When Ben was nine in the late 1970s, he had a job as a paperboy in his northern Sydney suburb. His regular route would take him past the post office every day where Ian Wills was the postmaster. Wills was a well-respected figure in the community and he was also a leader at church.
‘He would buy a paper every day, request that to be delivered, place it at certain places behind the counter’, Ben told the Commissioner. ‘Then he became more and more friendly, I suppose, over time.’ Wills began asking Ben to do jobs around the post office. Most often, this involved Ben climbing on benches or reaching up to get things. Ben was also a stamp collector and Wills used this, as well as bribes of chocolate, in exchange for touching and fondling Ben.
‘I'd be over the counter with his hand down my pants; someone would come in to buy stamps and he wouldn't budge, and he would ridicule me in front of these people … so it became entrenched in me that that was not only normal, but I was wrong.’
Wills began to threaten Ben, saying that if he wasn’t compliant, Wills would make sure he would lose his job. The abuse escalated to anal penetration.
‘I woke up one morning and I was bleeding from my anus. I told my mother and I thought at that time it was like I could get out of this, it was like someone's going to know, would understand.’
His mother took him to the doctor. Ben was relieved that finally someone would ask him what happened and he could disclose the abuse. ‘At that point I was told, “Stop doing that, you must be using a toothbrush or something”, and I should eat more bran. So I went home from that thinking again I'm even more wrong.’
Being blamed for his injuries has left Ben with a lifetime of guilt and a strong feeling that the abuse was all his fault.
There were other signs at the time that something was not right as Ben began to act out. His paperboy route took him past the postmaster’s house. ‘I would regularly destroy his garden when I'd go past … I'd do it always in an extremely visible way, and try and make as many people see it as possible, I suppose hoping that someone would say, “Why?”’
Ben even tried to burn Wills’s house down. He was caught, but Wills did not call the police.
At school, Ben became a bully and his academic performance declined sharply. Ben believes all his behavioural problems were an obvious cry for attention, but rather than anyone asking him why he was doing these things, he was simply characterised by his teachers and parents as a ‘disruptive child’.
Ben was abused by the postmaster for a year until he lost his delivery job. He was then sent to a school run by the Uniting Church. When he was about 14 he was abused by two teachers at the school. Ben believes sexual abuse was widespread there and facilitated by a toxic culture.
‘It was a closed shop … no one wanted to acknowledge that there was a problem … it was all about raising money, not education.
‘It was sort of a joke. It was sort of understood – it was so open and it was so obvious, it couldn't be true. It was just flagrant.’
The following year Ben was asked by another teacher whether he had been sexually abused. ‘This was the first time I thought I had someone who was going to talk to me about it.’ Ben can’t remember his response, but is sure that he made it clear that he’d been abused.
‘He goes, “Don't worry, I was”, and propositioned me … He just wanted a bit for himself.’ Ben turned down his advances – by this time he had been labelled ‘belligerent’ and was standing up for himself.
‘I started drinking when I was 14. I started up on a life of self-destruction. I haven't been able to keep constant work. I kept a job for five years, but that was because I was completely autonomous in my role, so they never saw me … Relationships? None to speak of, until recently. I became a philandering, alcoholic 15-year-old.’
In recent years Ben’s relationship with his parents reached its lowest point. This prompted him to make his first disclosure about the abuse to his mother. He then made contact with the school, which invited Ben to come and consult. Ben did not take up the offer because of ongoing family links to the school.
Ben has never sought legal advice about pursuing either the school or Australia Post as he had long believed ‘it was all my fault’.
Ben does not feel driven to seek compensation, but he is still chasing the protection and the validation he desperately wanted as a vulnerable nine year old.
‘As I said, from the start it was all about some form of acknowledgment. Just for someone to say, not that they understand, not that they think it was wrong, it was just that they say, “That has happened”.’