"MR. BUBBLES" CASE
The Alleged Abuse
Dawn and Anthony Deren operated a private kindergarten called Seabeach
Kindergarten. It was located in Mona Vale, a suburb of Sydney. One of
the mothers had observed her daughter behaving strangely. She later told
police that, while eating at a restaurant, her daughter had "slipped
down off her chair and spread her legs apart; she pushed her chest
forward and pulled her arms back, with her head tilted back." She
concluded that her daughter had been sexually abused.
The police responded to the mother's complaint by organizing Operation
Bubbles. They committed 15,000 staff hours of effort to investigating
the case. The total cost to the state for the investigation and trial
exceeded $1 million Australian dollars. After extensive interviews, the
children disclosed that Anthony had dressed up as a clown, called "Mr.
Bubbles." Children described how he had abducted them, took them to a
motel, coaxed them into a spa-bath and sexually assaulted them. The
disclosures involved also involved violence: stabbing and cutting. 18
children were examined by the Camperdown Children's' Hospital in
Sydney. They concluded that at least 5 girls had been sexually abused.
The Derens were charged in 1989 with 54 counts of child abduction and sexual
assault. 17 children, aged 3 to 6 were allegedly involved. Two of their
teachers, Louise Bugg and Rima Muir, were also charged.
How the Case Gradual Unwound
The case generated great controversy. A probationary
constable who lacked experience in child interviewing performed much of
the questioning of the children. The Police Department's Child Abuse
Unit was unstaffed at the time and thus could not supply guidance.
The defense attorneys asserted that the parents whose children were at
the kindergarten had formed a network for exchanging rumors, and that
this caused many parents to believe that their children had been assaulted.
The defense also believed that children had created elaborate fantasy
worlds as a result of repeated questioning by the police.
During the trial, the defense's expert witness, Dr. Ralph Underwager
expressed concern about the effects that the police questioning had upon
the children. He said during the trial:
"By the process they have put them through, the authorities have taught
three to five year olds about deviant sexual behavior of the most gross
and irresponsible sort - and at a time when they have no ability to know
what is proper behavior...They have been taught to associate violence,
stabbing, cutting with sexuality and the effect is worse than if they had
In 1989-OCT, the judge, David Hyde, ruled that the children's evidence
was inadmissible because of excessive interference from adults, chiefly parents and
police officers. He said:
"I am satisfied that the children, due to their stage of cognitive
development, and other factors, are not of sufficient intelligence to
justify the reception of evidence from them...It would be impossible for
examination...to remove the layers upon layers which have been placed upon
the child's memory. I accept that contamination has occurred."
This would appear to be a strange choice of words by the judge: no one
questioned the children's intelligence level, only the likelihood that their
abuse memories were implanted by adults. The Director of Public Prosecutions
was ordered by the judge to withdraw all of the charges against the Derens
and their employees.
An interesting development occurred after the trial ended. Anthony Deren allegedly
admitted during a TV interview that he had been charged several years earlier with the sexual
assault of two young girls in a swimming pool. Another odd twist is that
Anthony, a Fundamentalist Christian, allegedly believes that Satan had invaded the
bodies of the investigators, and that he was involved in a religious battle
with the forces of evil. This is sometimes referred to by conservative
Christians as spiritual warfare. The media was generally
sympathetic to the accused, but there were many newspaper articles which
included some really shoddy reporting and misinformation.
Were Children Actually Abused at Seabeach?
The truth of abuse at the Seabeach Kindergarten will never be known. Some
difficulties with the case are:
||The Children's' Hospital Sydney checked 18 students, both girls and
boys. They concluded that at least 5 girls had been sexually abused.
There is a problem with this finding. During the 1980's, many children
were falsely identified as sodomy victims as a result of anal winking and
anal dilation tests. Girls were falsely identified as being victims of
vaginal rape on the basis of hymen irregularities. Unfortunately, it was
only in the late 1980's that researchers applied these examination
techniques to non-abused children and found out that the tests were without
value. Irregularities were found in both non-abused and abused children.
It is not known whether the 18 students in this case were examined using
what was then the latest, just released research knowledge. If the physicians
applied the old tests and criteria then there is every likelihood that none
of the children were actually victims of sexual abuse. Physicians might
well find 5 students who "failed" the old tests out of any randomly
selected group of 18 young children.
||With unskilled, repetitive and probably direct questioning by the police,
the children's memories are generally quite unreliable. (3,4)
||One can be certain that the children's stories of stabbing and cutting
have no validity because no physical evidence of injury was found.
||The likelihood of Anthony Deren transporting children to a motel seems
slight. Suspicions would have been raised among the motel staff when he
turned up with different children in the middle of the day on a repetitive
basis. As with other suspected multiple victim multiple offender (MVMO) abuse
cases in pre-school centers, transporting children off site would be fraught
with difficulties. Parents come and go at all times during the day and
would have noticed if their children were missing.
||The likelihood of the Darens recruiting two female child abusers as
employees seems remote.
On the other hand, some of the children might have been abused. With Anthony
Deren's admitted past history of abusing two pre-teens, he would be a likely
suspect for police investigation. One thing is definitely known: the children
will now grow up with horrendous memories of sadistic sexual abuse. If they
were actually sexually abused, then the system failed them. If they were
not abused, then they certainly have been seriously injured emotionally by the
system. As in all of these cases, it is the children who bear much of the
S.E. Hatty, "Of Nightmares and Sexual Monsters: Struggles Around
Child Abuse in Australia", International Journal of Law and
Psychiatry, (1991), Vol. 14, P. 255-267
SJ Ceci & M. Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific
Analysis of Children's Testimony, American Psychological Association
Stephen J Ceci, "Cognitive and Social Factors in Children's
Testimony, Master Lecture, American Psychological Assoc., Toronto,