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Former Rotary exchange student alleges she was sexually abused by her Rotary host; child protection expert is concerned about welfare of students on exchange programs.



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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.

 

It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

 

For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.

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PM

 

Tuesday 19 August 2003

Former Rotary exchange student alleges she was sexually abused by her Rotary host; child protection expert is concerned about welfare of students on exchange programs

 

MARK COLVIN: We've heard many damaging revelations of sexual abuse in mainstream churches recently, now to serious questions over how another trusted institution handles claims of abuse. 

 

An Australian woman has accused the volunteer cha
rity, Rotary, of failing to investigate or adequately respond to her allegations of repeated abuse by a Rotarian who was supposed to be looking after her when she was 15. 

 

The case goes back to 1967 when the woman was an exchange student in Oklahoma in the United States. She's now 52, and a senior public servant. She says she's turned to the media to expose what she believes is a continuing problem of protection for exchange students under Rotary's care. 

 

Her alleged attacker has denied the charge to PM . Rotary International says it has improved its procedures for screening hosts and looking after students. But at least one Australian leading child protection expert, an honorary Rotary member, says the exchange program still has problems, and she's been frustrated by the charity's reluctance to address them. 

 

Toni Hassan prepared our special report: 

 

GABY: He was married with children. He was an extravert, I guess you'd call him, very charming, so he could easily attract people to him.  

 

TONI HASSAN: The woman, who we're calling 'Gaby,' to protect her real identity, says the alleged abuse began within months of her arrival in the United States in 1967. 

 

GABY: He would take it a step at a time to see how far he'd get with me and then say to me 'don't tell anyone about us, it's a secret'  

 

TONI HASSAN: It went on for months did it? 

 

GABY: Oh yes. In his car, in his boat, in his aeroplane - using his fingers, and the rest, which I thought was rather strange. In fact, I didn't even know how women got pregnant. 

 

TONI HASSAN: And it took a long time for you to be able to speak about this? 

 

GABY: It was 1985 when child sexual abuse, you know, information about it started coming out into the public. The betrayal had not set in until then, and then I was in shock. 

 

TONI HASSAN: Gaby spoke to her local GP, who couldn't understand why she'd taken nearly 20 years to reveal her secret. Over the years, she's written to the Rotary clubs involved and Rotary International in the United States, but says she still hasn't got a satisfactory response. 

 

GABY: The responses have got worse over time. In the last few years there have been no responses - so that they actually haven't tried to answer a letter.  

 

TONI HASSAN: Gaby says her frustrations have been compounded by the fact that Rotary is highly decentralised and leadership changes regularly.  

 

Gaby's attempt to get justice in the courts has been restricted by border issues and US statute of limitations that required she report the crime before 1970. Lawyers with Slater and Gordon in Australia have advised her that any attempt to extend the limitation period would be costly and unlikely to succeed.  

 

No one representing Rotary has been prepared to talk to the ABC on tape. But Gaby's alleged offender, now aged 77, is. PM contacted him at his home in Oklahoma: 

 

ALLEGED OFFENDER: Okay, what is your question?  

 

TONI HASSAN: She says that ad a sexual relationship with her in that year; is that right? 

 

ALLEGED OFFENDER: No, that is not correct.  

 

TONI HASSAN: Did you engage in a relationship that was in any way sexual?  

 

ALLEGED OFFENDER: Oh, not really, no. 

 

TONI HASSAN: Not really? 

 

ALLEGED OFFENDER: No. I think she would have liked me to, but no, I didn't.  

 

TONI HASSAN: Did Rotary ever contact you about it to investigate what had happened?  

 

ALLEGED OFFENDER: Somebody representing her wrote to our Rotary club one time and we talked to them about it. But that's the only thing that I could cite that… 

 

TONI HASSAN: So senior Rotary members never tried to get to the bottom of it?  

 

ALLEGED OFFENDER: Nope. They took my word for it.  

