Bridie waited a while before she actually sent her email to the Commission. She thought her experience of sexual abuse was ‘miniscule’ in comparison with other people. ‘On a scale of 100, it’s probably a two or a three but for me it’s like a … 95.’ But then she thought about how many other kids it must have happened to and she pressed ‘send’.
Bridie went to a small primary school on the outskirts of Melbourne – there were only two classrooms and two teachers. She’d migrated from Europe with her parents in the late 1950s and she joined a melting pot of cultures in the classroom.
She learned English very quickly and really liked her first few years at the school. Bridie especially loved her female teacher, who was young and kind. Then she started Grade 3, which was taught by the school principal, Mr Hardacre. He couldn’t have been more different from Bridie’s first teacher. He was big, red-faced and violent. He’d hit kids in the back of the head if their work wasn’t good enough. They were terrified of him and once Bridie had been a victim of his violence she stayed away from him as much as she could.
Also, apart from all that, ‘he was such a creepy guy’. One day, towards the end of Grade 6, Hardacre kept Bridie back after class. He produced a magazine from his desk and showed her pictures of women with large breasts wearing bikinis. What did Bridie think of them, he wanted to know?
He started to hug and squeeze Bridie. Then he tongue kissed her. Bridie was awash with shame and fear. ‘Don’t tell your mother or father’, Hardacre warned her once he’d stopped, ‘you’ll be in big trouble’.
Bridie didn’t know what to do. She was confused by what happened and so innocent about anything, she told the Commissioner. All she did back then was play. She now believes she just ‘parked’ the experience straight away – she doesn’t remember even going home distressed.
But the memory was embedded and 50 years later it still looms large. It’s also made it hard for her to enjoy being kissed. Bridie first told someone about the abuse in the late 1980s, when she was talking to a friend of her mother. The woman laughed it off. ‘We all knew he was a creep’, she said.
Bridie was angry. ‘You think, "Why did you let that happen? Why did you not protect me, or do something, or tell my mum that he was a creep?"’ She didn’t ever tell her parents or report it to police. It was just too big.
Bridie had counselling for depression about 10 years ago, when she was ill and coming to terms with her mortality. The counsellor reassured her that what she went through as a child was no small thing.
Bridie recommended that teachers get psychologically tested before they actually start teaching. She’d also like to see a way of ‘screening’ children, if it’s clear that something has happened to them, a way of getting past any feelings of guilt or shame to find out exactly what happened.
Bridie was pleased she talked to the Commission. ‘I’m so glad I came but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.’