Byron was sexually abused by a lay Brother at his Melbourne Catholic college but never spoke to anyone about it. Byron was working in the school tuckshop, and Brother Ignatius came up behind him, slid his hands into Byron’s pants and fondled him.
Such behaviour from Brother Ignatius wasn’t unexpected, Byron recalled.
‘It’s so common what he did that it seemed normal almost. The banality of it almost … What he did to me he did to many kids. In full view of everybody he’d be putting his hands down … It was brazen, what he did. That’s what accentuates the idea of normality, you know what I mean?’
That ‘normality’ meant that speaking about what had happened didn’t feel like an option. As well, it occurred within a wider culture of physical and sexual abuse at the college, and Byron didn’t think that anyone would listen. ‘They were almost immune to caring’, he said.
Though Byron had recently reported the abuse to the police, the subject was still so painful he had not been able to talk about it fully. ‘I actually skirted around things when I talked to them; I didn’t give the full details. I feel guilty about it now but I just couldn’t.’
Byron had begun college in the late 60s as a day boy. But when his father got a job some distance away, Byron and his brother were enrolled as boarders. Byron told the Commissioner that there were a number of sexual abusers at the college while he was there, and physical abuse was widespread.
He described the way another teacher at the school, Father James, would select particular boys in the class for special treatment, leaving the others wishing they’d been chosen. There were no comforts at the school whatsoever, Byron said. ‘No parents. Kids that are homesick. You want attention, you want to be looked after … I knew kids who visited Father James at night - these were the kids from far away, that didn’t see their parents …
‘I didn’t count with Father James and I used to wonder why. This is the other creepy thing about it. You want that attention. You see that attention being lavished on other kids and you want it to be you.’
Violence was also part of the daily experience at the college, as Byron vividly recalled.
‘If anything loud happened you’d hear it everywhere. One day Father James got an industrial broom and smashed it against the wall or a desk, till the broom head came off and he could strike the kid with the broom handle.’
Father James was like ‘a volcano’, Byron said. He erupted into fury. Other teachers, too, got violently angry. Anger was part of the college culture. ‘It was laying into kids. Hitting them, punching them, slapping them.’
Byron ‘begged’ his parents to let him leave, and eventually they agreed, allowing him to complete his VCE at another school.
‘I’ve never got over it’, he told the Commissioner. He’d recently read about someone being asked if they’d used drugs or alcohol as a way to deal with the effects of child abuse. His own response to that question would have been, ’What else could people do?’
Byron did self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. He had ‘shocking’ self-esteem and struggled with feelings of worthlessness. ‘I was a mess. I went to university and I was an absolute mess ... It took years to get a degree because I was just floating, drifting.’
He had ongoing problems with employment and it took him a long time to learn how to relate to people, especially women, in part because he found it too hard to talk about the abuse he’d experienced. He is still affected today.
‘I haven’t worked in 20 years. The by-product is the anger. The eruptive anger, it’s the same eruptive anger that they had’, he said.
Byron became an artist and has recently turned to art again, after some years away from it as his family’s main caregiver. He is now studying a Masters in Fine Arts and, he said, ‘working through this in what I do’.
He has not sought compensation and doesn’t plan to, as to revisit the abuse would be too difficult. But he feels that an apology from the order of Brothers that ran the school would help him.
‘They should apologise. That’s a big step. It can’t be a qualified apology. It has to be “Serious wrong was done to a lot of people” … For some kids, closure was putting a bullet through their heads.’