Sexual abuse in schools: An Australian history of criminalisation

Research Brief 22


In 1947 a leading psychiatrist, Dr John McGeorge, told the New South Wales Department of Justice that men who abused children were ‘the most dangerous sex offenders’. These men, he went on to assert, were ‘often in a position of trust, [such as] a schoolteacher or scoutmaster’ (State Records NSW, Report of Department of Justice, Attorney General’s Department, 12/1351.1). McGeorge clearly recognised the potential for the sexual abuse of children in institutional settings and in scenarios that involved an abuse of trust between an adult and a child.

His views may seem very modern, but McGeorge was by no means the first to put forward such ideas.

State recognition of the potential for institutional abuse had been enshrined in Australian legislation from as early as the 1880s, when parliaments across Australia created laws that criminalised sexual relationships between male schoolteachers on female pupils. The criminalisation of teacher’s relationships with female students was a distinctly Australian provision and, unlike other criminal offences, it had not been imported from English criminal law.

New South Wales was the first state (1883) to introduce the offence, which specified a higher age of consent for sexual relations between male teachers and female students: 16 compared to 14 for other sexual offences; this was later increased to 17 compared to 16 for other sexual offences. It also provided for an increased maximum penalty (fourteen years imprisonment, compared to ten years for other offences on girls). The offence was subsequently replicated in three Australian jurisdictions: South Australia (1885), Victoria (1891) and Western Australia (1892). South Australia was the only state to provide for an offence of abuse of male as well as female pupils.

An important political context for the development of the Australian criminal offences was the introduction of compulsory education. In 1872, Victoria became the first state to introduce free, compulsory, secular education, and all other states had some form of the system by the early 1890s. The development of compulsory schooling led to social concerns over the behaviour of male teachers and their potential for immoral conduct with female students, especially outside urban centres. Social Purity Societies (conservative religious organisations that were focused on social morals) were active in petitioning governments for the creation of misdemeanour offences for male teachers’ ‘seduction’ of female pupils (South Australian Register, 6 September 1883: 6). The term ‘seduction’ in this context did not denote a romantic courtship. Rather, it held connotations of sexual relations by deception (such as promises of marriage) that often led to the unwanted pregnancy of young women.

Newspapers and others who petitioned governments argued that single men should not be sent to teach in regional areas as the potential for sexual misconduct with female pupils was too great. In one instance, a regional newspaper reporting on the criminal conviction of a teacher for the abuse of a 14-year-old girl expressed the view that only female teachers should be appointed in country areas (Colac Herald, 20 October 1891, p. 4)


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Another paper reported that complaints against male teachers occurred with ‘alarming frequency’ and proposed that if female teachers were employed it would abolish ‘all fears of tampering by male teachers’. This editorial referenced a Victorian case in which a teacher from a ‘moral’ and ‘respectable’ background had been convicted of the abuse of young female pupils. The paper opined that ‘when one seemingly so unlikely to commit an offence proves utter depravity it is high time to take steps to provide safeguards as preventatives for future offences’ (Riverine Herald, 3 March 1882: 2).

Despite the legal provision for prosecution, those charged with the teacher-specific sections amounted to only 1% or less of all sexual assault charges laid in the New South Wales higher courts (c.1880s-1950s); and no more than 1.5% of sexual assault convictions in Tasmania and Victoria from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century.

Most cases that did come to notice occurred in rural communities. Smaller communities were more conducive to reporting abuse: teachers were often outsiders to the district, and parents were better informed of happenings in their children’s school and often held in high-esteem within their community, giving more impetus for police to pursue charges.

The uniquely Australian nineteenth-century criminalisation of teacher’s sexual relations with minors shows that the widespread silencing and underreporting of sexual abuse in institutional settings, so vividly revealed by the testimony now being given to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013–17), did not arise from a past misconception that abuse could not be perpetrated by those who cared for children.

Historically, child sexual abuse was not hidden or unspoken in criminal law. The law provided a means for prosecution and an appreciation of the potential abuse of the relational power of teachers over their pupils. The inability of the state to deal with abuse rested more on barriers to reporting than on legal barriers to prosecution.


Author: Dr Andy Kaladelfos, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

To cite this research brief: Andy Kaladelfos, ‘Sexual abuse in schools: An Australian history of criminalisation’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 22, (3 May 2016, viewed 19 July 2016).

Further reading on the criminalisation of teacher’s offences can be found in our forthcoming chapter: Andy Kaladelfos and Lisa Featherstone, ‘Sexual assault by teachers: Historical legislative, policy and prosecutorial responses’, in Yorick Smaal, Andy Kaladelfos and Mark Finnane (eds) The Sexual Abuse of Children: Recognition and Redress, Monash University Press, 2016.