Public apology owed to victims of child sex offender who got access to children through Puffing Billy

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People in positions of authority at Puffing Billy and other Victorian railway groups protected the reputation of their organisations at the expense of children who were sexually abused, the Victorian Ombudsman has found.

Tabling her Investigation into child sex offender Robert Whitehead’s involvement with Puffing Billy and other railway bodies in the Victorian Parliament today, Ombudsman Deborah Glass said the failures of people in authority were monumental.

“Whitehead was a life-long offender whose abuse was facilitated by the wilful blindness, indifference or ineptitude of a succession of organisations from Victorian Railways to Puffing Billy,” Ms Glass said. “The actions or inaction of people in positions of authority, who should have known better, is inexcusable. We do not know, and will never know, how many children Whitehead abused.”

Whitehead died in prison in 2015 after being convicted of child sexual offences dating back to the 1960s. He had first been convicted of child sex offences in 1959. Immediately after his 1960 release from prison, he was re-employed by Victorian Railways, using his status as a Train Controller to groom children. He was a volunteer at Puffing Billy, a preserved steam railway in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, from 1961-1991.

Ms Glass said through his 30-year involvement with Puffing Billy, Whitehead had unrestricted access to children including supervising overnight working parties. Her investigation found members of the Puffing Billy Board were aware of allegations Whitehead was abusing children but never reported these matters to police, considered whether it was appropriate that he remain in the organisation, or put in place any mechanisms to monitor his conduct or restrict his access to children.

“In 1985 members of the Board knew that Whitehead was under police investigation for child sexual offences yet he was not removed until 1991,” Ms Glass said. “They failed to act on complaints or even record contacts, in one notable case punishing the 17-year-old victim by banning him from Puffing Billy.”

Ms Glass commended the courage and persistence of the survivors of the abuse, including Wayne Clarke who was the catalyst for the investigation because he wanted to know why so many organisations had failed to protect him from Whitehead’s abuse.

She said it was pleasing that the Minister for Tourism and the Emerald Tourist Railway Board (which runs Puffing Billy) had accepted her recommendation that all victims receive a public apology.

“The survivors of the abuse of Whitehead and other Puffing Billy offenders may never receive justice; nothing can compensate for the trauma and loss of innocence experienced by victims and survivors,” Ms Glass said. “But whatever redress they choose to pursue, they deserve nothing less than the verification of facts, public disclosure of truth, and public apologies.”

Ms Glass made nine recommendations in total, all of which were accepted by the Minister, the Board or the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources. Other key recommendations include:

  • the government establish a unit to assist members of the public who claim to have experienced child sexual abuse perpetrated by an adult member of Puffing Billy, so they can seek redress in accordance with the principles of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
  • the Emerald Tourist Railway Board (ETRB) review the continued suitability of John Robinson as the CEO of the Puffing Billy Railway
  • the ETRB implement the Child Safe Standards recommended by the Royal Commission, to ensure that the best interests of children are a primary consideration.

Read the report: Investigation into child sex offender Robert Whitehead’s involvement with Puffing Billy and other railway bodies

Media contact: 0409 936 235

Two of Whitehead’s victims, Wayne Clarke and William Elms, are named in the report, with their consent. Media outlets who wish to speak to them should contact the Ombudsman’s office, who will forward any media requests to Mr Clarke and Mr Elms for their consideration.

Support services

The Ombudsman’s report may be distressing for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. The following support services are available:

  • Survivors of child sexual abuse committed in connection with Victorian railway organisations can access the Victorian Government’s specialised support service on (03) 9594 2289. This free service is run by the Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA) and provides confidential counselling for individuals, their families and other affected parties. If the Ombudsman’s report raises any issues for you, please contact this service.
  • Support for other victims of sexual abuse is also available through the CASA and Sexual Assault Crisis Line on 1800 806 292.
  • All allegations of child abuse should be reported to Victoria Police’s Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams (SOCITs). You can contact your local police station to connect with your nearest SOCIT, or visit the Victoria Police website at
  • Lifeline provides 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services: 13 11 14.