Cover story, pp18-24
Sex, Lies & DNA
By Julie-Anne Davies
Liam Magill made history when he sued his ex-wife all the way to the High Court for deceit over the paternity of two of their three kids. Now, for the first time, the wife and children give their side of the story.
There are probably not too many Australians who won't have an opinion about Meredith Magill. Most, of course, have never met the woman, but many have heard about her. She is the Melbourne wife who cheated on her husband and bore him three children, two of whom, it turned out, were not his own. Unaware of this, the cuckolded Liam Magill paid child support for all three for several years after the marriage collapsed. More importantly, for most of those years, he also played dad.
Then in 2000, a DNA test revealed the sad truth. Another man had fathered his younger son Heath and daughter Bonnie. An Australian legal landmark of sorts was established when Magill decided to make his ex-wife pay for her betrayal and his pain by suing her for deceit. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful - the High Court last November ruled against the $70,000 compensation originally awarded to him by the Victorian County Court - Liam Magill has become the poster boy for the fathers' rights movement.
And the singularly female crime of paternity fraud now has a face and a name - Meredith Magill. She was, and is, every man's worst nightmare. If you believe the fathers' activist lobby, the Magill case is just the first public outing of afar greater social problem. The Bulletin has been told that three new paternity fraud test cases are in the wings, with the first to be lodged in the Queensland courts within weeks. Until now, we've not heard from Meredith Magill, the she-devil.
In the six years since the first legal action commenced, she has been offered plenty of inducements by media organisations, keen for a few words from one of Australia's most notorious adulteresses. She has always resisted. "No one wanted to hear my side of the story. They just wanted to punish me and what good would that have done my children?" says Meredith Magill. Her decision to speak now is a considered one and involves no money. Some would say it is also plain stupid, but she sees it as an attempt to claw back some dignity.
And right the ledger. At no point in our many conversations does she attempt to excuse her behaviour. "I messed up big time," Meredith readily admits. "I can't pretty this up. I had an affair and had two kids whose father was another man, not my husband." Ouch. This is a harder-than-usual corner to box your way out of, but as she says, if she'd shaved her head and daubed a red "A" on her back, would the court of public opinion be any more inclined to forgive her?
"I know that what I did was inexcusable in a lot of people's eyes, but I was young - 23 when the affair began - depressed and in a pretty horrible relationship. It started during my marriage and went on for some time after it ended. I did it for the same reasons most people do. It made me happy for a while but my kids have suffered the consequences. So have I."
She knows this is a high-risk interview, that the anonymous hate mail campaign, which began when the case became public, will gather pace after publication of this article.
But she also figures it is about time the forgotten victims in this tawdry but oh-so-human saga - Arlen, 17, Heath, 16, and Bonnie, 15 - were heard. To be clear, it was the children's idea to speak, not their mother's. "But we all realise that dad will blame mum for putting us up to it," says the youngest, Bonnie. The family all hope that if people get an inkling of the consequences that have flowed from Liam Magill's decision to unleash the legal dogs (not to mention the notorious Black Shirts, the radical fathers' rights group), they might pause to wonder whether the end always justifies the means. Revenge, as the saying goes, is a dish best served cold.
In this case, the dish has been refrozen a few times.
Liam Magill's story is well-known. He has appeared on television and featured in a magazine interview explaining how his life had been destroyed by his wife's lies. He will never, he says, recover from the shock of learning he was not the biological father of his two youngest children.
He loves the children equally, but says he is reluctant to see them without the support of professional counsellors (something Meredith insists is news to her). He seems to gloss over a couple of salient details.
One is that he had become an absent father before the DNA results were ever known and has since severed all contact with his three children, including his biological son.
The striking thing about Liam Magill's version of events is that the primary victim in his story is himself. As for the children, he has this to say. "I hope that one day they realise I did this for them, so they would know who their real father is because that is their right." In a long radio interview broadcast in New Zealand three months ago, Magill spoke at length about the inequities inherent in Australia's child support laws, but had few words to describe the emotional toll on his kids.
He does offer this: "My question still prevails: why did I have to pay all the dividends when only a third of the liability was mine? " That third liability has a name. Arlen Magill. He is Liam Magill's biological child, and will turn 18 in a few weeks. Their birthdays are only a few days apart, but Arlen is not expecting his dad to call. He has not seen or spoken to his father since he was 11 years old, just after the DNA test results became known. That is his father's choice.
"I want my dad to read this story so he realises just what he's missed out on," Arlen says more than once. It sounds like revenge, and it is, but measure that against the hurt and anger and it's a no-contest. "He's missed my footy grand final last year, all my cricket games, my school formal, my 16th birthday - all those important moments in a kid's life as well as all the small things, too.
"You can't buy those memories back, but you know what? It's his loss, not mine," Arlen says.
While you silently applaud him for being able to draw this very mature conclusion about his own worth, it is also a crying shame that he has to. And although he keeps insisting otherwise, there is no doubting it is his loss, too. It was his dad who first handballed a footy to him, who took him to his first AFL game and who, Arlen says in an unguarded moment, "was a natural with the ball".
