Pinned to a noticeboard beside the word-processor in Dawn Deren’s cramped little study is a cartoon depicting a frog halfway down the throat of a heron, only its legs kicking out from either side of the bill. The frog is labelled “Dawn”, the heron “The System” and the caption underneath epitomises the determination with which she has fought, for nearly nine years, to escape from the jaws of what she regards as one of the greatest injustices in NSW criminal history.
The “Mr Bubbles” case, in which she and her husband, Tony, were at the epicentre, was certainly one of the most lurid. It involved allegations of satanic rituals and blood sacrifice, child pornography and a ring of pedophiles preying on children attending a kindergarten on Sydney’s northern beaches.
Although all the charges were thrown out for lack of evidence eight years ago last month, many of the key players in this dark drama – not least the Derens – have remained dissatisfied with the outcome and were hoping a reinvestigation of the case by Justice Wood’s Royal Commission into police corruption and pedophilia would finally lay the ghosts to rest.
Literally hundreds of people were caught up in the hysteria which followed the sensational media coverage of the case: many of the 1,000 or so parents who had had a child at the Seabeach Kindergarten at Mona Vale during the years Dawn Deren ran it; the police who investigated; the lawyers who prosecuted; the social workers and psychologists who counselled the children and their parents; the politicians and the media.
But when Justice Wood’s long-awaited report was released last month, they were doomed to disappointment. “It is now not possible to determine whether or not there was any truth in the underlying allegations,” he reported. “The trail is too old, the evidence of the children is too contaminated, and there was nothing which the commission could find to independently corroborate or disprove the matters raised.”
The report was scathing in its criticism of the police: that none of them had any experience in investigating child sex abuse; of the use of a young probationary policewoman to conduct critical interviews; of a “dubious” identification; of “inaccurate” recording of medical evidence; of the unauthorised use of hypnosis; of the failure to trace a party clown named “Bubbles” who may have given rise to the children’s original fantasies; and of the lack of resources available to the prosecution.
However, to the frustration of some of the parents who have long held suspicions of a cover-up, Wood did not accept evidence that the chief investigator, Detective Sergeant Ronald Fluit, had demanded a $30,000 bribe of the Derens and “found no credible evidence to suggest that Mr Fluit, or any other police officer, corruptly attempted to frustrate the investigation”.
Nor, to the dismay of the Derens, did he find any prima facie evidence that abuse did occur and that someone else may have been responsible. Dawn Deren remains convinced that in at least two or three cases the children had been used in pornographic pictures and that the real perpetrators, whom she calls “the group”, escaped justice because the police wrongly pursued her and her husband.
The case has taken a heavy toll on the Derens. Now in their mid-50s, they have lost the dream home overlooking the Narrabeen Lakes they worked for all their lives and have moved to a small apartment in a suburb where they will not be recognised. She has lost her kindergarten and he his job at Telstra. They now work around the clock cleaning houses. Every cent they had has gone to pay their legal bills.
“I think they [the Wood findings] are fair and I hope the parents read them and realise what we have been put through,” says Dawn. “But they do not go far enough in my opinion.”
For the Derens, justice will have to wait for another day. At last count, the Derens had five defamation actions afoot, including one against the police for putting out false statements to the media: “Only when we win those and get a public apology will I feel our names will be cleared,” Dawn says.
ANOTHER casualty of the Mr Bubbles case who is far from satisfied by the report is Deirdre Grusovin. Remember her? She was the Labor frontbencher whose career was destroyed – she would almost certainly have been a minister in the Carr Government – by her relentless pursuit in parliament of pedophilia allegations.
At the height of the furore, says Grusovin, Liberal MPs would hum I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles when she rose to speak. “Once when I asked [former Premier Nick] Greiner a question on government finances he put his head on his elbow and gave his silly smirk and said, `Ever since the bubble burst you have become obsessive’ and refused to answer.”
Grosovin admits now that she had been “very naive” when she was first drawn into the Mr Bubbles case. “Although I had seven children myself, I had no idea sexual abuse of young boys even existed,” she says.
She has been in touch with the parents of several of the Seabeach children since the commission’s findings were released and says: “I am sure they are devastated at how superficial the inquiry was, how little it found out. There is no doubt in their minds that abuse was taking place, and not only of the 17 [over whom charges were laid] but a large number of other children. After all this, the abuser is still out there.”
