Sex case teacher avoids jail

November 10, 2004 - 5:17PM

Karen Ellis at the County Court.

Karen Ellis at the County Court.
Photo: Paul Harris

Child rights and crime victim groups today attacked a judge's decision not to jail a married female teacher who had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy at her school.

Melbourne mother-of-three Karen Louise Ellis, 37, was today given a three-year suspended sentence of 22 months jail, on condition she does not reoffend.

Ellis had pleaded guilty to six counts of sexual penetration with a child under 16.

As she left the Victorian County Court today, surrounded by media, she said: ''I got exactly what I deserved''.

But critics compared her case with that of tennis coach Gavin Hopper, jailed for a relationship with a 14-year-old girl, and questioned whether Ellis was treated more leniently because the victim was male.

Ellis, a former physical education teacher, had repeated, unprotected sex with the boy at her North Eltham home while her husband was away in October and November last year.

The boy's mother contacted police after seeing Ellis and her son ''looking like husband and wife'' as they left their school in the teacher's car.

In a statement tendered to the court, the boy, now 16, said he had initiated the sexual conduct with Ellis.

Ellis had at first displayed reluctance but eventually intercourse took place, he said.

''I have been in a sexual relationship before Karen. At no stage has this affected my life,'' the boy's statement said.

Three months ago tennis coach Gavin Hopper was jailed for a maximum of three-and-a-half years for a more than two-year relationship with a 14-year-old girl while he was a physical education teacher in the 1980s.

Sentencing Ellis today, Judge Smallwood said the case against her was ''greatly different'' to that involving Hopper.

In that case Hopper had shown absolutely no remorse and the victim had suffered considerably.

''Those factors do not exist in this particular situation to anything like the extent they occurred in Hopper and it's my view that in circumstances such as these comparisons are very dangerous,'' Judge Smallwood said.

But Crime Victims Association president Noel McNamara did compare the cases today and said: ''It appears we have one law for one gender and one law for another gender according to the justice system.

''It's pretty disgusting that there is such a disparity in two sentences handed down from the bench.

''I feel for the boy and his mother. What do you say to her? She has to be concerned that it appears justice is different for her because it was a boy.''

Child rights campaigner Hetty Johnston said the sentence ''made a mockery of the law''.

''In the eyes of the law he is not of a maturity to deal with this and there will be an impact for the boy just as there would for a girl.''

Australian Council of State School Organisations president Judith Bundy called for consistency in sentencing.

''It's a very difficult issue and people get very emotional,'' she said.

Declaring it was appropriate to exercise a degree of mercy, the judge told Ellis: ''The fallout from your criminal conduct has been enormous.''

She had lost her career and would never teach again, her reputation had been destroyed and she had been subjected to public ridicule.

She was now regarded as a serious sexual offender and her name would go on the sexual offenders' register.

However, Ellis had suffered substantial punishment already and the case was not one in which she had acted as a predator for her own sexual gratification, Judge Smallwood said.

Earlier, Ellis's husband Stephen told the court he would have stopped taking interstate plumbing jobs if he realised his marriage was in trouble.
He had moved out of the family home for a few weeks in May but was now back, trying to ''make a go of it''.

''She's been a fantastic mother for 13 years,'' he said.

''I just hope it can all be finished and we can go back to a normal life.''