Police and child advocates have paid tribute to the victims of convicted child rapist Reinhard ‘Fritz’ Drenkhahn.
The 65-year-old from Eden on the New South Wales Far South Coast was found guilty last week in Wollongong District Court on three counts of ‘Aggravated Indecent Assault with victim under the age of 16 years’ and one count of ‘Sexual Intercourse with person 10 or over and under 16 years’.
The commercial fisherman and well known local identity was arrested at his home in 2016 in connection with the abuse of two local boys aged 12 and 14 years at the time. The offences occurred in the early 2000’s locally and in another part of regional NSW.
Both victims, now in their late twenties faced their abuser and detailed his crimes in shocking detail to a jury of Drenkhahn’s peers, supported by family and friends who also gave evidence.
The court heard how one of the victims made contact with Drenkhahn in June 2016, “the victim contacted the accused from his mobile telephone and had a conversation with the accused,” the police report says.
Drenkhahn denied the allegations of abuse made in the conversation but was arrested six months later.
Speaking to Region Media the Bega based police officer who led the investigation says both victims showed enormous strength and dignity in reporting the matter initially, then supporting a three year investigation, and enduring a two week trial.
“These victims now have families of their own, and one of the catalysts [for reporting the abuse] was that one of the victims didn’t want his son to go through what he went through,” explains Detective Sergeant Justin Marks
“After they gave their evidence [in court] I could see that a massive burden had been lifted off their shoulders.
“When we called them with the verdict, they were overcome with emotion and that sense that people believed them.”
Detective Sergeant Marks says Drenkhahn’s defence suggested that the two victims were making up their story, something that the jury failed to believe, taking just five hours to reach their decision.
“These young men have no reason to lie. The jury looked at the victims and saw decent men from a decent family and saw no reason not to believe them,” he says, adding that the evidence police gathered built trust and weight.
In committing his crimes, Drenkhahn traded on his position of being a well known and trusted family friend, taking advantage of situations less familiar people would not have had access to.
“He was seen as somewhat of a father figure, and that’s what we see with a lot of the sexual assaults we investigate. They aren’t strangers, they are trusted by the family,” Detective Sergeant Marks says.
Ken Steele, is the Far South Coast ambassador for child advocacy and support group Bravehearts, founded by Hetty Johnston. Mr Steele (not his real name) speaks from his own families perspective of being victims of another Bega Valley paedophile Maurice Van Ryn.
“Sadly, the lesson is paedophiles are more often than not people we know and even respect in our community,” Mr Steele says.
“Their modus operandi is to groom children, parents and others by creating a front of respectability and helpfulness, whilst in actual fact having a far more sinister agenda. Christmas time is, unfortunately, a period of high activity for paedophiles as they often have increased access to children.”
Mr Steele says the advice from Bravehearts is education.
“Ensure your children know the boundaries of what is unacceptable physical behaviour from adults. Encourage them to tell you if an adult has broken those boundaries. And if a child tells you they have been assaulted then believe them; children do not lie about these matters,” he says.
“It may shock you to have to consider a close friend or relative is a child abuser, you might initially experience a sense of disbelief, but look what happened with Van Ryn, Drenkhahn and Merimbula’s Laurie Delle Vergin, you soon realise it is absolutely possible.”
Delle Vergin was president of a local rugby league club when he was found with sexualised images of pre-pubescent girls on his mobile phone in 2017.
He pleaded guilty to possessing child abuse material and was fined $5000, placed on a two-year good behaviour bond and placed on the sex offenders register.
Van Ryn, a former Bega based dairy industry executive is currently serving 14 years in jail for his abuse of 10 boys and girls over many years. He is not eligible for parole until early 2029.
Detective Sergeant Marks suggests asking children open-ended, general questions if you suspect abuse or have suspicions, and if a disclosure is made support is in place to help the victim.
“Before a victim makes a statement, we will get them in touch with a sexual assault councillor,” he says.
“Down here that’s the sexual assault service at South East Regional Hospital. They were absolutely brilliant in this matter [Drenkhahn] and support people through the whole process.”
Mr Steele applauds the courage of Drenkhahn’s victims but fears there might be more who are yet to come forward.
“We know that the victims who have pursued their abuser through the courts are usually only the tip of the iceberg, meaning there are many other victims left behind in the wake of these criminals,” he says.
“We would encourage those victims to come forward and seek support from organisations such as Bravehearts and take the opportunity to start the healing process.
“If you then feel strong enough it is possible to consider having criminal charges laid. Even though the perpetrator may have already received a custodial sentence, new charges can very likely result in an extension of jail time, as happened in the matter of Van Ryn earlier in 2019, when another year in jail was added to his sentence.”
Detective Sergeant Marks says local police stand ready to help and that it is never too late to make a report as victims come to terms with the abuse over many years.
Drenkhahn was refused bail last week and is scheduled for sentencing on February 14, 2020, in Wollongong District Court.