Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy looks on while organiser Anneleise Hall speaks during the delivery of a petition calling for an inquiry into state care abuse at Parliament on July 6, 2017. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

‘Devastated but vindicated’: Devoy issues powerful rebuke as she exits Human Rights Commission

The race relations commissioner has today voiced an apology for handling of sexual harassment claims, called for resignations and paid tribute to colleagues, following the publication of a ministerial review identifying a ‘schism’ within the Commission

Susan Devoy has declared herself “devastated and deeply sorry” over the way the Human Rights Commission handled sexual harassment allegations among its own staff. Writing today for the Spinoff, Devoy goes substantially further than any commissioner at the organisation has before in acknowledging failures, apologising and calling on unnamed managers to consider their futures.

Devoy, whose decision not to seek reappointment for a second term was announced on Friday as part of a slew of changes in the commissioner roles, addresses in her article the recent controversy around sexual harassment complaints at the commission. “The things our people endured should never have happened in any organisation, let alone ours,” she writes.

“I can only speak on my own behalf to say that I am devastated and deeply sorry that we failed to protect, support and nurture the commission’s most important asset: our people.”

Her remarks make an interesting contrast with the official response to the publication earlier this month of the ministerial review of the Commission over its handling of sexual harassment claims and its wider organisational culture. The review, which in the summary of justice minister Andrew Little “reveal a system that failed to provide proper care and support for sexual harassment claims made by staff”, followed a Sunday Star Times report on action taken against chief financial officer Kyle Stutter for sexually harassing a young intern.

In a May 15 statement addressing the ministerial review, chief commissioner David Rutherford said, “I take responsibility for the concerns Judge [Coral] Shaw has raised about the Commission. We apologise to all those who have been affected by what has happened, particularly the complainant.”

Devoy is markedly less muted. “I urge others who failed our staff to take responsibility, do the right thing and step aside so that rebuilding trust and confidence in the Human Rights Commission can begin,” she writes.

The Spinoff has previously reported that there was widespread disquiet among Commission employees about the handling of the incident, and the failure to consult with senior staff, including commissioners. Judge Shaw’s report details a “schism” within the Commission that has seen among other things Devoy coming into conflict with the chief commissioner, David Rutherford, and the chief executive, Cynthia Brophy.

The report also noted, “the Review was presented with many complaints and examples of overt and covert bullying at and by all levels of HRC personnel, as well as the other long-standing workplace issues raised by staff.”

A Commission statement on Friday confirmed Devoy is not seeking a second term as race relations commissioner and will leave the Commission in June. Similarly, equal employment opportunities commissioner Dr Jackie Blue will not be seeking reappointment and departs later this year. The statement also revealed that disability rights commissioner Paula Tesoriero has taken over from David Rutherford as chief commissioner. Rutherford, who is also not seeking another term, will depart in June.

Three vacancies – chief commissioner, equal employment opportunities commissioner and race relations commissioner – were yesterday advertised.

The SST reported this morning that Stutter will remain at the Commission despite the “senior staff shake-up”. Stutter’s father, doorstepped by the paper, said the incident had been “blown out of proportion” and his son “set up”.

Devoy pays tribute in her article to her colleagues at the Commission, “human rights experts, visionaries and leaders … our organisation’s greatest treasure”.

After five years, “it’s time to step back and reflect on what’s happened and how we can make sure it never, ever happens again. I hope that other boards and management groups read the ministerial review into the commission as there are things to learn from what our staff went through,” she writes.

“I feel sad but proud. Devastated but vindicated. But also hopeful that things can only get better.”

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