Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre academic adviser Douglas Steele.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre academic adviser Douglas Steele.

Heads to roll over uni's handling of rape charge

EXTERNAL investigators will next week start probing why a rapist was allowed to stay employed at James Cook University in Townsville even after pleading guilty, with heads likely to roll.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre academic adviser Douglas Steele was jailed last week for digitally raping an indigenous student in September 2015.

The scandal has come just weeks before new students are expected to arrive on campus for orientation.

Concerns were raised as far back as August 2016 that Steele was not stood down despite some university officials knowing of his charges.

JCU acting vice-chancellor and senior deputy vice-chancellor Chris Cocklin said he would have stood down Steele if he had been informed of the charges but he and vice-chancellor Sandra Harding only learned of the matter last week.

Professor Cocklin said the rape charge was first revealed to some parts of the university in April 2016, but it wasn't taken high enough.

"I should have been advised and I was not," he said.

"I am not retreating, we knew in April.

"My view ... is a person who is charged with rape has no place until that matter is resolved working in a university.

"I now know of individuals who were party to that information but how many and exactly who is a matter I think is best left to the investigators."

Prof Cocklin said part of the investigation would have to be about whether anyone considered standing down Steele when the charges were officially reported and why he wasn't stood down.

"I know for an absolute fact that it was raised in a very concerted fashion in August of that year when other officers of the university became alert to it and raised the question as to why this person had been set aside," he said.

"Based on what I know of the case, it is absolutely and unequivocally my view that he should have been stood down at that time [in April].

"In my mind it's indefensible that he was not."

Prof Cocklin has indicated that staff may be dismissed over the case.

"Based on what I know at the present time and subject to the findings of the investigation, it is quite probable ... people will no longer be working at the university," he said.

The investigation will also look at a staff member from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre who provided Steele with a character reference for the sentencing.

Prof Cocklin said that was "absolutely inexcusable".

It's understood the staff member was under immediate review.

Prof Cocklin said he was deeply disappointed at what has happened in the Steele case.

"It is very fair to say that there is dismay, there is agony and there is deep disappointment amongst staff at the university," he said.

"This is not acceptable."

Prof Cocklin said the university's primary concern had been and remained supporting the victim and protecting her privacy.

"To the extent that the rape and the situation that she then found herself with Mr Steele on staff, to the extent that had any bearing on her decision to give up her studies, that is deeply regretful," he said.

The university is in the process of appointing investigators, who are expected to arrive on campus early next week.

The investigation will be made up of two parts - firstly examining the handling of the Douglas Steele, followed by a review of JCU's policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment and assault and the university's internal culture.

Professor Cocklin said he hoped the first part of the investigation would be completed within weeks, but the second part of the investigation is expected to take months.

"They have to do their job properly because nobody's going to be happy with an incomplete or a superficial investigation," he said.

On whether Douglas Steele should have been stood down when the university learnt of his charges: "In my mind it's indefensible that he was not."

On the victim: "To the extent that the rape and the situation that she then found herself with Mr Steele on staff, to the extent that had any bearing on her decision to give up her studies, that is deeply regretful."

On character reference provided to Douglas Steele by a staff member: "Absolutely inexcusable"

On how long the investigation may take: "They have to do their job properly because nobody's going to be happy with an incomplete or a superficial investigation."

On how the rape case has affected university morale: "It is very fair to say that there is dismay, there is agony and there is deep disappointment amongst staff at the university. People are hurting here about this issue."

On disciplining staff involved: "Based on what I know at the present time and subject to the findings of the investigation, it is quite probable ... people will no longer be working at the university."



Pitt wants answers about Tobruk

premium_icon Pitt wants answers about Tobruk

Ex-HMAS Tobruk questions go to parliament

Local Partners