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  • Stepping over the line
  • By Chee Chee Leung
  • The Age
  • 04/08/2004
  • Contributed by: admin ( 100 articles in 2004 )
Gavin Hopper on his way to court with wife, Karen.
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On Monday, leading tennis coach Gavin Hopper was found guilty of having sex with a 14-year-old girl, his then student at Melbourne's exclusive Wesley College. Chee Chee Leung reports on the teacher who went too far.

Everybody loves a rumour, and teenagers are no exception. A bit of gossip gets plenty of mileage around the school grounds, especially when it involves one of your own. So when an attractive 14-year-old girl at Prahran's Wesley College began frequenting the office of a young male sports teacher, the whispers began, along with the teasing.

Over two weeks last month, Melbourne's County Court heard from seven students who saw or heard things that indicated an inappropriate relationship between the two, but none alerted their parents, and only one said she spoke to another teacher about it.

Even adults seemed to turn a blind eye, including a mother of two who saw the girl and the teacher embracing in the school's swimming pool. And the girl's own mother admitted briefly entertaining suspicions, but did not pursue them.

On Monday, almost 20 years after the relationship began, high-profile international tennis coach Gavin Hopper, 48, was found guilty on nine charges of sexually abusing the girl when she was aged 14 and 15.

Not so long ago Hopper had a life to be envied. He had an impressive coaching resume that included star players like Mark Philippoussis and Monica Seles. He started a tennis academy on the Gold Coast with former champion Pat Cash, and was raising two young daughters with his wife Karen, to whom he had been married for more than 20 years.

Then in June 2002, police called him to Melbourne for an interview where he was told that a former student of his at Wesley had alleged they had a sexual relationship in the 1980s. In the recorded interview, Hopper described the claims as outrageous. He maintains that it was nothing more than a normal teacher-student relationship.

Back then Hopper was a headturner at Wesley - a good-looking physical education teacher, known for wearing shorts and tank tops that showed off his trademark tan and athletic build. The students liked him, and some even called him Gav.

In her evidence to the court, the woman - who cannot be named - said she met Hopper in 1985 during a year 9 tennis class. He made himself her partner and flirted with her. She felt 'incredibly dirty' about it, but curiosity got the better of her, and she developed a crush on him.

"He was kind of king of the kids," she said. "I was really flattered to have the attention."

On Hopper's invitation, she began visiting his office at recess and lunchtimes. One day, Hopper offered to help the girl with a maths test and drove her to his Doncaster East home.

She remembers that she had been to the beach and he rubbed some lotion onto her sunburnt body. As he did so his hand brushed against her breast.

Hopper looked at the girl who was half his age and said: "Are you in the mood for maths?" The 14-year-old replied: "I don't know." They kissed. About a month later they had sex in Hopper's house, with his wedding photo looking down at them from the bedroom wall.

The sexual affair between student and teacher continued over the next four years, and they had sex at several places including their homes and his office at Wesley. He would regularly drive her to school in the mornings and on the way, they would stop and have sex. The court heard they had intercourse an estimated 300 times.

As much as Hopper and the girl tried to keep the relationship discreet, rumours circulated at the school. She was teased by other students about her visits to his office, and several of her friends were in on the secret. She used one friend's house as a base from which to sneak out at night and meet Hopper. The friend would leave her bedroom window open for the girl, and put an adhesive on her blinds so her parents would not hear the wind.

At school, the pair were observed exchanging flirting glances and passing touches. The girl was seen straddling Hopper in his office in the middle of what appeared to be sex, and they were spotted in a compromising position in the school gym - Hopper lying on a bench with shorts pulled down midthigh, the girl standing above "grinding" into him. Hopper was also overheard telling a teacher that "he couldn't wait till (the girl) was 16 because then she would be legal".

In court, the girl's mother said she had no suspicions about her daughter's relationship with Hopper, but did recall one incident when the girl's stepfather came home unexpectedly. He saw Hopper's car out the front and heard the girl's window being put up. The mother said she later spoke to her daughter and Hopper, telling them she was worried. But she took it no further.

Hopper told the girl he loved her and she believed him. He said that when she finished school, he would leave his wife and they would start a home together in Queensland.

But it appeared the relationship was not just about love, but also control. The court was told that Hopper wanted to mould this child into his own creation. He tried to get her to become an aerobics instructor, and wanted her to enter a Miss Australia contest. He encouraged her to do exercise and told her she was fat. The teenager would binge and then exercise excessively because she knew Hopper would be angry. One day she hid a can of orange mineral water from him, telling a friend: "He'll kill me if he sees orange mineral water instead of plain mineral water."

Hopper was also the one in charge of the relationship. While a fitness adviser for the Fitzroy Football Club in 1988, he directed her to go out with player Richard Osborne to avoid drawing attention to their own affair. He also instructed her to hang up if his wife answered the telephone. The girl did as she was told. "I really had developed a dependency on him . . . he became my father and husband, all in one."

Although she believed she loved Hopper, the girl came to realise that he treated her badly and she tried many times to break away. But it was not until after she finished year 12 that it was finally over. When asked in court why she had not ended the relationship sooner, she said through tears that she was "just too weak".

"He told me that he loved me. He also told me that he was obsessed with me. He said he wanted to put me in his pocket and take me everywhere," she told the court.

"He had told me that he knew what was best for me, that he was the only person who cared about me . . . and I should do everything he tells me to do," she said. "I was so young that I just fell for it, and I wish to God I didn't."

The girl said she was "shot in the chest" after the affair ended, and had been trying to rebuild her life ever since. In 1992, she considered taking legal action against Hopper, but did not proceed. It was another nine years before she made a statement to police. During that time Hopper rose to fame and success on the international tennis circuit.

It was put in Hopper's defence that it was implausible that so many people knew about the relationship at the time but did nothing, which suggested that it had not actually occurred. However, many who knew about it were young students still coming to terms with sex. The girl who believed she saw them having sex in his office was so frightened that she ran and hid in the toilets. Two other former students who gave evidence did not come forward until the first week of the trial after seeing media coverage of the case. One girl said she spoke to another Wesley teacher about it, but in court the teacher denied having the conversation.

The woman who had two daughters at Wesley and witnessed the pool incident admitted that it was appalling that she had not discussed it with teachers or the girl's mother.

"That's why I'm here now, because I'm so ashamed I didn't do anything," she said in court.

The girl's mother - who is now estranged from her daughter - described herself as "very naive" about the relationship. "He came, I thought, as a friend, a caring person I thought, but retrospect is a wonderful thing," she said.

Looking back on her life, the girl - now 33 and married - told the jury of eight women and four men that Hopper destroyed her childhood and she wanted justice.

"I needed Gavin Hopper to be accountable for what he had done to me and I needed to be heard," she said.

After the verdict on Monday, Wesley College issued a statement from its principal, Dr Helen Drennen, who said her top priority was the welfare of students.

"I wish to assure parents and the wider community that the duty of care policies and practices presently in place at Wesley to protect our children are equal to the best in any school," Drennen said.

Then, following reports yesterday that another former Wesley female student had received a $100,000 payout in the 1980s over an affair with Hopper, the school confirmed a confidential agreement had been reached.

Drennen declined to provide any details about the agreement, but said there was now greater awareness about these issues within the community. "Whichever area of our life you look at, there's an increased understanding of duty of care and expectations in terms of people's behaviour, and schools are no different."

Related story:
It was love says, sex tryst teacher

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