Primary school had been lots of fun for Aaron. He was popular and did well in class. His parents had heard very good reports about a Uniting Church school in Melbourne and Aaron started Year 7 there with high hopes.
It didn’t disappoint him at first. ‘I loved it, I absolutely loved it.’
Sam Berner, who was in his 60s, had been at the school for years. He was a well-respected member of the school community, served on the school council and did a lot of work with the Church. ‘To have the opportunity to spend time with him was looked upon by the teachers, and then filtered down to the parents, that that was a very special thing.’
Aaron was one of a small group of Year 9 students who had personalised tutoring with Berner. It was usually at lunchtimes but Aaron started to see him quite a lot. ‘Towards the end it was before school and after school.’
His sessions with Berner started to morph into counselling sessions about Aaron’s sexuality. ‘Which really, to be honest, wasn’t a major issue to me.’
Berner started to encourage risk-taking during their meetings. ‘Those risks were stripping in his office, taking my clothes off. And he’d massage me and et cetera, there, in his office.’
It was affectionate, Aaron said, but it still felt like guidance.
‘It started out as a lot of cuddling on the couch … educating me on different types of hugs.’
Their contact increased until Aaron was seeing Berner several times a day at school. The abuse now included masturbation.
Aaron found the sexual abuse confusing. He lost focus in class and his marks suffered. The school reassured his parents that at least Aaron was seeing Mr Berner for tutoring, so that was good.
‘Everyone, including my parents, was completely blinded by him.’
His dad even dropped Aaron off at Berner’s house, not long after he’d finished Year 12. Berner took him straight to the massage table.
Then, just when Aaron needed him for counselling about his ex-girlfriend, Berner’s interest dropped away. Aaron then tried to slit his wrists. He went to see Berner, got the usual ‘cuddle’ but needed more. He went to the school counsellor. Alarmed by his bandaged wrist she asked what he’d done. He said he’d sprained it.
‘“You’re one of Sam’s boys”, she said. “You should go and see him” … I said to her flatly, “But all he wants to do is cuddle”. And she just looked at me with a very stunned face but didn’t go into anything and that was the end of the session.’
When Berner lost interest in him ‘it was pretty much like being dumped … I did have a very great reliance on him’.
Aaron went on to university but struggled. He started to question what happened to him at school. In his mid-20s he attempted suicide.
He then talked to an old school friend. ‘I just blurted all this stuff out. And then it escalated from there. It was like a waterfall - once I started it wasn’t going to stop.’
His friend referred him to the Crisis Assessment and Treatment (CAT) team. Luckily for Aaron, they chanced to call him one night after he’d consumed a large quantity of pills and alcohol. This led to many sessions with psychiatrists and psychologists, but none of them focussed on the sexual abuse. ‘We didn’t really get to the bottom of a lot of stuff.’ But they were keen to medicate and so Aaron was put on antidepressants.
Around the same time, Aaron told his parents the truth about Berner. They were shocked. His father felt especially guilty for driving him to Berner’s house.
Aaron finally got the counselling he needed when he went to the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) about 10 years ago.
He also went to the police. By now he was aware that Berner was a serial abuser and under investigation for other child sexual offences. But before charges relating to Aaron could be made, Berner committed suicide.
Aaron has experienced a lot of depression and anxiety during his life. He feels uncomfortable and anxious around older men. For a long time he was self-destructive in his relationships and didn’t feel he was worth very much.
He is in a stable relationship now with children of his own. He is very aware that he’s hypervigilant with them, to the point where he misses out on physical bonding.
Ten years ago he tried to apply for victims compensation.
‘The judge was horrendous. He grilled me … He was notorious for being quite abrupt and unempathetic … And he just kept saying to me “Why did you keep going back? Why did you keep going back? … You’ve got to get over it” … He was, if I can use the word prick, he was beyond that. He really was.’
Aaron was awarded counselling but no financial payment.
After a long and arduous process, he reached a settlement with the school’s insurers. Aaron also met with the current principal, who apologised.
Aaron gets very withdrawn sometimes but is more assertive now than he used to be. CASA have been ‘amazing’ but certain things still trigger him.
One of his recommendations to the Commission was that teachers should be trained to spot signs of sexual abuse.
‘I know he was so manipulative and he didn’t just groom me, he groomed my parents, the whole school, everyone, but surely someone should have questioned seeing a student that regularly before school, after school, lunchtimes. Something should have happened.’