverse finding recommendations
Mr Urquhart made adverse findings against the following people:
Former Katanning Senior High School principal 1988-1990, Ian Murray (4)
The head of the inquiry, former Supreme Court justice Peter Blaxell, has been granted an extension to make his findings. The report is due August 3.