‘The abuse started very slowly. It wasn’t anything that was overt, it was little things that I felt uncomfortable about but I couldn’t have said there was anything sexual in it at that point, and maybe even if I could, I mean I had no experience. I was 12.’
At first Abby welcomed personal attention from her Year 7 teacher, Janice Stephens. ‘She would play with the belt on my tunic, you know those box-pleat ones, she would touch my face. When we were on camp she’d say, “Do you want to share my pillow?” She’d brush up against me. Each step that she took, she’d take and then back off and then do it again and then back off. And I guess she would tell me that it was okay because she loved me and “people wouldn’t understand, and if they found out you’d probably get sent away”, and those sorts of things.’
Within a short period of time, the abuse escalated to oral and vaginal sex. ‘She had access to me every day,’ Abby said. ‘She would sexually abuse me every day. If I wasn’t at school she’d come to my house, because she knew my parents both worked.’
Abby told the Commissioner that Stephens was highly regarded in the school.
‘This will sound like an absolute contradiction but she was actually a very good teacher because she had that ability to draw you in and inspire you. So it makes no sense on one hand that she had those skills or she used them for such a terrible thing. I guess being a woman probably made it more difficult in some ways. I don’t know if it was a man if I would have picked up on it quicker or my parents would have. My Mum said, “I never imagined you were in danger from a female teacher”.’
Other teachers knew that Stephens spent a lot of time with Abby, including driving her to and from school. One teacher warned Abby to stay away from Stephens. Another entered a classroom while the abuse was occurring, and turned and walked out.
In 1984, Abby disclosed the abuse to a senior teacher at the school. He asked for details of what Stephens had been doing and then asked, “Would you prefer that I did that to you?”
When Abby told Stephens she no longer wanted to see her, the response was swift and brutal. Abby suddenly found herself at the bottom of the class academically and excluded from class and outside activities. Stephens started rumours that Abby was infatuated with her and told lies. ‘Once I did end it, school became a really difficult place for me and she told a lot of nasty untrue stories about me.’
Ten years after she’d left school, Abby heard that Stephens was spending a lot of time with a junior student. Disturbed by the news, Abby went to NSW Police and reported Stephens’s abuse of her. Police were initially reluctant to pursue the matter, citing the interval of 10 years as reason. However, a female police officer took up the case and investigated further. Stephens denied everything until another ex-student reported being abused in identical circumstances to Abby.
The second ex-student didn’t wish to make a formal police statement, but her corroboration resulted in Stephens pleading guilty to abusing Abby and being sentenced to 18 months jail. Police told Abby they could only charge Stephens with assaults where the exact time, date and location were known. ‘Also there was no specific law for sexual assault that didn’t involve penile penetration so she could only be charged with indecent assault.’
Police officers and staff of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions were helpful and supportive, but Abby found the court process and sentence inadequate. Stephens expressed no remorse. ‘Even when she went to jail, her line to the judge was, “I’m not a paedophile, I just fell in love with a younger woman”, and the judge seemed to think that was okay. She went to jail, the gay and lesbian community raised all sorts of money for her, bought her a TV, bought her this and that.’
Several years after the court case, Abby was contacted by another ex-student who said she’d never had the courage to report being abused by Stephens and was grateful Abby’s action meant Stephens was in jail. Abby had since become aware of a total of seven ex-students who’d been abused by Stephens.
In recent years, Abby had become increasingly aware of the impact being abused daily throughout her teenage years had on her life. ‘I’ve had a few recurrences of post-traumatic stress and I’ve had to have a little bit of time off work and I haven’t been very well. It’s really the final straw when I can’t work. It’s cost my marriage. It’s cost me everything. And unfortunately, I’m getting all these triggers now which I hadn’t had [before].’
At the time of the court case, Abby received $40,000 in victims of crime compensation, and she’d recently started civil proceedings against the NSW Department of Education.
‘I guess one thing I would say: I was abused by someone of the same sex so there’s that additional thing of confusion. I was thinking, does that mean I’m a lesbian? I think there’s an additional stigma attached to it and it makes it harder to say something. People don’t think women abuse. Not as many women do but they can, they do, and she’s just as evil as any man. And I guess that’s frightening, because she’s still out there in the community.’