NSW government secretly paid millions to victims of a teacher it admits was a paedophile

Michael McGowan

The New South Wales government has quietly paid out millions of dollars to more than a dozen former schoolchildren who it admits were abused by a paedophile teacher who rose through the ranks of the state’s public school system over three decades while preying on young Indigenous boys.

Since April 2018 lawyers from the state’s education department have signed out-of-court settlements with 14 men from across western NSW. The men, who are all Indigenous, are predominantly based in Dubbo.

The department has never publicly disclosed the settlements, which in some cases included confidentiality clauses preventing disclosure of the value of the payouts. Nor has it acknowledged the existence of a serial paedophile in the public school system, a step that might have encouraged others to come forward.

But documents seen by Guardian Australia during a months-long investigation can reveal the Department of Education unequivocally accepted the men were victims of Cletus O’Connor, a teacher, principal and school inspector who worked throughout the state from the 1950s to the 80s. The investigation found evidence to suggest that O’Connor, better known as Clete, used his almost unchecked power and standing in western NSW throughout his career to systematically groom and abuse young Indigenous boys.

Can you imagine if this was a black man doing this to little white boys? … They’d have strung him up

Abuse victim

O’Connor, who died in 1995, remains well respected by some in the towns where he worked. One former colleague described him as being “like a god” to teachers he worked with, and many of those contacted by the Guardian angrily dismissed specific allegations made against him.

Yet Indigenous men who came into contact with O’Connor as students continue to grapple with the mark his abuse left on them. All of the survivors who the Guardian spoke to described lifelong battles with depression and addiction, and a deeply ingrained mistrust of white authority.

The case highlights systemic historical failures within the public school system to protect children and marks another dark chapter in relations between white and Indigenous Australia. Lawyers acting for O’Connor’s victims argued that the state had, in effect, “harboured” a serial paedophile for decades, and questioned how his “flagrant” abuse could have gone unchecked for so long.

As one victim said to the Guardian: “Can you imagine if this was a black man doing this to little white boys? You reckon we wouldn’t know about it? They’d have strung him up.”

Rumours about O’Connor’s behaviour were widespread during and after his career. Students at Dubbo high school in the 80s swapped lurid stories about him sexually abusing Indigenous boys, and teachers in Bourke were aware of O’Connor taking students on overnight “excursions” as he travelled through the state while working as a school inspector.

“The boys said [that] white people in Dubbo knew what he was doing,” a relative of one victim told the Guardian. “They reckon they used to all talk about how he used to take the Aboriginal boys in his car.”

An unfiled court document prepared on behalf of one of the victims and obtained by Guardian Australia shows lawyers found evidence of complaints made against O’Connor to police from September 1986, the year he retired.

Yet he escaped justice throughout his life. No charges were laid and, in a statement, the Department of Education said it “did not become aware of complaints made against O’Connor before he died”. Victims told the Guardian they recalled seeing photographs of O’Connor on the wall of a NSW public school as late as 2015.

The NSW education department refused to disclose how much it had paid out in the 14 settlements, but the Guardian understands the figure runs into the millions. In a statement, the department said each settlement had followed the government’s “guiding principles for responding to civil claims for child sexual abuse”.

The guidelines “aim to deal compassionately, sensitively and consistently with survivors of child sexual abuse”. Settlements involved a personal apology and settlement “with the terms and identity of the victim strictly confidential”.

A spokesman for the department said it had not publicised O’Connor’s name because it was “not requested to make the matter public”.

“The department communicated through its lawyers with the lawyers for the claimants’ and dealt with the matters sensitively in accordance with the requests of the claimants’ lawyers and the requirements of the Government’s 19 principles for handling such cases,” a spokesman said.

An apology letter to one victim signed by Michael Waterhouse, general counsel for the education department, accepted liability for the sexual abuse and acknowledged that the state was “responsible for the safety of children at school” and that the victims “had every right to expect that you would not be harmed by a person in authority”.

“What happened to you should not have happened,” the letter stated.

But survivors who spoke to the Guardian for this report remain deeply scarred by the abuse, and say neither the settlement nor the government’s apology has helped ease their pain.

Another survivor said: “We wanted answers, frankly. How the fuck did this go on for so long? I mean, come on, how did they not know?”

‘His interest in the students does not terminate at 3.30pm Friday’

By the time he became the principal of the local high school in Gilgandra in 1973, Clete O’Connor had already worked as a teacher in NSW for more than 20 years.

A talented cricketer who once stumped the England great Denis Compton while playing as a wicketkeeper for a northern NSW representative side, O’Connor grew up on the far north coast of NSW before studying to become a teacher in Armidale.

