UPDATE | Sovereign Hill responds to sexual abuse allegations

Sovereign Hill CEO Jeremy Johnson.
Sovereign Hill CEO Jeremy Johnson.

UPDATE: It was already an uncomfortably hot afternoon in Ballarat with the mercury pushing past 35 degrees, but the questioning from journalists assembled at Sovereign Hill to hear CEO Jeremy Johnson respond to allegations of sexual assault at the institution was a lot warmer.

Local and metropolitan television, radio and print journalists grilled Mr Johnson about Sovereign Hill’s response to accusations that a culture of misogyny existed within the organisation – an accusation he denied.

Mr Johnson read a statement before taking questions from the media, in which he addressed the issues raised by The Courier in its exclusive report yesterday.

“The male employee reported in today’s media is currently on leave,” Mr Johnson said.

“Given the matter is now the subject of a police investigation, I’m not in a position to add any more detail. What I will say is that the potential for discrimination and harassment to arise in the workplace is a threat for any organisation and Sovereign Hill takes the issue extremely seriously.”

Mr Johnson went on to detail the procedures put in place at Sovereign Hill to prevent and deal with the kind of behaviour being alleged, before taking questions.

Asked to address the perception of a culture of misogyny, Mr Johnson said over 50 per cent of staff and management staff were female, and opportunities were available for independent investigation of claims of harassment.

Referring directly to the current allegations, Mr Johnson said they were “extraordinarily concerning.”

Pressed on the efficacy of Sovereign Hill’s policies in protecting complainants, particularly the women spoken to by The Courier, Mr Johnson said if anything came out of the Victoria Police investigation that improved their policies or the way in which Sovereign Hill handled these matters, the organisation would look to do that.

“Sovereign Hill is a great place to work,” he said. “We have fantastic staff, a wonderful volunteer culture, a fine track record of operating the last 50 years.”

You can watch Mr Johnson’s press conference here.

You can read Sovereign Hill’s full statement here.

INITIAL STORY: Premier Ballarat tourist attraction Sovereign Hill is the latest institution accused of failing to properly address allegations of sexual assault and harassment of female staff, The Courier can reveal.

Female members of staff have given The Courier extensive and detailed descriptions of assaults and harassment they allege they’ve suffered, including being groped, manhandled and having a male staff member expose himself to them on repeated occasions. 

Female staff members at Sovereign Hill have come forward with sexual harassment claims.

Female staff members at Sovereign Hill have come forward with sexual harassment claims.

They have given full accounts on the record. 

The Courier will withhold their names at this time.

Do you have information about this story? Contact Caleb Cluff caleb.cluff@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Their accounts have been corroborated by other members of staff, male and female, who say there is a  culture of misogyny at the award-winning tourist attraction.

Victoria Police gave a statement to The Courier stating they are ‘investigating a number of allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct at a Ballarat business in 2017. As the investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for Victoria Police to make further comment.’

It’s alleged they are not the only women to have experienced the behaviour, which has taken place over a number of years. The Courier has chosen not to name the principal alleged offender for legal reasons. He is referred to as ‘Employee X’ in our reporting.

The women say Sovereign Hill management was advised repeatedly of what was taking place but took limited and ineffective action, which they feel was reflective of a wider disregard for their well-being. The male worker, who is accused of exposing himself repeatedly and assaulting women, remains on staff.

Sovereign Hill employs 300 staff and also engages 250 volunteers.

Employees make detailed and explicit allegations

The employees, Ms 1 and Ms 2, say they were both subjects of sexual harassment and assault while working at Sovereign Hill.

They accuse a male staff member at the park of an orchestrated campaign of sexual harassment, which included groping Ms 2’s breasts unexpectedly and exposing his erect penis to both them and other staff.

The women say complaints they made to Sovereign Hill management were not adequately dealt with, and felt they were victimised for reporting the behaviour.

They allege the harassment and assault is part of a anachronistic culture of sexual intimidation at Sovereign Hill.

Ms 1 has worked at Sovereign Hill for seven years and Ms 2 for six.

Ms 1 says she was 30 and had been working at Sovereign Hill for six months when she was called in to the male dressing room of the Victoria Theatre at Sovereign Hill.

“I walk in and one of the guys - who's still currently there - is standing there with an erection and pointing at it wanting to know what I think of it.”

 “Two guys are standing next to him laughing their heads off,” says Ms 1.

She cited other instances of male staff at Sovereign Hill taking photographs of women getting changed and sharing them on social media platforms.

On another occasion, she reported a conversation she overheard among male staff to management.

“I then went to the staff room and overheard a bunch of men at a table talking about how they'd like to bend over another staff member and 'do her' in the jacket she was wearing, you know? Have sex with her from behind in that beautiful jacket. Both of these things have been reported,” says Ms 1.

Ms 2 alleges she was sexually assaulted by Employee X last year.

“I was in the back of the theatre, and we have the boys and the girls dressing rooms, and then behind the stage are racks of costumes we use for pantomimes; they're shared racks,” says Ms 2.