We look at the trophy cabinet, a scrapbook of sorts of this boy's life and the things that matter to him. "Dad didn't see any of this." He is a son any parent would be proud of. As he remarks only half bitterly, "I am a chip off the old man's block The only difference between him and me is that my eyes are blue and his are brown. Oh, and he's a shit and I'm not."
Arlen is completing his final high school year and is a gun sportsman. He plays in his local under-18 footy team and last year won the coaches' award. He is a natural charmer who, in the hours we spend together, articulates his feelings with painful precision. In Arlen's world, his mother's betrayal doesn't rate compared with a father who turned away from his children.
"What kind of father sues his children's mother knowing that if he wins, his children lose? They end up homeless because the bloke wants to punish the mother. That's what dad has done and he nearly succeeded."
When he rereads comments from his father published in a magazine, he has nothing but contempt for the man. "He fails to mention how he's neglected his kids. A loving father does not ignore his kids for seven years," Arlen says.
His brother and sister are clearly less interested in Liam Magill's absence. After all, they have another father, Derek Rowe, the family friend their mother had an affair with over a number of years and who DNA tests later confirmed was their biological dad. They now have a relationship with him and only recently returned from a holiday in Queensland where he lives with his family. Bonnie shows me a photo album full of happy family pictures and says there's not a thing she misses about her other dad. But she is one angry teenager. Just trying to find the right names for the two men who she has, at different times, called dad is a struggle. "Let's just settle on dickhead," she says when we talk about Liam Magill.
Bonnie likes her new dad, but clearly doesn't feel any deep connection. And it can't be any fun having to defend your mother after one of her school friends branded her the town bike in front of a locker room full of kids.
"I full on body-slammed her, that's what I did," she says with a defiant stare. She copped a five-day suspension for that one, and it's pretty clear it's not the only time Bonnie has got herself into trouble at school. She is full of false bravado and says there is nothing worth remembering about the old days. The only story she wants to tell about Liam Magill as father concerns a sad little episode about her ninth birthday.
"It was one of the last times I saw him, and do you know what he did? Somehow his new leather jacket got a cut in it and he sent us all to our rooms and threatened to take back my presents and the cake unless someone owned up. That's what I remember about my dad."
It's a rotten memory, and who knows if it is true, but her two brothers nod in agreement when she repeats it. It is only later that she thinks of something else. "I remember he could kick a ball so high in the air, it disappeared. I always thought he was amazing the way he could do that."
Just looking at the kids, it is Heath - blond, blue-eyed and finer-boned than Arlen and Bonnie - who could be the odd one out. At 16, he is less intense than his brother and sister and is able to recall the good times with Liam Magill without automatically prefacing his comments with an assurance that the guy's a dickhead. In his world, the before and after is not the DNA test, but the arrival of his father's current partner Cheryl King into their lives. The Magill marriage ended in 1992 after four years. A few years on, he became involved with King, who has defended her partner in court and out. "That's when it all changed with dad; that's when we stopped doing all the grouse things that we once did," says Heath.
"I remember going to St Kilda beach and having fish and chips and dad would give us $2 to spend at the $2 shop, but all that changed when dad found her."
Although he was 10 when he learnt Liam Magill wasn't his genetic father - a day he remembers well but insists he wasn't affected by - "I always looked different to the others, so it was no surprise". Interestingly, he says he can't remember what Liam looks like. "I only know what I see on television and then he's usually saying terrible things about mum so I just switch off."
He accepts Rowe as his "real" father. "I've got a dad, so I'm lucky. It's Arlen who is missing out." Yes, Arlen. When the conversation turns to Rowe, Arlen discreetly slips away. As Meredith explains, when the airline tickets get sent down from Queensland for the kids' next visit with their dad, there are only two. It is understandable, but it must rub Arlen's nose in a very grown-up situation not of his making.
The people who live in the small Mallee town of Sea Lake, in north-west Victoria, know a lot more than they ought about Meredith Magill's business. Her family have been farming in the district for decades and are well known. In the months leading up to the start of the first court hearing in the Victorian County Court, the confidential medical results of the DNA tests of the three children and Liam Magill were anonymously sent to Meredith's relatives scattered through¬out the area. People at the pub, the newsagent and the local hospital also received copies. Her parents received a Christmas card with a baby Jesus on the front and a note saying, "Has this one been tested?"
The smear campaign hasn't ended. Meredith and her friends - even friends of her children - have had newspaper clippings featuring stories about paternity fraud, child support issues, unfaithful wives shoved in their letterboxes. It used to bother her, especially when Arlen was younger and thought someone was following him, but now they all just accept that whoever is doing it is a crank.
"We know who it is and we have nothing but contempt for them," says Arlen. He is fiercely protective of his mother and when she protests that she started the mess that ultimately led her family to this point, he finishes her sentence with "yes, but he carried it on".
Liam Magill has garnered much sympathy and support. The case was widely misunderstood by many who wrongly assumed Magill was suing his wife for fraudulently claimed child support. In fact, he did pay child support for all three children for a number of years, but this was adjusted after the true paternity of Heath and Bonnie became known.