His first job was in Gunnedah, where electoral records show him employed as a teacher from the early 50s, before he moved to Lithgow in the 60s and then to Corowa near the Victorian border.

But it was in Gilgandra, a small town on the junction of the Newell, Oxley and Castlereagh highways about 67km north of Dubbo, that O’Connor left a lasting impression of himself as a caring and dedicated educator.

He became a prominent member of the community, and cultivated an image of being willing to mentor younger colleagues and possessing a “devotion” to the children he taught. “Mr O’Connor’s interest in the students … does not terminate at 3.30pm Friday,” a student once wrote in a speech paying tribute to him.

One former colleague said: “He was like a god in Gil. He was very social, incredibly intelligent and a very, very gifted speaker. He was a very charismatic person.”

An article in the Gilgandra Weekly, published before his departure in 1979, described O’Connor as “a man who has been instrumental in the process of making Gil’ High what it is today”.

“During his association with Gilgandra High, Mr O’Connor has aimed at, and achieved, innumerable goals but above all these he has put the staff and students first in all situations, thus gaining full respect from both staff and students, an achievement very few principals can boast of,” the article said.

Much of that admiration apparently lives on. Most of the former associates of O’Connor’s in Gilgandra contacted for this story angrily rejected specific questions about his conduct and all of them denied any knowledge of his offending. The mayor of Gilgandra, Doug Batten, who said he did not know O’Connor personally but “knew of him”, accused the Guardian of “raking through mud” before hanging up the phone.

“I’m not aware of that side of this person but I am aware of his service to this community,” Batten said.

“A large number of teachers who served with him had nothing but respect for the man as an educator and a family man. I don’t know his victims, I know his family [and] I know of him as a well-respected educator.”

Guardian Australia has been able to confirm that at least three settlements paid out by the NSW Department of Education relate to alleged abuse that took place at least partially during his stint in the town.

In draft submissions obtained by the Guardian, lawyers acting on behalf of O’Connor’s victims alleged that his practice while in Gilgandra was to “groom and abuse Aboriginal students regularly at school, during and after school hours”. The submissions allege O’Connor targeted Indigenous boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, giving them money, buying food and giving them lifts around the town.

“He also used his position to manipulate students into situations where he would be able to interact with them outside of school hours and outside of the school premises,” the submissions read.

According to the draft submissions, by 1978 O’Connor was “a prolific and apparently practised sexual predator”. The lawyers argued it was “very probable that Clete had been abusing children for a substantial period before he became principal at Gilgandra high school”.

O’Connor ingratiated himself with the claimant’s parents under the guise of an educator taking an interest

Draft statement of claim

“He had developed a modus operandi of abusing young Aboriginal boys and did so regularly and flagrantly,” the documents allege.

“Not only did he abuse young Koori boys during school hours at school, he would also often regularly drive them around town and give them money and gifts in full view of others.”

In one case, O’Connor began abusing an 11-year-old boy in Gilgandra after gaining the trust of the child’s family, including by driving him and others to Dubbo to buy school clothes, shoes and fast food.

According to the victim and admissions made by the Department of Education during the settlement process, the abuse continued for about five years, until he was 16.

“O’Connor ingratiated himself with the claimant’s parents under the guise of an educator taking an interest,” a draft statement obtained by the Guardian alleged.

“O’Connor continued to groom the claimant with money, lollies and gifts. He also regularly reminded the claimant not to tell anyone what was happening, that the consequences of doing so would be dire and that he would not be believed.”

The first instance of abuse occurred after the victim was sent to see O’Connor in what he remembered as his office. According to the victim’s statement, O’Connor “told him he would speak to his parents about his behaviour, and that they would get an ice-block together afterwards”.

Instead, it is alleged he took the child to his home and raped him.

“He told the claimant not to tell his parents and that if he did, O’Connor would be put in prison and everyone would know it’s because the claimant is a bad person,” the statement read.

‘There were rumours’

About 400km north-west of Sydney, Dubbo has for decades been the magnet to which the rest of regional NSW is drawn. A hub for transport and commerce, today the city is a mix of sleepy country town and bush metropolis, where broad streets and federation homes rub uncomfortably against big-box retailers and sprawling new housing estates.

Dig an inch deep there and you’ll find someone who remembers the name Clete O’Connor.

In 1979 O’Connor was promoted to the role of inspector of schools for the western region of NSW, an area covering thousands of kilometres. Based out of a nondescript government office block on Carrington Avenue, the job required spending days on the road visiting far-flung parts of the state, including Bourke, Brewarrina, Byrock and Nyngan.