 

TONI HASSAN: Right, they took your word, not hers?  

 

ALLEGED OFFENDER: Yes. 

 

TONI HASSAN: The alleged offender is still a member of Rotary.  

 

While Gaby has given up pursuing legal action to punish her alleged abuser, there is one thing she says she now wants.  

 

GABY: I've requested a formal apology now from Rotary International through the local district governor.  

 

TONI HASSAN: Freda Briggs is a child protection expert who helped write a recent and damning report into the Anglican Church's handling of child sexual complaints. Dr Briggs has long been concerned about the risks of student exchange. 

 

FREDA BRIGGS: Parents in middle-class homes wouldn't dream of allowing their children to go into the next street and stay with a stranger, and yet here we are letting our children go overseas to stay with people they don't know, trusting entirely in the name of the organisation, whether it's Rotary, Scouts or the school.  

 

TONI HASSAN: The Emeritus Professor of Child Development at the University of South Australia says she's spoken to at least two Australian students who say they were abused while overseas on Rotary exchange, not in the 1960s but in the mid-1990s.  

 

FREDA BRIGGS: Two Australian students in my class said that they'd been raped by Rotary families - one in South America and one in the United States, and they told me about the trauma, not just about the rape itself but in trying to get help, the fact that they were prevented from informing their families.  

 

Contact with families was supervised to try and stop them from disclosing. They wanted to come home but weren't allowed. They told their teachers at the school about it and they were ostracised and they were still in counselling some three or four years later.  

 

TONI HASSAN: Rotary says things have changed. Senior leaders have pointed us to Rotary International manuals and a code of conduct adopted last year that purport to help prevent abuse and protect students. But they are limited.  

 

The code of conduct does encourage all Rotarians to work against child abuse, but the code is voluntary and it does not explain to local clubs how to prevent abuse. The guidelines stipulate that prospective host families are screened by a written application and interview. But the evaluation criteria only needs to include such things as the health of the host family and room arrangements.  

 

There's nothing in the policy requiring host families be subjected to criminal checks, although some local governments impose the requirement. 

 

Each student is required to have a counsellor appointed by the host club who should not be a host parent, as Gaby's was. But Counsellors are not independently trained about the risks and reporting of child abuse. There's still no international regime for reporting child sex abuse within Rotary. 

 

Professor Briggs, herself an honorary Rotarian says senior leaders in the organisation are still not willing to accept the idea that abuse has and can occur. 

 

FREDA BRIGGS: I've been in touch with local Rotary presidents who've been sympathetic to my concerns, but to my horror, one or two have said that they daren't bring this up because it might affect their careers in Rotary, and I was threatened that if I didn't shut up I'd lose my honorary membership.  

 

TONI HASSAN: If you had children of Rotary exchange student age would you be sending them aboard? 

 

FREDA BRIGGS: Not with what I know now.  

 

TONI HASSAN: Since PM began this investigation a senior Rotary leader did agree to talk to us on tape but then backed out. 

 

Nonetheless, John Wakefield, the head of Rotary Exchange in Australia was prepared to tell PM that he does not doubt Gaby's story and that he feels for the lady involved. 

 

Mr Wakefield says sexual abuse "can and has happened" in Rotary Youth exchanges, and added that Rotary is an organisation made of up of human beings. 

 

While it's not an apology it's as close to a formal acknowledgement Gaby has ever during her 30-year struggle. While somewhat heartened, the issue for her now is the on-going vulnerability of other children. 

 

GABY: Rotary, like many other voluntary organisations, relies on donations and public trust. But their behaviour in addressing child sexual abuse is just simply not satisfactory. I think that parents should not take these organisations on trust, they should probe them very carefully. What are the risks? I think if I hadn't had the support of my friends and family over the years I would probably be dead now. 

 

MARK COLVIN: 'Gaby,' a former Rotary exchange student. Our reporter there in that special report was Toni Hassan.