"We Grow Up, We Remember"
For the past two years, Australia's Royal Commission has been investigating how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse. Dart Centre Asia Pacific Board Chair Matthew Ricketson reflects on a public hearing he attended in Melbourne to support a friend who had been abused by a school chaplain.
What goes through the mind of a child who is being sexually abused?
It’s not a question you want to think about but it is unavoidable for anyone sitting in on Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.
On Wednesday 2 September, the commissioner, Justice Jennifer Coate, sitting in Melbourne, Australia, heard from nine witnesses who had been abused while attending Geelong Grammar, one of the nation’s oldest, most prestigious boarding schools and, famously, the one that Prince Charles briefly attended as a teenager.
One boy, known to the Royal Commission only as BIZ to protect his identity, recalled how as a 12-year-old one of the boarding house masters at the Bostock campus in Geelong had repeatedly come into his bedroom at night and abused him while he slept.
Some boys slept in dorms, others in a single room. The first time that BIZ became aware of what was being done to him, he froze, then pretended to still be asleep, which is what several other witnesses told the Royal Commission they also did when the boarding house master entered their bedrooms.
The boy didn’t understand what was happening to him – no adult had ever touched his penis before – and he didn’t know what to do, but as the abuse continued he devised a series of responses that were as resourceful as they were insistent.
He began sleeping on his stomach; when that didn’t work, he put his pyjama pants on back to front so that the boarding house master couldn't reach through the fly; when that didn’t work – the master simply rolled him over and pulled down his pyjamas – he began shutting the door at night.
When that didn’t work, he tied a piece of knitting wool that stretched from the door handle to a towel rail to a chair, then to his toe so that the door’s opening would wake him. When that didn’t work, he tried holding on to the rail of the bed so that he could not be turned over. After a struggle one night between the abusing man and the resisting boy, the master stopped.
It is no small thing to stand in a courtroom where the commissioners sit above you behind a wide panel, where you look out over a phalanx of lawyers representing the Royal Commission, the school and various former teachers and headmasters, and state in public what a man did to your genitals as a boy in a boarding school.
In BIZ’s case, he did not attend; rather his statement was read out to the commission by counsel assisting in a neutral tone that did little to lessen the chilling effect of the boy’s words.
If it requires courage to give your testimony in public, it required even more courage for the 12 year old boy to make a complaint. He went to the boarding house’s matron and told her, “Mr Trutmann has been coming into my room and playing with me in my bed.” He recalled her saying, “He must have been looking for the cat.”
If sexual abuse of a child is an appalling crime, it is even less bearable to think about an abused child whose cry for help is not heard.
And yet we have to think about these issues, not least because the evidence put before the Royal Commission on a daily basis since it began its hearings in 2013 shows us the extent of child abuse in this country.
I went to the Royal Commission in Melbourne last Wednesday to support a friend from school who had been abused by the school’s chaplain in year seven.
He wanted to give his testimony in public, though he wanted his identity protected. At the end of his statement, BKO added the following: “The final thing, which is something I’ll say to perpetrators, you may think that they’re powerless little boys who won’t be believed, but we grow up, we become men and we remember.
In September, 2013, the Dart Centre hosted a daylong forum for news professionals covering the hearings and the sensitive issue of child sex abuse. Click here to read the event report.