In the early 1970s, Antony was sexually abused by his teacher Thomas Vernon at a school camp.
‘Teachers are powerful people when you’re 11. They’re it. There’s no one above them.’
Vernon told Antony that he’d suffered injuries as a soldier in Vietnam and needed help – help that involved Antony putting his hands down the man’s trousers. ‘I didn’t even know what an erection was in those days … He instructed me to do things to him and then he did things to me.’
Antony’s parents had enrolled him at the Catholic high school in Melbourne because they wanted him to get a top education. ‘We were sent to the best they could afford, in those days.’ Antony had had medical issues as a child, which required a number of operations. As a result he wasn’t much of a knockabout kid and was isolated from his peers, preferring books to sport. But he was a happy boy, until Vernon abused him.
‘I just lost everything. I didn’t trust anyone, I thought I was filth … Everything changed after that day. I just looked at the world totally different.’
Antony reported the abuse to the principal, Brother Patrick, who asked who else he had told – no one, at that point – and said he would take care of it. But nothing was done. Time passed and Thomas Vernon replaced Brother Patrick as principal.
Over the next few years Vernon threatened and harassed Antony. He told him his father’s career would be ruined if he spoke out. When Antony was in his early teens he left school, because it was the only way to escape Vernon’s demands for sexual favours.
Antony said that as a teenager he didn’t know where or how to instigate action against Vernon. ‘Between 11 and the early 20s I thought there was no avenue to tackle this. I just thought, “He’s got away with this”. And at that stage I thought it was a one-off thing.’
However, in the early 1980s, Antony learned that Vernon had abused other students at the school. Complaints to police led to him being charged with multiple offences, and Antony joined with other victims in the case. He also learned that Vernon had been charged with sex offences against children before, in another state. That history was known by the Church when it appointed Vernon first as a teacher and then principal at Antony’s school.
The court case did not go well. Antony was very positive about the way the police handled it, but the prosecutor did a poor job. He told Antony and other victims that the case was too old, and likely to be a waste of time. He said the offender had probably moved on, and that they should too. He lost papers in court, and failed to raise relevant matters.
‘He was awful, to be honest. It was a disaster’, Antony said.
The judge placed Vernon on a good behaviour bond. ‘When he wasn’t convicted, that had a really big impact on me. That the law didn’t recognise us.’
In his mid-20s Antony married. ‘I actually thought there was nobody for me. I actually thought I was filth. I never had girlfriends, I didn’t have all those puberty stages and all that stuff. I didn’t think I was worthy enough to be in a relationship. And so she turned up and, yeah, things changed. But it took a while.’ He disclosed the abuse to his wife a few years later.
Antony then went on to engage a lawyer and pursue a civil claim. ‘I was informed by the Church that there was no money available … They labelled me a punter and said this type of action would result in great embarrassment to me, as I would get nothing.’
Just before the case was due to be heard, the Church decided to settle and Antony was awarded a large sum. He hoped it would set a precedent, but said that in the years since other survivors have frequently received much less.
Closure has come not from the Catholic Church, he said, and not from the settlement cheque, but from his visit to the Royal Commission. ‘The money helped recover those lost years, but it didn’t set me up, or didn’t help at all, really … It was never ever about the money. It was just about someone saying, “Look, I’m sorry” …
‘This is closure. What you guys are doing is just enormous for us.’