Some good can come when survivors of sexual abuse denounce the criminals
By Michael Short
March 6, 2016
In this column two weeks ago, I wrote about the experience of being painfully hit a few months earlier by flashback visions of a paedophile priest's genitals.
The memory, which I had suppressed for about 35 years, was triggered by a joint email from the then headmaster (who retired at the end of last year) and the chairman of Ballarat and Queen's Anglican Grammar School, seeking information about past abuse at the school, which I attended for the final five years of my secondary education.
I was, and remain, critical of that email – which, because of the school's incomplete database, went only to a limited number of former students – as it seemed designed to keep things quiet, rather than exposing these crimes. Instead of urging victims to contact the police and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the authors claimed it was not prompted by the royal commission and asked people to contact the school, which would treat the information confidentially, or to contact the Anglican Church.
It is self-evident that institutions, I wrote then and repeat now, can not conduct independent inquiries into themselves.
That column triggered a community response that has left me drained and dismayed. I received many kind and gentle messages of support, which buoyed me, but I was saddened by the messages from people who shared harrowing tales of the sexual and physical abuse they suffered at the school.
At the request of some of those people, and with the permission of others, I have redacted and de-identified some of those messages so that others can read first-hand accounts. Part of justice and healing is having stories told and acknowledged.
Here are some excerpts:
1. I was in Year 9 when he, the perpetrator, came to the school and he started paying me attention straight away, inside and outside of class. By Year 10 he let me know very clearly that he had strong feelings for me. Little touches and brushes against me in the classroom, a hand on my thigh under the desk, meetings after school, manipulating events so he was around me, and open declarations and promises of everlasting love…
A number of staff at BGS knew of his inappropriate relationship with me. They were his adult friends (all teachers) and often saw us together. In the end (Year 11) the headmaster at the time knew, as the teacher went to him and told him that he was involved in a relationship with me. Next thing I knew, he was moved interstate and I was left to complete my Year 12 feeling betrayed and totally abandoned by him, let down and angry at the adults around me. I ran away from home as my relationship with my parents fell apart, largely due to my conflicted emotional state and sense of abandonment and helplessness.
2. I felt a white sheet of rage and hatred descend on me when I read your column. I was a boarder at Ballarat Grammar from grade 6 to matriculation. When I began at the school I was eleven years old. A teacher had a living quarters attached to the dormitory where I slept. When I was just arrived for term one, I can remember being in his study with my pyjama bottoms off and him threading the cloth tie which kept up my pyjamas. I felt terribly uneasy and knew, in a childish way, that this was very wrong.
3. I learned to be invisible – to disappear at recess and lunchtimes into the quiet side rooms and out of the way places. By year 11, I was disappearing into a Scotch bottle initially on a binge basis and later as a daily sedative…
On two occasions I had staff attempt to sexually assault me… One of these occasions saw me threatened with expulsion for striking a member of staff!
I was aware of other students who were suffering abuse. Not just boys but a number of girls who were being hit on by male staff members. I was on more than one occasion the shoulder upon which fellow students cried out their hearts in helplessness.
So much damage was wreaked on victims and survivors. Some have died by suicide and as the result of self-medicating the pain with alcohol and other substances.
As a result of what people have communicated to me, I compiled a list of some 15 alleged perpetrators, which I am sharing with the royal commission. For ethical reasons, I can not directly pass on the messages to the police. So, after speaking with the police, I have communicated to the victims that they should contact the police and, should they wish, the royal commission. As well as the email link above, you can call 1800 099 340. A number have. If you have been abused, I urge you to do so, too.
I was also contacted, by phone, by the new headmaster of Ballarat Grammar, Adam Heath, with whom I met last week at his request. I believe he is a good man, and is determined, as am I and others who experienced wrongdoing, to make sure current and future students are protected. It is crucial that the crimes of the past do not traumatise current and future students, but that those young people are reassured things have changed and that they are as safe as they possibly can be.
In that previous column I wrote that I can not remember precisely what happened to me, but that I know, for reasons I can also not recall, that at least one student was severely sexually assaulted by the then priest, Reverend Hart, who died in 2000, who was protected by the then headmaster, also long dead, and who plied us with alcohol. I wrote of the crushing guilt I felt at not having spoken out, particularly given I somehow knew this boy had been so dreadfully abused.
Through an intermediary who also suffered appalling abuse at the school, this brave survivor kindly urged me to feel no guilt on his behalf, and indeed offered me words of support. I do not think I was seriously molested, although clearly I was lured into a dangerous setting by a sinister, predatory criminal. But it was suggested to me by those two victims that a not unlikely reason I can not clearly recall these events is that we and others may well have been plied not only with alcohol but with drugs that alter consciousness and impair memory. This is a somewhat disconcerting thought.
Several days ago, Adam Heath, with the support of the board, had the decency to issue a public apology via the school's website, and to urge victims to contact the police and the royal commission. Importantly, they also set out protections for current and future students.
When we met, I showed Adam the list of alleged perpetrators, and he, like me, is talking about that to the royal commission. Thus, Ballarat Grammar is now likely, at last, to be the subject of investigations by the commission, which might help deliver some justice to victims and survivors.
For the record, Adam and the chairman, Robert Knowles, have both personally apologised to me, for which I am grateful.
I have also been telephoned by the Anglican Bishop of Ballarat, Garry Weatherill, who on Friday afternoon, also made a compassionate public apology.
Nothing can ever erase the harm, but that does not preclude some good from emerging that might help people heal or at least feel some support and relief from having carried the effects of such criminal and cruel abuse of power and trust.
As many as one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused. The raising of awareness by the royal commission, survivors, the media, advocates and others will in all likelihood decrease the number of these crimes committed by priests, teachers and others in positions of institutional power.
The reality, though, is that most of these heart-breaking atrocities are committed by family members or people close to the family of the victim. We must protect children by carefully empowering them with knowledge. And we need to do that without causing them to be unduly fearful and distrustful of a world that can be so beautiful and nurturing, and without depriving them of the innocent joy and optimism that is their right. There are many readily available resources – including professional advice from psychologists and early-childhood development specialists – to help people sensitively and effectively manage this crucial responsibility.