The Herald attempted unsuccessfully to contact parents, particularly Mrs X, the first mother to complain to police and who had been described in a psychiatric report six months earlier as “on the border of a psychotic breakdown”. They had either moved or did not return calls.
Grusovin says it is a paradox that parents and children involved had been awarded more than $500,000 by the Victims’ Compensation Tribunal, when the court had dismissed the charges and the royal commission could find no evidence that abuse took place. “This has been enormously damaging … some of these people are still receiving counselling all these years later.”
Grosovin, however, welcomes Justice Wood’s recommendations for improving future handling of such complaints, particularly establishing a “one-stop shop” for expert debriefing of suspected victims and the protection of child witnesses within the court system.
“I am not going to go away,” she vows. “I am going to make sure the Government sticks to its commitment to bring in these changes.”
BETH Brosgarth traipsed down to the royal commission offices in the city three times to make statements to investigators. As president of the Seabeach Kindergarten parents’ and friends’ association, and a qualified psychologist, she believed she had a unique insight into the events of nine years ago.
“Now when I read this,” she says, flicking through a photocopy of the commission’s report, “I wonder why I bothered. There is nothing here we did not know before. I don’t think they took the investigation seriously now that the police involved are no longer in the force.”
Brosgarth does not believe that any of the children at Seabeach were abused. She subscribes to the view of an overseas expert called to testify in the case that it was likely “the children had unwittingly been told a story which grew with each telling, and conformed more to the adults’ interests” than anything that actually occurred. In other words, a mass fantasy.
“If anyone was going to be abused it was my daughter,” says Brosgarth. “She was the youngest child and the most vulnerable. As well, I was away the whole day working in Penrith so I wasn’t around to check up on them. But nothing happened to my daughter, I am certain of that.”
She is disappointed that the role of the professionals in the case, particularly the Family and Community Services officers and one of the psychiatrists, was not subjected to greater scrutiny. And she also believes the police should have been held to greater account.
“It was a bit like saying something against Princess Diana: it was heresy to say that nothing had happened. No matter what the royal commission found, it is too late to change people’s minds.”
October 26, 1988: “Mrs X.” Mother of two children at Seabeach Kindergarten, observes her three-year-old daughter posing suggestively in a restaurant. The girl says “Mr Bubbles” taught her to do it.
Oct 27: Mrs X and tow other parents approach Mona Vale police with suspicions that the children have been sexually abused. The evidence is statements by the children that they had taken off their clothes, had photographs taken and bathed with “Mr Bubbles”.
Oct 28-Nov 4: Det Sgt Ron Fluit places Seabeach under surveillance. Neither he nor any detective at the station has any experience in child sex abuse cases.
Nov 6: Police stage a dawn raid on kindergarten owner Dawn Deren’s home. Police claim occult literature and videos of child pornography have been seized, but Wood Royal Commission finds this is untrue.
Nov 6-7: Kindergarten is named on a Sydney radio station and “the matter became the subject of wide and sensational media coverage”, according to the commission report. Dawn and Tony Deren and two female kindergarten workers are eventually charged with sex offences and kidnapping involving 17 children aged 3-5.
Feb 6, 1989: The Derens face screaming demonstrators outside a remand hearing. The children have been reinterviewed up to nine times and are talking of occult rituals, witchcraft, white robes and “acts of a cultish and bizarre kind”, including sexual penetration. A police inquiry later finds most have no physical sign of abuse.
July 3: At committal hearing the four people plead not guilty, expert testimony is called on the unreliability of evidence given by pre-school children. Magistrate rules the children cannot be called to testify.
August 11: In the absence of any reliable forensic evidence, witnesses or confessions, charges against the four are dismissed. The investigation consumed 15,000 police hours and the court case cost more than $1 million.
August 26, 1997: Justice Wood finds: “… the Seabeach case was a debacle which left a number of persons severely traumatised and questioning of the justice system.”
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Wednesday 17 September 1997
Section: News And Features
Word count: 1674
Classification: Crime/Child Abuse & Neglect Law/Police/Malpractice/Wood Royal Commission
Geographic area: Sydney
Photograph: Robert Pearce
Caption: Aftermath … Tony and Dawn Deren.