30 May 2023

Security under scrutiny: Home Affairs takes question on notice over how child-sex offender got his job

| Chris Johnson
man in suit

Stephen Leonard Mitchell was sentenced on Monday to more than 13 years in jail for child-sex offences that predate his Home Affairs job. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Home Affairs officials have no idea how a serial child sex offender being investigated by police landed a plum job and an overseas posting with the federal department.

Canberra man Stephen Leonard Mitchell, 57, was sentenced on Monday to more than 13 years in jail for a series of child-sex offences that predates his employment at Home Affairs.

He was convicted in the ACT Supreme Court of multiple sexual offences against six girls between 1994 and 2008, and will be eligible for parole in May 2032.

Charges included the persistent abuse of a child and maintaining a sexual relationship with a child.

During a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday, Home Affairs’ most senior executives were questioned about Mitchell’s employment, considering police had been investigating him well before he got the job with the department.

READ ALSO Serial child sex abuser Stephen Mitchell sentenced to more than 13 years’ jail

Secretary Mike Pezzullo could not answer how Mitchell, who returned last year from a one-year posting in Indonesia, was able to secure a high-level security clearance.

Greens senator David Shoebridge wanted some answers.

“There was a longstanding, detailed police investigation by the ACT police that well predated the employment with Home Affairs and the provision of the security vetting,” Senator Shoebridge said.

“How was he given a job in Home Affairs?”

The department secretary was at a loss.

“It is important to note that security clearance relates to national security and foreign intelligence risks,” Mr Pezzullo said.

“They do police checks, but, typically, unless there’s an active investigation that the AFP or relevant state or territory police force disclose, it’s not particularly pertinent necessarily to the holding of a clearance.”

READ ALSO Officer who allegedly tasered Clare Nowland suspended with pay as government urged to set up inquiry

Mr Pezzullo expressed his and the department’s abhorrence at Mitchell’s offences.

“There can be no worse thing that you can do to a child or a person in your care,” he said.

“It’s just heart-wrenching to hear some of the testimony from victims about the impact that his actions have had on their lives.

“We join all members of the community in expressing our repugnance of the crimes.”

The department’s chief operating officer Justine Saunders was equally unable to fill in the blanks about Mitchell’s employment.

“We did not become aware of the criminal allegations until immediately prior to his prosecution for these matters,” she said.

“And it was at that time that we worked closely with ACT police in regards to the treatment of Mr Mitchell whilst he was in the employment of Home Affairs.”

The question was taken on notice, with the department to report back to the Senate.

Senator Shoebridge said the survivors of Mitchell’s offences deserved answers as to how government agencies employed and promoted him through “years of omissions and silence”.

Mitchell was also employed as a rock-climbing coach working with youth at Canberra’s Police Community Youth Club.

He will face court in August on fraud charges related to his Home Affairs security clearance.

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