State government to apologise to Puffing Billy abuse victims

November 27, 2019

Author: Erin Pearson


The state government will formally apologise on Wednesday to historical child sex abuse victims who were assaulted at railways across Victoria, including tourist icon Puffing Billy.

Premier Daniel Andrews and the state’s tourism minister are scheduled to issue the apology at Parliament House, with nine victims and 40 others likely to attend.

Survivor Justin Drew was 12 when he was abused by Puffing Billy serial paedophile Robert Whitehead, who was allowed to work with children at the Dandenongs tourist train despite earlier being jailed for abusing a young boy.

The now 48-year-old father said he’ll attend alongside his family, who he only recently opened up to about his childhood trauma.

“It’s been very hard,” he said. “They had a responsibility to keep an eye on what the Emerald Tourist Railway Board was doing. They didn’t do that.

“It means they’re accepting liability, which they didn’t years ago. Hopefully we’ll get it sorted out and I can get on with life. It will be a weight off my shoulders.”

Mr Drew is suing the state government, the Puffing Billy Preservation Society and Emerald Tourist Railway Board for damages.

Seven other victims of Whitehead have won payouts from the state through separate legal action by Melbourne law firm Ryan Carlisle Thomas.

No charges were laid against Whitehead in relation to Mr Drew before Whitehead died in prison in 2015.

Mr Drew’s lawyer Emily Sinclair, from Margalit Injury Lawyers, said it was rare for a negligent party to admit fault but it was an important step towards victims achieving a true sense of justice.

“No apology will ever make amends for the horrific abuse Justin suffered during his time at Puffing Billy. However, today’s apology is certainly welcomed and will hopefully be the first step of the healing process for Justin and his family,” Ms Sinclair said.

“Justin suffered in silence with the pain of his past for 35 years too long.

“Today, Justin and the other survivors will finally be told by the Victorian government, we believe you, we failed and we are sorry.”

A formal apology was one of the recommendations contained in the Victorian Ombudsman’s report
Investigation into child sex offender Robert Whitehead’s involvement with Puffing Billy and other railway bodies.

The Ombudsman’s investigation was announced in 2017 after an initial call for an investigation by victim Wayne Clarke was referred to then minister for tourism John Eren.

Minister for Tourism Martin Pakula said the report was tabled in June last year and the government accepted all recommendations.

“The Victorian Ombudsman’s report detailed harrowing abuse perpetrated at Puffing Billy and other Victorian railways by people who held positions of power and trust,” Mr Pakula said.

“The victims were children who for too long felt unable to tell their stories, and when they did, too many people did not want to hear them.

“It is important that we acknowledge how these people were betrayed and say to them, we are sorry.”

The public apology will be made at Parliament House at 10am.

This article was also published in The Age. To read the article click here.