Bennett started boarding at a Uniting Church private school in Sydney when he was 10. He was an outgoing, intelligent boy and was put into the top class in his year.
At night in the boarding house, when it was time for lights out, the housemaster would visit each of the boy’s beds and have a quiet chat. He’d ask how they were getting on, if they were making friends; supportive small talk.
In his statement to the Royal Commission, Bennett said, ‘I recall feeling quite trusting of him and thinking he was an adult I could rely on in this new, daunting and unfamiliar situation’.
One night, when he was chatting to Bennett, the master put his hand on the boy’s chest, then slowly moved it down to below the waistline of his pyjamas. Bennett reacted loudly, and was suddenly dragged out of bed and given a hard slap on the bottom.
‘This man, who a moment previously had been speaking to me in an intimate and caring manner, suddenly turned on me, and all I remember thinking was that I was in a massive amount of trouble and did not know what was going to happen next.’
The master took Bennett out of the dormitory and berated him for making so much noise. He also said that wearing underpants to bed was against the rules and made Bennett take his off. Then, as the master tucked the boy’s pyjama top into the bottoms, he grabbed Bennett’s genitals and groped his buttocks for an extended period of time. Bennett was then sent back to bed.
‘I felt confused about what had just happened but also relieved that I was not caned. I assumed that whatever had just happened was a kind of heavy reprimand in lieu of being caned.’
Bennett said he wasn’t the only boy targeted by the housemaster. But while the man continued his nightly chats, he didn’t try to touch Bennett again.
A few years later Bennett had another housemaster, a younger man who very popular with the students. On weekends, this master would invite his favourite boarders into his room to watch videos. ‘Because he was the cool teacher, this made the boys who were selected feel good about themselves.’
After some R-rated and horror movies, the housemaster started showing the boys pornography, talking about sex and quizzing them about their experiences. The master would also strongly hint that he was gay. Bennett said, ‘This was not sex education, it was more of a disguised proposition’.
Bennett became increasingly uncomfortable and soon he was no longer one of the master’s ‘favourites’. ‘For the second time, I had learnt that I could not trust the very person who was supposed to be in charge of our wellbeing and care.
‘As a result of this, me and a few other boys became much more rebellious. I saw myself as an outsider now and adopted that mentality.’ Bennett stopped doing his homework and his marks dropped. ‘I’d get out of school as much as I could, I’d fake sicknesses.’ He also started smoking and drinking.
When he was a little older, Bennett had a similar experience with another housemaster, a man who was ‘very good at talking to us on our level. I felt “cool” to be involved with an adult who made you feel as if you were treated as an equal’.
This master also brought up the topic of sex and hinted at being gay, and again Bennett felt that he was being propositioned.
The following year Bennett was again sexually abused, when yet another teacher took him into a small darkroom to see some photographs. As the man looked for the photos, he pressed up against Bennett’s groin several times.
While he was at school, Bennett never told anyone about the sexual abuse. He was frightened about what might happen to him. ‘In fifth form and sixth form you don’t want to get labelled anything.’ He was also worried about the stigma that might be attached to his family.
Bennett had started at the school as a ‘pretty sensitive kid’. He came out as a man full of rage. ‘I could see that in myself.’
He went to university but didn’t last long. ‘My drinking went way beyond control when I got there and in the end I just dropped out. I started up my own business and took off.
‘I hated working for other people, I hated authority figures.’
Over the years Bennett said there were countless ruined relationships, problems with the law, and heavy drug and alcohol abuse as he tried to bury his memories of school. ‘It took probably a good 25 years before it started leaking back out.’
Bennett’s best mate had seen him change and knew something was very wrong. After being told about the abuse, they went to a lawyer and Bennett sued the school.
It took years. ‘They kept changing the dates, making it painful, just dragging it right out.’
Bennett described the litigation process as ‘the most draining thing I’ve done in my life’. And something designed to be as intimidating as possible. ‘I would’ve taken any deal that they’d thrown on the table just to get away.’
Eventually, Bennett received some compensation from the school and the Church. ‘I didn’t feel any satisfaction. I felt shafted after that whole experience, quite honestly.’
He’s had a much better experience with finally getting some therapy. ‘It has helped me understand my behaviour. If I get angry I know where the anger’s coming from.
‘They say sexual abuse, it if happens to a kid when you’re that young, can lead to post-traumatic stress that is equal to a soldier returning from war.
‘I was in tears when I was told, “It’s not your fault”.’
After living with so much pain, Bennett has put the school behind him. ‘I picked up my little self in therapy, I got that little kid straight out of there, straight out the front gate, turned around and told them to eff off. That was it.’
Bennett has also been in rehab, and when he spoke to the Commissioner he hadn’t had a drink for a month. ‘Ever since I started dealing with this, I’ve been on the way back up.
‘One of the main reasons I pursued it is because my oldest boy’s nine. Next birthday he’s the same age I was when it first happened to me.’
‘I don’t have all the answers but at least I’ve done the bit I can do. My story’s been told.’
After speaking with the Commissioner, Bennett was heading off to see his son. ‘I’m going to sit down and talk to him when I get home from this. It’s the final thing I have to do.’