Bronwen and James met at teachers’ college and after graduation both got jobs working in Catholic schools in Victoria. When Bronwen became pregnant she was asked to leave her teaching position and over the next few years as they had more children, James became the sole wage earner for the family.
In the early 1980s, James rang Bronwen and told her that a child had made an allegation of assault against him. An investigation was undertaken by the school during which Bronwen realised ‘it wasn’t just smacking’. While James assured her ‘nothing happened’, the priest and principal both informed her of James’s admission that he’d abused a child.
At the conclusion of the school’s internal inquiry, James was given paid leave for the remainder of the school year. At the end of this period he was offered a senior teaching position at another school. When a staff member of the Catholic Education Office visited the family home, Bronwen asked if he was sure that James was okay to continue teaching.
‘He said, “Look, you let your hair grow and start acting a bit more feminine. I think he needs a lot of help”. Okay, so it’s all my fault. … He was given another school … and that school knew nothing, nothing about what had happened.’
In the new school, James was allocated a class of Year 3 and 4 children. The classroom was located in a separate building to the rest of the school. Bronwen asked James if he thought that was a good idea and he told her he’d be fine. ‘I kept thinking, this isn’t right’, she said.
In the late 1980s, allegations were made that James had touched two boys inappropriately. He was taken off teaching duties and given administrative work, but continued to attend the school each day. Other staff were told he was stressed because of demands at home. The principal and priest both maintained the abuse was an aberration and James deflected Bronwen’s questions.
‘All he said was, “I fell again. I promise I didn’t hurt them”. And that’s all he said. I should have asked more but it was like my whole world had fallen apart.’
Throughout the years, Bronwen had noticed that young boys often looked uncomfortable in social situations with James. One night she asked if he’d done anything to one boy whose behaviour was causing concern to his mother. James exploded in a fit of rage. ‘I thought, that’s way too much of a reaction to a simple question’, Bronwen said. ‘So I rang James’s mother and said, “Can you come and get him?”’
Bronwen then rang the boy’s mother and got her to ask her son whether James had ever done anything to him. The boy disclosed that James had been sexually abusing him for several years. Victoria Police were called and James was charged and in the early 1990s pleaded guilty to two offences, for which he was sentenced to undertake 12 months of community service. At court, James was supported by references by two priests and afterwards he continued to be active in the church community.
‘When I left, he was still giving out communion’, Bronwen said. ‘Honestly, the priests didn’t get it. They just didn’t get it.’
Bronwen told the Commissioner she was embarrassed that she hadn’t left James earlier. She said the growing realisation of her husband’s offending corresponded with her feelings of responsibility for what he’d done. ‘I was devastated and thought, this is my fault. And that’s another reason I stayed because I thought, I’ve got to fix it. Really I have blocked a lot of it out. … It’s fairly horrific when you realise it was happening.’
As adults, Bronwen’s children disclosed that James had also sexually abused them. During custody hearings in the early 1990s, James’s lawyer had used Bronwen’s visit to a counsellor as the basis for arguing that she was ‘mentally unstable’. Bronwen’s lawyer didn’t want to mention James’s previous conviction on child sexual abuse charges, and the hearing’s outcome was that James was awarded custody of two of their children.
Comments made to Bronwen by the Catholic community focused on their anger at her or concern for James’s welfare. ‘The bishop came in the day after it was in the paper and said, “How’s poor James?”’ Bronwen suggested he ask how she was to which he replied, ‘You’re so mean’.
Bronwen continued to be involved in Catholic schools and was concerned at the continued lack of understanding around child-protective behaviours. When James was teaching he was allowed to cover the windows with posters and she noted how many classrooms remained isolated from the rest of the school grounds.
In her current school, Bronwen said it was usual practice for the parish priest to call a child from class for altar serving or communion preparation. No specific consent was obtained from parents for this and none of the other teaching staff seemed perturbed that a child was alone with the priest. When Bronwen suggested it wasn’t safe for either the children or the priest, she was told ‘he’s all right’.
When Bronwen gave the priest a Working with Children form to complete he was taken aback, but ‘he did it and it was fine’. She was working towards him signing the school’s code of conduct agreement, even though there was little support for her in doing so and the code didn’t specifically mention being alone with children.
‘Apart from anything else, to protect himself he should have somebody else there. To me it’s creepy, but my antennae didn’t work when I needed it to. It works now. … [Abuse] does happen. You’ve got to face up to it.’