“So I was out there doing the washing, putting the clothes back on and I heard someone approach behind me, so I went to turn around to see who it was. And it was Employee X standing there and he groped my breasts, he grabbed them... when I turned around, he grabbed them, squeezed them, gave like a little laugh and said ‘I know I can get away with this because it's you'. And then had a little laugh.”

The pair allege that other women at Sovereign Hill have been assaulted by Employee X by having him trick them into touching his penis, in one case by hiding it within laundry he was handing to a female staff member.

“So far I've been there for almost six years now and ever since I started there's always been this culture of smutty remarks constantly made all the time, especially from Employee X in particular,” says Ms 2.

“When I started at Sovereign Hill I was only 18. This was my first big job. I'd never worked in an industry before like with men or anything like that, so I didn't know what to expect, what my rights are, or what is and isn't OK. So. After a while of these smutty remarks going on, I just can't… He would constantly ask about your sex life or he'll just make dick jokes.”

The women say the reporting procedures for such incidents at Sovereign Hill left them feeling vulnerable. They say they approached management about making a cultural change amongst male employees at Sovereign Hill in 2016.

“So we sat down, we had meetings. We made sure that they were aware that Employee X was the biggest problem in this situation. We had to push for it but they finally organised a whole of Sovereign Hill little training session, like a two-hour training session on sexual harassment. It was poorly run. Employee X sat in front of me the whole time and laughed the whole way through it. So I thought 'this is pathetic', says Ms 2.

“That was all that they were willing to do. That just kind of ended there, and then I was groped that year after which we'd warned them about him, and then in February we went back and reported. I went to them and said 'I want to put in an official complaint about this, as official as you can get it through whatever steps need to be taken.' 

“So then myself, Ms 1 and another girl put in official complaints. Out of the three complaints that were put in mine was the only one was taken even semi-seriously. Ms 1’s didn't even exist. Nothing ever came from hers; she never had any meetings to do with it.” 

“Mine was taken semi-seriously. We had some meetings and things like that. They were going to give me a meeting about the outcome of what they were going to do with the situation with Employee X,” says Ms 2.

Ms 2 says she was later called to a conciliation meeting held back-to-back with Employee X’s.

“So I sat down outside the door there and next minute Employee X walks out of that room, past me with a big grin on his face, and he just keeps walking. I came in, and they told me all they were doing was they were sending him to a workshop on what to do and what to not to do, and what's appropriate… but they weren't doing it straight away because he was having some holidays first, and then he would be needed for the Easter holidays as well.”

Dissatisfied with Sovereign Hill’s approach to her case, Ms 2 says she approached the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault and Worksafe Victoria, who referred her to Victoria Police. 

“After a certain point I've stopped talking to human resources about this, because it was going nowhere.”

Ms 2 says she understood that Sovereign Hill had been advised not to let Employee X work with her or other staff making allegations against him. She says she was never happy with the outcome of Sovereign Hill’s internal processes.

“The last meeting I had with them: when they told me the outcome I bawled my eyes out. I told them, 'this is a joke; I watched him laugh his way through the last training session on this.' They knew that I was not OK with this. They constantly go, 'oh we thought they were happy with it' or 'they were all fine and dandy'.”

MEAA responds to allegations

The MEAA, the union which represents workers at Sovereign Hill, responded to the allegations presented to The Courier and confirmed they had been informed by multiple complainants over a period of years.

“Sovereign Hill is one of the state’s leading tourist attractions, but Victorians would be shocked at the culture of harassment that has developed there.”

The MEAA also claimed it had repeatedly raised concerns with management around harassment, bullying and OHS issues in recent years.

“We’ve also raised concerns with Sovereign Hill about employees who make genuine complaints to management subsequently being subject to disciplinary processes. There seems to be an ad hoc approach to discipline – employees who complain appear to have been disciplined for minor infractions while serious complaints are left unresolved.”

Sovereign Hill responds with statement

The Courier sent a detailed series of questions to Sovereign Hill in an attempt to verify the allegations, including:

  • Is Sovereign Hill management aware that allegations of sexual assault have been made against staff members,over a period of 10 years?
  • Does Sovereign Hill management have records of these allegations?
  • What actions were taken as a consequence  of these allegations?
  • Is management at Sovereign Hill confident these allegations were managed adequately and in a timely manner?

Sovereign Hill told The Courier under privacy obligations as an employer, it was unable to comment on specific cases or allegations.

They provided the following statement:

“Sovereign Hill has had very robust policies put in place including a formal Anti-Discrimination & Harassment Policy document since 2003, a Staff Code of Conduct which each staff member must follow and signs on employment, induction training and a regular and comprehensive staff training program.

We provide the opportunity for staff to submit confidential feedback with Engagement Surveys, for regular anonymous feedback through internal processes and also in regular staff performance appraisals and interviews.

Any formal complaints made are always fully and confidentially investigated in accordance with our Investigations Policy, including both internal and external procedures as appropriate.  Privacy Law, procedural fairness and natural justice are strictly applied.  Appropriate action is taken on the outcomes of any such investigations.

Sovereign Hill is committed to providing a safe and harassment free workplace in full compliance with all statutory requirements.”

Do you have information about this story? Contact Caleb Cluff caleb.cluff@fairfaxmedia.com.au