Star of Hey Dad! Robert Hughes, centre, was this week found guilty of child sex abuse charges.
For Liz Mullinar, once a top-level casting agent and a former friend of convicted child abuser Robert Hughes, the lesson of the high-profile case is that nothing much has changed – and she believes that in the world of entertainment, what happened on the set of Hey, Dad! is still happening now.
‘‘It is still going on. There are other famous people who have not been brought [to justice] because there hasn’t been a Sarah Monahan who’s had the courage to say, ‘Stuff it, I’m fed up with this, I’m going to talk’,’’ Mullinar said, referring to the former child star whose public airing of on-set abuse allegations led to Hughes being charged.
‘‘I know the names... And yet we’re helpless.’’
Mullinar, herself a victim of child abuse who left the entertainment industry to found the victims’ group Heal For Life, said the focus on regulations to protect children working on film and TV sets was largely irrelevant. She said laws governing such employment had always been strict and she was unaware of any changes in recent years that would have prevented the Hughes crimes.
‘‘I don’t think there’s been any major change,’’ Mullinar said.
‘‘The child welfare regulations have always been – even 30 years ago – very strict. All of these things – always having a chaperone, or having a parent on the set – all of those things have always been in place.
‘‘It’s not really an issue in this case because you had the chaperone on the set or the [parent] there at all times to keep them safe. And that is the story today.
‘‘Everybody talks about the regulations. Regulations are not what stops paedophiles. They can put all the regulations in schools saying ‘don’t hug children’ – that’s not going to stop a paedophile for one minute. While people are concentrating on regulations they are actually missing the point.’’
Mullinar was a friend of Hughes and his wife, high-profile agent Robyn Gardiner. She became aware of the claims of on-set abuse during the show’s run on Channel Seven from 1987 until 1994, when producers decided they had to get Hughes off the show because of his behaviour.
Asked if she and others could have handled the situation differently, Mullinar said: ‘‘In terms of my part in it, I wish at the time we’d thought of writing to every child who’d been on the show before the issue came up – which would have included Sarah [Monahan].’’
Mullinar said at one point she had asked Monahan, ‘‘Did Robert Hughes sexually abuse you?’’ Monahan had told her some years later why she had not spoken up, saying, ‘‘Liz, you’re the only person who ever asked me but I was too frightened and said, ‘no’.’’ This was the key problem, Mullinar said: without a victim willing to speak out, there was usually little that could be done.
‘‘If one of my employees comes up and says ‘Joe Smith is abusing so-and-so’, I can say to Joe Smith, ‘Are you?’ But if [the alleged victim] says ‘I’m not being abused’ there’s nothing you can do. This is one of the ... big problems. As a boss you have nothing you can do unless there is a victim.’’
Mullinar said the Hughes case also highlighted that abusers were rarely a creepy stranger lurking in a park.
‘‘Perpetrators are usually lovely, attractive, warm people. They are not obvious or detectable as perpetrators by their demeanour – or rather only the unsuccessful ones are.
‘‘And it is almost impossible to get a perpetrator to court unless there is overwhelming evidence. Usually this is only possible when the sexual abuse is discovered very shortly after it has occurred and where there are multiple victims. Correctly, a person has to be found guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This is almost impossible when you have a small child giving evidence against an intelligent adult.
‘‘Justice was only served [with Hughes] because there were so many victims – [there was] not much chance of success if it had just been Sarah.’’
The Hughes trial had highlighted a common factor in child abuse cases: that it happens in the home or in trusted surroundings. ‘‘Most of the victims were not actors on the show but children he was related to and the children of his best friends, who trusted Robert and so let their children stay at his house with no concerns.’’