Mark Kennedy was a well-respected teacher over the course of his 40-year career, including his time as a school principal. He is also the man who sexually abused all of the girls in Brenda’s Year 2 class at the Melbourne state school she attended in the 1970s. This abuse would happen at lunchtimes, often behind a shed in the school yard.
Kennedy made Brenda feel special and important, ‘and there was certainly that idea that we wanted to ingratiate ourselves to him’.
‘The awful thing about it – it was kind of a tender abuse, it wasn’t a violent abuse. That’s what’s been so difficult to come to terms with.’
Not knowing about the others being abused until many years later, Brenda ‘spent a lot of time thinking it was me, or there was something about me’.
Despite experiencing ‘shocking anxiety’ and an ‘underlying feeling of worthlessness’ since childhood, Brenda feels ‘I’ve been lucky in a way. I grew up in a very educated family, and so I sort of focussed a lot on my studies, and got good marks, and I went through uni ... I’ve got some good things in my life’.
Still, she wonders how her life may have been if she had not been abused. ‘I can still go on and make things happen in my life, but I feel that it could have been really different.’ She has coped by avoiding dealing with the past – distracting herself with work and friendships.
In the early 2000s, after Kennedy had retired, one of his other victims from Brenda’s class reported the abuse she had experienced to police. When police contacted Brenda she denied having been abused because she was heavily pregnant at that time and felt it was too much to deal with. Even so, ‘something sort of switched in my mind. Like my whole life I’d just put it to the back of my mind’.
Now she regrets not disclosing her experiences at this stage, knowing this may have caused the girl who first reported a much harder time of the criminal justice process. ‘I often feel about this girl and I feel so guilty, because I think, you know, she had the courage to go through and she was the first one.’
A while later Brenda disclosed the abuse to her husband. At the time she did not want to accept that she needed help or that she had been a victim, because she did not want to identify as such nor did she want other people to view her differently.
‘I couldn’t accept within myself that I had depression, and I couldn’t accept that I had to get help for myself because I’d never gotten help before ... I’ve never wanted to accept that I was abused as a child ... I have to integrate it into my sense of self.’
She has only begun to work through the abuse with her psychiatrist recently, but is still unable to discuss it in detail. She’s not told her parents about what happened to her, as she does not want them to feel upset or guilty.
In her 40s Brenda had an affair with an abusive man who held a position of authority in the community. She sees parallels between the abuse as a child and as an adult, insofar as her own vulnerability and the abuser having power and status.
‘I don’t know whether he saw a vulnerability in me, or what it was, but he sort of behaved like a sexual predator in my life ... This relationship went on to become very addictive for me. And I was psychologically and emotionally sort of trapped and vulnerable, and I couldn’t get out ... Somehow it’s like these two men, they were almost like the same type of person, you know. Outwardly very respectable, very revered.’
Around a year ago Brenda decided to report the abuse by Kennedy to police. The officer in charge of the case has been ‘compassionate’ and ‘respectful’, and has kept her updated on its progress. As part of the investigation she had to view photos of the school, which she found very unsettling.
Brenda is very fearful of having to articulate the abuse on the stand if the matter proceeds to trial, so hopes that Kennedy will plead guilty (as he did previously when charged with child sex offences).
Police have told Brenda that Kennedy is a ‘broken old man’ whose children have disowned him, and she takes some comfort from this. It concerns her that he may only receive a light sentence, which will not in any way reflect the extent of the suffering he has caused to so many lives.
At this time Brenda has not taken any civil action against the education department, but is considering her legal options. She has a victims of crime compensation claim in progress.
Brenda is currently receiving specialist sexual assault counselling. She’s not sure that counselling is helping, which is one of the reasons she’s been looking for other ways to heal and move forward, such as reporting to police and the Royal Commission. ‘I haven’t even really worked through the impact emotionally on my life.’
She is ‘so grateful to all those people’ who’ve helped and supported her throughout her life, such as the mental health professionals who have treated her. ‘I haven’t lost my faith in humanity – I’ve just lost my faith in certain aspects of it.’