‘I was a little bit shy and inward – that probably put a bit of a target on my head I’d say. I’ve tried many times to imagine what goes through the head of someone like that and I just can’t fathom it. But I would imagine that the people that were quiet were probably easier to keep quiet.’
At the age of 10, Aaron was sexually abused by a sports coach named Len Coburn. It was the early 1980s and Coburn was working as a volunteer at a privately-owned sports club near Aaron’s home in coastal New South Wales.
Aaron joined the club because he was keen to play sport and because in his community it was just ‘what everyone did’. He’s not sure if Coburn abused him at the first training session or sometime after – Aaron’s memory of the abuse is broken up by dark, blank spaces. What he does remember, however, he remembers vividly.
‘After Dad leaves, Len leads me downstairs. Downstairs is a long, rectangular common area … On this particular occasion there is no one downstairs. The coach sits on one of the chairs and lifts me into his lap.’
Coburn then started rubbing Aaron’s groin. Aaron froze, unable to say anything. ‘What he is doing tickles and I do not like it. I remain frozen. Don’t know the duration of this event and don’t remember anything else about it … And I do not tell anybody what has happened.’
That was the first incident. The lead up to the second incident began some days later while Aaron was standing in the lobby of the club with his dad. Coburn was there too, standing over Aaron, massaging his shoulders. Coburn asked Aaron’s dad for permission to take Aaron back to his house for lunch.
Still unable to speak his fears out loud, Aaron stared hard at his dad, trying to send him ‘telepathic messages’. Sadly, none of the messages got through and Aaron’s dad said yes to Coburn’s plan. After a train ride and a short walk, Aaron found himself at a small flat, alone with the abuser.
‘He’s sitting in a chair. I am standing in front of him. He pulls down my shorts and undies. I do not remember what happens next. I just go away.’
The next thing Aaron remembers is the dog barking and a knock at the door. His dad had arrived to pick him up. During the ride home, Aaron’s dad asked him why he was crying. Aaron replied that Coburn had bumped his mouth, which was still sore from some recent dental work. The conversation continued:
‘“Where were you when he bumped your mouth?” “Sitting in his lap”. “He’s a strange one”, says Dad. No more is said about it. I do not tell anyone what has happened.’
There may have been more incidents of abuse after this – Aaron can’t remember. Either way, he eventually escaped from Coburn by quitting the sports club. From then on ‘I put every ounce of my energy into forgetting what happened’. He became withdrawn and defensive.
‘Most kids are pretty good at protecting themselves in some way. I put a big shell around myself basically, and curled up and went to sleep. It’s almost as if the self-defence mechanism that I subconsciously put into place took over and it stayed. It was the interface between me and the world and it just kept everybody away.’
On those few occasions when Aaron did allow people to get close to him, he didn’t know how to handle the relationship and became possessive and demanding. ‘I think that I’ve shackled them with a whole lot of responsibility towards me that they’re not aware of, and that I’m not even aware that I was doing.’
The one close, lasting relationship that Aaron did manage was with his wife, Julia. She was the first person he opened up to about the abuse and she was there to support him some years later when he suffered a breakdown.
‘I thought I was sick. Just couldn’t get out of bed and I was sleeping for 18 hours a day. I had this very strange experience of falling into a well … It’s strange to say it out loud but it’s like I fell and I just kept falling in this well and then I fell into my 10-year-old who was at the bottom of this well. Then I sort of snapped out of it. But I could tell that it was the little fella looking out. Me. As a 10-year-old. And then I just sort of collapsed in a heap. Everything started coming out.’
With Julia’s help Aaron started counselling and then went on to tell his parents about the abuse, ‘which was pretty difficult’. Though in the long-term it’s been good for Aaron to talk through his trauma, dredging up the past has taken a toll on him emotionally and has affected his relationship with Julia.
‘There was just so much anger and stuff coming out of me, and Julia just wanted to fix it all but there’s no way that someone can just fix it. So I think she was banging her head up against a brick wall and, yeah, things started to fall apart … and we separated for a year a couple of years ago but then that was even worse for both of us.’
Eventually Aaron reunited with his wife. Together they reported Coburn to police. At the time of Aaron’s session with the Royal Commission, the investigation was ongoing. He said that coming to the Commission was the next step in his recovery.
‘I see the light at the end of the tunnel … I’ve been looking forward to coming here, to get it out of me and entrust it to you.’