‘The dream that I’ve had since that time, which is a recurrent one, is that I’m a little boy and I’m in a room … then this monster … with a horrible voice … comes towards me; I’m cornered and I’m trying to shout and scream and run away, but the voice doesn’t come out.’
Antonio grew up in Victoria in a Catholic, ‘traditional southern Italian family’, with a loving but ‘authoritarian’ father and a mother who was a ‘maternal peacemaker’. While he had a happy childhood, his father could be ‘heavy handed’ and Antonio feared him.
Antonio attended a Catholic high school in the 1970s. He was an intelligent child but felt that with English as his second language he had to work extra hard. So in Year 10 when his teacher, George Bennet, took an interest in him and asked him to help produce a school play, Antonio felt the opportunity was an ‘honour and privilege’. Bennet was ‘charismatic’ and well-liked by the students, and Antonio admired him.
The sexual abuse started when Bennet invited Antonio to stay back after school. At first they worked on writing the script for the play, but the teacher soon started to make sexual references. He then used the production of the play to create opportunities to be alone with Antonio. It was under the guise of painting sets that Bennet first sexually assaulted him. Antonio remembers they were alone in the school hall, at the back of the stage, with the curtains drawn.
‘So that happened a few times … and then it was the thing of, I started to think, well this must be me, you know ... I’m the one who’s to blame … And then I think that was the beginning of that whole denial thing … It was like a … ritual that you, you know, you do. It’s like, you know, well I’ve gotta … this is what I do with him.’
Antonio’s parents thought that he was ‘in good hands’. ‘Mum and Dad had complete faith … they’d always talk about, you know, George in glowing terms.’
Antonio never told his parents about the abuse. As a child he felt silenced and trapped by the fear that his father would harm or even kill Bennet if he found out. He also feared the shame he would bring on his family.
In later years, his father would sometimes sing a song from the play. It upset Antonio greatly, but he could never tell his dad why.
Antonio knew of other teachers at the school who also sexually abused children. One was a priest who was later convicted of child sex offences. At the time the priest was teaching, the students joked about how he should be in jail.
‘It’s strange the humour of kids and how you kind of know and deal with things in your own way … that was something that was perpetuated among the students … it was their way of, kind of, you see and know things but you can’t speak out. So the word got around as if to say “watch out for this one”, you know.’
Antonio wanted the Royal Commission to consider the number of child sex offenders in his school. ‘Goodness knows whether that was coincidental that you had so many of those like-minded or whatever you wanna call people in the same place … whether it was something that was organised or whether they clustered or whether it was some cultural thing that happened, I don’t know.’
Antonio realised that the abuse was still affecting him when as an adult he saw Bennet in public pushing a baby in a pram. ‘It was just like revisiting that whole … the whole thing … including the dream, you know, the most vulnerable little child; no voice … defenceless, and he’s this monster…
‘I think the thing that’s helped me is, probably even post that time, I did find my voice I think eventually ... I started to just express the good that I saw in people and then had that reflected back in terms of how they valued me ... I think the resilience came from just, yeah, finding my voice.’