THE university that continued to employ a staff member for four months after he pleaded guilty to raping an indigenous student, has vehemently denied that senior management knew anything about the guilty rape plea until two days after his voluntary resignation, but a whistleblower has approached news.com.au with documents that show otherwise.
Last Friday, news.com.au reported that in October 2015, James Cook University (JCU) staff member Douglas Steele was charged with digitally raping a 20-year old indigenous student who was barely conscious at the time of the rape.
Following the rape charges being laid, JCU subsequently promoted Steele, appointing him to work directly with indigenous students as an academic adviser in JCU's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre.
Steele later pleaded guilty to the rape, but was again permitted to continue working in the centre and was later supplied a glowing character reference by a JCU staff member to assist him at sentencing, where he received a two-year sentence to be suspended to just four months.
Since these revelations came to light last Friday, James Cook University has published several statements emphatically denying that senior management knew anything about the guilty rape plea at any point during Steele's employment.
In a statement to the media and on the JCU Facebook page, JCU has repeatedly declared that: "If senior management had been aware that Mr Steele pleaded guilty he would have been immediately dismissed."
The claim has also been repeated in a letter to all staff which further elaborates that "Senior management were only made aware of the Courts finding of guilty in respect of the charge of rape on Tuesday 17 January ."
Now in a news.com.au exclusive, we can reveal that several informants have come forward to debunk the claim and have alleged that a "serious cover-up" has taken place.
One of the whistleblowers, who has asked to remain nameless, says that in December 2016, she spoke directly with Michael Kern - who holds one of the most senior positions at JCU as the University Secretary - informing him of the guilty plea in the rape case.
Alarmingly, the informant says that during that phone call she informed Mr Kern that in addition to pleading guilty to the rape of the student, Douglass Steele is also subject to an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order.
The informant also claims that during that phone call, she urged Kern to consider the risks associated with the case, stating that she was alarmed by the situation and believed that the university ought to know that Steele had been involved in more than one episode of violence against women.
The informant says that at this point, she also requested that the university refuse to provide any character references to Steele that he might use at the up and coming rape sentencing.
A witness who was present during the phone conversation has corroborated the story and hand written summary notes of the phone conversation that were taken at the time have been supplied to news.com.au.
The informant then sent a follow-up email on January 16 2017, reminding senior management of the phone conversation that reportedly took place back in December 2016.
That email - which has been obtained by news.com.au - is addressed to the Vice Chancellor, Sandra Harding, as well as Michael Kern. Copied in on that email are five other staff members including staff from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre.
The email begins "Dear Sandra and Michael", before reminding them that they "were made aware that [Steele] had pleaded guilty to this felony in 2016."
News.com.au has asked the university whether they stand by their previous statement that "Senior management were only made aware of the Courts finding of guilty in respect of the charge of rape on Tuesday 17 January", to which they responded "the University is not retracting the earlier statement that senior management was unaware of the guilty plea. Senior management only become aware of the guilty plea on Tuesday [the 17th of January], as explained in earlier statements."
A second informant who is an indigenous academic affiliated with the university has also come forward alleging that on at least two other occasions she informed Michael Kern of the charges against Steele, and was told that Human Resources had been informed in September 2016.
Sharna Bremner from End Rape on Campus Australia says that the entire situation is unfathomable.
"[Senior management] either knew about the rape and did nothing to remove the offender, or the Vice Chancellor of the university doesn't know what's happening under her own roof. Either way it's unacceptable. At this point, I can't see any alternative than for senior management to be replaced."
"More importantly, we need to remember the rape victim in the middle of all this, who has been let down and betrayed. The broader community must support victims and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them."
An aboriginal activist and academic associated with the university - who wishes to remain anonymous- has alleged that the issue was not taken seriously, in part because of race.
"Let's imagine that this was the daughter of the Vice Chancellor. Would it be the same thing? The answer is absolutely not. [But] an aboriginal woman is fair game … and treated as available for sexual abuse. Any people who cover it up should be held just as accountable."
Students have also expressed their outrage and disgust at the university's handling of the matter and at their feeble attempt to distance the university from the rape, by pointing out that it happened off campus.
In a statement published on Facebook, the James Cook University Student Association has stated:
"The JCU Student Association condemns the University's lack of care when it comes to monitoring the conduct of their employees. The fact that it occurred outside of university business is no excuse or justification for not taking action after charges were laid in 2015 …
"Students deserve the right to feel safe on campus and to know that JCU staff uphold the highest standards of ethics and integrity. We believe that the University must admit that the case was not handled in the best interest of students and to implement whatever policy change is necessary to ensure this never happens again."
The National Unions of Students has also released a statement and a petition condemning the university.
"The National Union of Students is appalled by the actions of James Cook University allowing staff member, Douglas Steele to continue working for JCU after pleading guilty and being convicted of raping an indigenous student" said NUS President, Sophie Johnston, who adds that there has been an "utter disregard" for the welfare of women and indigenous students.
On social media the response has been even more heated, with thousands of comments almost uniformly condemning JCU, while expressing an outpouring of support for the victim. A gofundme page has also been set up for Steele's victim.
By contrast, on Friday, James Cook University released a statement blaming the media - as opposed to the rapist - for violating the victim's privacy, saying that victim's "dignity and privacy" were "shattered" through media reports.
The statement also expressed "deep concern" about the "impact of this media coverage", but little concern was expressed about the impact of rape, or the impact of institutional betrayal. (The victim has not been named in any media, and news.com.au has fully co-operated with all requests from JCU regarding the publication of other information about the victim.)
Embarrassingly, on Sunday evening James Cook University accidentally copied news.com.au in on a highly confidential email chain discussing the details of their damage-control media strategy, and the need to massage the message with "prospective students".
JCU has also released an additional statement - their fifth attempt at a response - in which they state that "there has been a failure of our internal processes" and that the university now "understands the community's anger over this matter and we apologise unreservedly for how it has been handled." They have also ordered a review of the matter.
But for some students, it's too little, too late. One woman, who reported her own attempted rape to the university says that when she did, she was interrogated and blamed.
"[Senior management] don't do anything until [the issue] attracts media attention. There have been some well publicised incidents but the university, in my experience, tries to basically absolve themselves of any responsibility until it hits media and then they take a very reactionary approach rather than dealing with it when incidents first get reported."
"Someone put a date rape drug in my drink at a sanctioned college function. I was 20. When I reported it to the college manager, the reaction I got was 'what were you wearing? How much did you have to drink? Are you sure you weren't encouraging this guy's advances?' ...
"There are systemic issues regarding sexual harassment and the way [JCU] tries to resolve issues. The people we report this to, they really have no idea how to actually deal with it in reality … I think the training they get is completely inadequate".
Other students have also alleged incidents of staff sexually harassing students, and using pornography at work.
Ironically, James Cook University is the only university in Australia to have formally turned down a free screening of
The Hunting Ground, a US documentary that explores institutional cover up of rape at American universities.
JCU also currently partners on a Universities Australia campaign that preaches zero-tolerance about sexual assault at universities, but the NUS and other students are now questioning whether this campaign is merely a tokenistic, "tick the box" exercise designed to pay lip-service to the issue at the expense of genuine change and reform.
If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault support is available by calling 1800 RESPECT and asking to speak to a trauma counsellor.
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