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For one former amateur footballer, standing tall for a teammate means speaking about childhood sexual abuse

Glen Fearnett is one of those pragmatic characters who refuses to embellish the anecdotes from his amateur sporting career.

Asked what sort of footballer he was in the purple of his youth, Fearnett’s answer is blunt: “I was a hack.”

As a teammate, he will permit, he offered a little more.

You could talk to Glen for hours on end, and the only time his emotions overcome the steady flow of sensible observations is when mention is made of some teammate or another — the teammates he still doesn’t want to let down, even though they haven’t laced up their boots for 35 years.

One of those teammates, Glen Parker, sums up Fearnett: “He was just one of those blokes you knew you could rely on. He wasn’t flashy or showy, but he was one of the first picked because he was so selfless.”

On April 3 this year, like on any other Saturday morning, Fearnett sat at the breakfast bar of his Melbourne home, silently reading the news from his iPad.

Lynne, Glen’s partner of the last 25 years, was accustomed to this undeviating routine and initially noted nothing unusual.

But this time it was different.

Tears began streaking down Glen’s face as he studied a photograph of former St Kilda footballer Rod Owen and the

Studying Owen’s bewildered expression, Fearnett could read no further.

No longer was Glen his grey-haired, 59-year-old school teacher self. He was 10 years old again, looking down at five-year-old Rod, innocent and sweet, in need of protection.

From the other side of the breakfast bar, Lynne studied her partner’s face and realised something was wrong. Glen could hardly form words.

“You have to read this,” he stammered.

“I know this kid” — the kid, he emphasised, not the man — “and I’ve never told anyone before.”

He turned the screen around to Lynne and finally let go of the words he’d never allowed to escape his lips in 49 years:

“What I’m really, really angry about — to the point of internal boiling — is that there were people at the school and in the education department who knew this,” Fearnett says.

“I’m a teacher. I have been for 30-something years. I’m continually astounded and shattered by the consequences and the size and scope of the offending.

“The victims were my friends. And there are so many of them. It still makes me shake my head in disbelief.”

At Beaumaris Primary, Ray and Mitchell were not alone in their offending. Another football coach and teacher, Graham Steele, was abusing boys, and their time at the school overlapped with a fourth paedophile teacher who cannot be named for legal reasons.

“The fact that there were four people abusing kids at one school in one time, how on Earth did that happen?” he asks.

“It’s not a miracle. It’s not some coincidence that they all ended up at the one place at the one time. It can’t be.

“Who let it happen? What became evident fairly quickly was that this problem was systemic at the school and the school had a part to play in it. It never should have happened. Finding that out made me extremely angry.

Glen Fearnett sits on an exercise bike and looks at the camera.
Glen Fearnett met his partner, Lynne, when they were both working in the fitness industry, and exercise remains a positive outlet for them as they process the legacy of what happened to him.(ABC Sport: Russell Jackson)

Via court documents and news stories, Glen has discovered that his abuser, Mitchell, had not only offended at another school before being deployed to Beaumaris Primary, but would offend again and again, somehow remaining employed by the Victorian Education department until 1993.

Ray, too, had offended at another school before his posting at Beaumaris.

The problems at Beaumaris Primary in the 1970s echo the crimes of paedophile teacher Bob Morris, who also was “shuffled from school to school” in that decade, despite knowledge that he was abusing children, and the shocking case of Vincent Reynolds, a Victorian teacher who was redeployed to teaching rounds, despite a psychologist claiming it was “bloody stupid” to expose more children to harm.

Unlike other states — including, most recently, Tasmania — the Victorian Education Department has never publicly acknowledged the practice of shuffling sex offenders around the teaching system in the 1970s and 80s.

“What they chose to do in their life, they were abject failures in their jobs and abject failures as people.

“I feel sorry for them, that they couldn’t meet a set of standards that a normal person would consider the minimum. They were no good at anything.

“But, for the people who allowed it to happen, I have absolute disgust. I don’t know that hatred is quite the right word but, even if they’re no longer around to be held accountable, their memories and legacies need to be held accountable.

“I’m sure their kids and grandkids think they were wonderful. They should know the truth about them.”

Fearnett believes that not even the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has enabled the reckoning his employer is due.

In the coming weeks, Fearnett says, he and Owen will seek an appointment with Victoria’s Education Minister, James Merlino.

Glen Fearnett sits at an outdoor setting and smiles.Glen Fearnett sits at an outdoor setting and smiles.
A high school teacher himself, Glen Fearnett is seeking answers from the Victorian Education Department about the systemic shortcomings that allowed so many of his peers to be abused.(ABC Sport: Russell Jackson)

“I’m part of the education system at the moment and we’re temporary custodians of it,” he says.

“People seemingly didn’t care. We were 10. They were supposed to be the people who looked after us and protected us and they simply didn’t do that.

“It almost feels like it was, maybe not encouraged, but there was an absolute apathy towards 9, 10-year-old kids.

“For God’s sake. I still don’t get that. I can’t understand it.”

‘Such a special person’

At a Port Melbourne cafe a few Saturdays ago, there was another arresting sight: At a table turned 45 degrees, two middle-aged men with their backs against the wall sipped long blacks, their eyes scanning the room.

Rod Owen and Glen Fearnett had barely seen each other since boyhood. It could have been awkward, taxing, a struggle for the right words, even a let-down.

But warm conversation flowed. No false bravado. No false modesty. Just the brotherhood that tightens between teammates who know they can win a crunch game against a formidable opponent.

Rod Owen and Glen Fearnett stand in front of a green tiled wall and smile.Rod Owen and Glen Fearnett stand in front of a green tiled wall and smile.
Fifty years faded away quickly when former neighbours Rod Owen and Glen Fearnett recently caught up for brunch and a supportive chat. (Supplied)

“Glen is such a special person,” Owen had said days earlier.

Now he could tell Fearnett of his own self-doubts — that he’d panicked the night before his story was published, unsure how people would react — and how Glen’s first email of disclosure and support hours later had vindicated his decision.

“I wanted you to know that someone would stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, with you,” Glen said.

He had photos to show. Names and places from 50 years ago came back to life.

Inevitably, at a point, Glen’s guilt came to the fore. He was 10 years old again, walking away from that room — silent, afraid and unaware of the dark events in train.

Owen interjected.

“It’s not your fault,” he said.

On the way out the door, pondering the possibility of a bigger group next time, Owen explained what it felt like to have a teammate like Glen Fearnett: “When I shook his hand, I got a shiver up my spine.”