Apology sought for victims, as board resigns

Former CEO John Robinson with Engine 6A. 173368_02 Picture: ROB CAREW

By Derek Schlennstedt

Some in positions of power at Puffing Billy Railway and other Victorian railway groups have protected reputations at the expense of sexual abuse victims, according to Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.

Tabling her ‘Investigation into child sex offender Robert Whitehead’s involvement with Puffing Billy and other railway bodies’, in the Victorian Parliament on 25 June, Ms Glass described the failures of people in authority as ‘monumental’.

The report centres on Robert Whitehead, a convicted sex offender who was a volunteer at Puffing Billy from 1961 until 1990.

Whitehead died in prison in 2015.

He was convicted of sexually abusing six boys.

Whitehead was first convicted of a child sex offence in 1959; though he returned to his job on the Victorian Government railway after being released from jail in 1960.

“Whitehead was a life-long offender whose abuse was facilitated by the wilful blindness, indifference or ineptitude of a succession of organisations from Victorian Railways to Puffing Billy,” Ms Glass said.

“The actions, or inaction of people in positions of authority, who should have known better, is inexcusable.“We do not know, and will never know, how many children Whitehead abused.”

Ms Glass said through Whitehead’s 30-year involvement with Puffing Billy, he had unrestricted access to children.

She said that some members of the Puffing Billy Board were aware of allegations that he was abusing children.

“In 1985, members of the board knew that Whitehead was under police investigation for child sexual offences, yet he was not removed until 1991,” Ms Glass said.

“They failed to act on complaints, or even record contacts; in one notable case punishing the 17-year-old victim by banning him from Puffing Billy.”

Ms Glass made nine recommendations in total, all of which have been accepted by the Victorian Government, including an official apology to the victims.

Minister for Tourism and Major Events, John Eren, confirmed “the Victorian Government accepts the report’s recommendations in full“ and said they have accepted the resignation of all members of Emerald Tourist Railway Board, including long-time Puffing Billy CEO John Robinson.

“It should never have happened and thanks to this report, and the actions we will take, it never will again,” Mr Eren said.

He added that an independent review into the government and management of Puffing Billy will be conducted.

Mr Eren said the victims will be supported through a dedicated ‘Centre Against Sexual Assault Line’ as part of the recommendations handed down.

“The Government intends to issue a formal public apology to all victims of these heinous crimes … this apology will occur once we have met and apologised to the victims in person,“ he said.