In the end, he wasn't owed a cent because he had been so far in arrears. It sounds like quibbling, but it is important because there is a world of difference between suing your wife for wrongly claimed child maintenance and suing for deceit. One seems inherently reasonable; the other is more murky terrain. In its judgment last year, the High Court found that there is no legal obligation on a spouse to disclose an extramarital sexual relationship to the other spouse during the course of a marriage. The matter will not end there. As already mentioned, the men's rights movement is mobilising, intent on forcing our legal system to come up with a legal remedy for men who have been deceived by unfaithful wives.
"Liam Magill has not wasted his time," says Sue Price, spokeswoman for the Men's Rights Agency. "He was the trailblazer and those who follow in his footsteps will reap the benefits of what we have learnt from his case." She says all babies should be DNA tested at birth, or at the very least after their parents' marriage ends. "Fraud is fraud and there is no justifiable reason why the Meredith Magills of this world should get off scot-free. We are not going away, paternity fraud is a huge issue and, in the end, lying to children is the most damaging thing a mother can do."
It is understood the Magill case resonated deeply within the Howard government, and helped give shape to changes last year to the Family Law Act which make it easier for fathers to recover wrongly claimed child maintenance. That the High Court decision provided no legal remedy for Liam Magill is a matter of some consternation in legal and political circles.
A spokesman for Attorney-General Philip Ruddock told The Bulletin the minister would continue to "closely monitor" this area of family law. Asked whether any work was being done within his department to find a legislative solution for paternity fraud, the same answer came back. "It is being closely monitored."
Melbourne ethicist Leslie Cannold believes the Magill case has been extremely significant. "My understanding is that very powerful men in the federal government have been hearing and responding to it by making and mooting legal changes in the family law area that advantage men in relation to women and the children of the first marriage." There is no doubt, she says, that Meredith Magill has been demonised by the fathers' rights movement and her silence has served their cause. "This has not only been damaging to her but to the moral reputation of all women." If Liam Magill is the cause celebre for the cuckolded man, federal Health Minister Tony Abbot's old girlfriend, Kathy Donnelly, who endured private anguish and public humiliation for her paternity mix-up, is our most famous example of a woman who simply and mistakenly got it wrong.
This is a story I know a little about, having written the first story celebrating the reunion between Donnelly, Abbott and the child Daniel O'Connor, who was relinquished by Donnelly when she was just 18. As we know, Donnelly got it horribly wrong.
I was also there a month later to write the sad obituary to that episode, and saw the dreadful emotional toll it exacted. Donnelly was not a liar. She simply didn't consider for a moment that Abbott - her first love - was not the father of her son. A one-night stand in the middle of a short-lived break between the couple just didn't register in the 27 years that followed.
"I would never for a moment have named Tony as Daniel's father if I hadn't believed it to be so," she said at the time. Very obviously, too, Donnelly had desperately wanted Abbott to be Daniel's father. It was the one-night stand that she had pushed way back into the recesses of her subconscious that sealed her so-called "paternity fraud".
The difference, though, between Donnelly and many other women caught in this dreadful position was that Abbott resolutely stood by her, even after the mistake which clearly left him devastated and, some would say, publicly humiliated. Say what you like about Abbott, in this situation he acted with total honour, as did his wife Margaret. There were no ugly recriminations, just sorrow at a lost opportunity for a son. And deep concern for his friend Donnelly. No such understanding for the Magills. The children and their mother are moving on and they say this story is part of that process.
Heath is about to leave school to start an apprenticeship, Arlen is hoping to go to university next year to study sports administration and Bonnie, well she's probably still feeling her way through adolescence. You can't help feeling that she could use a male role model. But in the absence of a full-time father, her brother Arlen seems to be doing a pretty good job.
Meredith Magill just wants her daughter to do as she says, not as she's done, because she understands all too well the costs of looking the other way. She does not have a partner because, as she says, "my kids need as much of me as they can get". She is managing her bipolar condition, diagnosed in 1995 but not properly dealt with until some time later with medication and straight talking - two things she wishes she'd worked out years ago. "But, you know, any guilt I used to feel has been wiped out by the way Liam's acted towards the kids. I accept the consequences of my behaviour were horrific but to think he wanted to bring them down along with me, well, I can't cop that. The kids are all that matters and that's something I have never lost sight of."
Liam Magill undoubtedly deserves our pity. He was badly let down. But he has not been fleeced for child support; the slate was wiped clean by the Child Support Agency once true paternity was established. On a disability pension, he is only required to pay the minimum: just over $300 a year for his son Arlen. The other two children - not his genetic offspring but the kids who, despite their protestations, do remember the time he was dad - receive the same amount from their dad on the Gold Coast. Meredith makes up the rest.
Liam Magill feels certain that at some unspecified time in the future - maybe when he gets around to calling them - they will begin to understand why he had to walk away. "I'm sure that one day they will understand what their mother did. If she had been faithful and honest, it would have saved a lot of people from a lot of pain," he told an interviewer. He could be waiting an awfully long time. Asked what he would like for his 18th birthday, Arlen answers in a trice. "A phone call. Oh yeah, and maybe my first car, you know, the kind of present a dad buys his son when he comes of age. I'm not holding my breath though."
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