Accounts from victims obtained by Guardian Australia through interviews and unfiled court documents suggest the authority O’Connor gained from the role allowed the abuse to flourish.

In the 70s and 80s school inspectors in NSW sometimes operated with little oversight. One former school inspector told the Guardian it was common to spend days on the road visiting distant parts of the state without contact with other department officials.

They also held incredible influence over the careers of schoolteachers, including being responsible for promotions to more senior roles. Lawyers acting for victims found there was an “obvious” disincentive for employees to report suspect behaviour, and that the department had little to no process for such reports.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Department of Education said it “did not become aware of complaints made against O’Connor before he died” but conceded that its policies for reporting suspected abuse “were inadequate by today’s standards”.

“The government has improved its child protection laws and systems very significantly since the 1970s and 1980s,” the spokesman said.

The Guardian’s investigation found that some teachers were aware of rumours about O’Connor’s abuse before his retirement. In one case, lawyers acting for the victims said a teacher in Bourke had been aware of O’Connor’s habit of taking young Indigenous children on unsupervised excursions from “relatively early on” but that no records of complaints had been uncovered.

Others told the Guardian they had only been aware of “rumours” and had not believed it was their “prerogative” to report them.

“I didn’t know him personally but there were rumours even before he left,” said one former Dubbo teacher, who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity.

“I did hear a rumour, or rumours, to the effect there was some sort of abuse going on, but I heard nothing else. I think it was paedophilia – grooming young males, that’s what I understood it to be. Whether it went further, I couldn’t say, I just don’t know. It was a third-, fourth-hand type of thing, that’s really all I know.

“With that sort of thing, you hear rumours, and you, well, I’m thinking now, well, maybe you’d react differently these days but this is 35 years ago. I might hear a rumour but as a classroom teacher, you know, he’s an inspector, and you think, ‘That’s not my prerogative.’”

During the legal process, victims alleged O’Connor regularly signed them out of class during school hours, took them on overnight excursions to other towns in western NSW where he abused them in hotel rooms, and was often seen driving Indigenous boys around town in his car.

According to multiple sources, much of the alleged abuse took place in the Department of Education building where O’Connor worked on Carrington Avenue.

One survivor recalled O’Connor paying particular interest in Indigenous students at Dubbo high school.

A separate unfiled court document prepared on behalf of the survivor said that when he was a year seven student, O’Connor had begun approaching him “in the playground or in the park across the road from the school” to talk to him about his schooling. He had started giving him “a couple of dollars here and there” and paying for school lunches.

The survivor recounted that initially the attention had made him feel “special” but that as time went on O’Connor had become more “touchy”. Under the guise of tutelage, O’Connor had started taking the boy to his home office in Dubbo or to the building in Carrington Avenue.

The survivor alleged that on the first occasion when the abuse took place, O’Connor had left him alone in a room with pornography “and upon returning asked questions about how he felt” before physically abusing him.

While it remains unclear how widely O’Connor’s alleged abuse was known about and what, if anything, was done to prevent it, lawyers acting for victims found that complaints had been filed against O’Connor with police in 1986, the year he retired, but that no charges had been laid.

We used to call each other ‘Clete’ as a way of ribbing each other, as all teenagers do

Former Dubbo high school student Brendan McCann

The Guardian contacted the NSW police, who said they were unable to confirm the complaint. It is understood that at least one police officer had attempted to investigate complaints made against O’Connor.

But dozens of interviews with victims, their family members, former colleagues and other teachers who came in contact with O’Connor during his long career reveal that rumours about the abuse were widely circulated before and after his retirement.

Those rumours had spread widely enough that when Brendan McCann enrolled at Dubbo high school as a teenager in 1986, “Clete” was being used as a derogatory nickname by students.

“We used to call each other ‘Clete’ as a way of ribbing each other, as all teenagers do,” McCann, who now lives in Spain, told the Guardian.

“It meant ‘gay’ and I just accepted it, as you do at that age. We’d call each other ‘Clete’ or ‘Clete O’Connor’ for a slightly stronger effect … we’d say, ‘Yeah, good on ya, Clete,’ or, ‘Good one, Clete.’ Always very sarcastic, of course.”

McCann did not know who O’Connor was, or about the rumours of his abuse, and assumed the name was fictitious until he asked a friend about its origins. “At some point I asked a mate of mine who he was and he said he was a gay bloke in town,” he said.

Other rumours were more explicit. In the early 80s, Robin Church remembers being at home while her teenage son was playing with friends. Church had attended school in Gunnedah in the 50s and had been taught by O’Connor’s wife.

