National

Vic MP hopes pedophile ‘burning in hell’

By AAP Newswire

A Victorian government minister plans to offer personal apologies to child sex abuse victims after saying a now-dead serial pedophile "is hopefully burning in hell".

Robert Whitehead used his position at the Puffing Billy steam train to abuse children for decades, while the tourist attraction's board repeatedly failed to report complaints to police.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass released a report on Monday highlighting "monumental" failures by the Puffing Billy board, dating back to the 1960s, saying they valued reputational protection over child welfare.

Whitehead was re-employed by Victorian Railways after being convicted for child sex offences in 1959 and given unfettered access to young train enthusiasts who volunteered with Puffing Billy.

Speaking to journalists on Monday, Minister for Tourism and Major Events John Eren said Puffing Billy management had ignored repeated "cries for help" by children and their families.

"There's some vindication for the victims (with the ombudsman's report) and obviously one of the perpetrators (Whitehead), through his time in prison, has deceased and is hopefully burning in hell," he said.

Ms Glass also examined Anthony Hutchins' decades-long involvement in Puffing Billy before he was convicted of 66 child sex offences against five boys in 1987.

Hutchins served less than two years in prison and went on to occasionally volunteer under supervision at the Seymour Railway Heritage Centre.

Hutchins was also the subject of information requested by the child sexual abuse royal commission.

Mr Eren accepted the ombudsman's recommendation for a formal public apology to children abused while involved with the Puffing Billy.

But first he plans to apologise to victims face to face.

"As a parent, as a human being, as a person I feel really sad," Mr Eren said, adding a Puffing Billy response team had been established.

Whitehead was fired by Victorian Railways after his first conviction for child sex offences before being re-employed and joining Puffing Billy in 1961.

He was not removed until 1991.

In 2015, he died in jail after pleading guilty to 24 offences against six children between the 1960s and '80s.

"Whitehead was a life-long offender whose abuse was facilitated by the wilful blindness, indifference or ineptitude of a succession of organisations from Victorians 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."

In 1985, board members knew Whitehead was being investigated for child sex offences but failed to act, and in one case "punished" a 17-year-old victim by banning him from Puffing Billy.

Ms Glass' investigation was sparked after one of the pedophile's victims, Wayne Clarke, in 2016 wrote to the government asking for an inquiry into Whitehead and Hutchins.

The government has accepted the report's recommendations in full.

The Emerald Tourism Railway Board, responsible for operating Puffing Billy, and the attraction's chief executive, have resigned, with an interim group installed.

Speaking alongside Mr Eren, the acting interim chairperson, Jennifer Fleming, said the organisation would also formally apologise to victims.