“When I heard the name my ears pricked up, you know? It’s not a name you forget, ‘Clete’,” she said.

“I asked them how they knew Clete, or why they were talking about Clete, and my son said that he was picking up Aboriginal boys in his car. I don’t remember his exact words, no, but [I remember] him saying Clete was paying these little Aboriginal boys for sex. I thought, ‘Oh! I never knew anything about that.’”

Peter Dargin is a former western region school inspector who worked for the department at the same time as O’Connor. Though they were both based in the same office in Dubbo, he spent much of his time on the road and the two “weren’t friendly”.

But in the mid 80s, not long after O’Connor retired, Dargin remembers seeing a piece of graffiti spraypainted in black on a wall near the Carrington Avenue building.

It read: “Give money Clete.”

“It was quite obvious, you couldn’t miss it,” Dargin said. “It was quite unnerving because at the time I thought that the kids were taking advantage of Clete, like it was a demand.

“But later somebody said they thought Cletus had something to do with Aboriginal boys. I was shocked. I thought it was hard to believe.”

‘We lost our education’

The cases raise significant concerns about the way the civil justice system operates for victims of child sexual abuse who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Though none of the survivors interviewed for this story felt ready to speak about their abuse publicly, multiple interviews and a review of legal documents and medical records obtained with their permission detail the devastating legacy the abuse has had on their lives.

Most have struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and describe deep and lasting psychological injuries. One survivor vividly described his inability to show intimacy towards his children, including not feeling comfortable bathing them as infants or allowing them to hug him or sit on his lap.

Another told the Guardian he had been unable to maintain intimate relationships throughout his life as a result of the abuse, and described lifelong alcohol abuse beginning about the age of 12 when he said he would drink before school because it was “the only way I could escape as I had nobody at home to help me”.

Though the victims have received financial settlements and an acknowledgement of the abuse from the Department of Education, the men who spoke to the Guardian feel justice has not and perhaps never can be done.

These poor blokes are going to have a harder time showing economic loss because of the reality of what it means to be Aboriginal in Australia

Jason Parkinson, lawyer

“It’s like throwing a rock into a river,” one survivor said. “How do you stop the ripples? And how do you stop the rock from sinking?

“We lost our education from the abuse, we lost a lot of things. Their apologies hasn’t helped.”

Jason Parkinson, a lawyer from Porters Lawyers who specialises in child abuse cases, said race and class play a significant role in determining settlement payments because, while general damages were guided by common law, payments made on the basis of economic loss took individual circumstances into account.


“Economic loss is the big-ticket item but it’s personal to each individual’s case,” he said.

“And that’s the tragedy of these cases. Generally, because of the way Australian society is, these poor blokes are going to have a harder time showing economic loss because of the reality of what it means to be Aboriginal in Australia. Generally speaking, if you’re from a well-off family with high-achieving parents and siblings, and you were sexually abused by a Catholic priest, you’re going to have an easier time showing economic loss because of your changed circumstances.

“Another thing is that, virtually as soon as you go to jail you’re stuffed for economic loss. So even though a person was pushed down the wrong path because of the abuse, it hurts them later when negotiating an economic loss settlement.”

Parkinson makes a point of issuing a writ to the supreme court on every case “to show that we’re serious” but said it wasn’t unusual for cases like the one uncovered by the Guardian to never reach a courtroom.


“If I was a defendant’s lawyer, the first thing I would do is look to see whether the plaintiff has the hallmarks of child sexual abuse, a history of depression, PTSD, alcoholism – all of that,” he said. “And when that is recorded throughout the medical records I’m going to say, ‘OK, I’m satisfied that happened,’ because you can’t fake that.

“Then when you see there’s another 14 of these men that’s when you say, ‘OK, on the balance of probabilities our guy did it and he’s our agent, let’s settle this before it gets to court.’


“It’s never simple, but the reason you’re not seeing cases where people ride up the courthouse steps on a white steed to have their day in court is that the defendants know they’re done for and they settle for enough money before it reaches that stage.”







The Department of Education did not answer questions about what steps it had taken to investigate the claims before it had agreed to settle the cases, saying they were subject to privilege. But documents seen by Guardian Australia show the department unequivocally accepted the abuse occurred.

In a statement, a spokesman for the department said: “We agreed to settle cases consistent with the requirements of the NSW government’s 19 principles for handling such cases and the model litigant policy. The requirements include settling them out of court and utilising a trauma-informed approach.

“The model litigant policy provides we settle claims promptly, pay legitimate claims without litigation, and endeavour to avoid litigation where possible.”