‘My parents did what a lot of parents do and sacrificed for our educations’, Carla told the Commissioner. She and her brother were both enrolled in exclusive Sydney private schools, in Carla’s case from the beginning of Year 2 in the early 1990s till the end of high school.
The all-girls school was very different to the local primary school where she’d begun her education. ‘I struggled a lot when I first went into that environment, because it was very regulated, very kind of strict with the kids – there was a right way and a wrong way to do things, whereas at [the public school] it was a bit more relaxed.’
Every child had to learn an instrument, in group lessons and also, if they wanted to, weekly private lessons. This was an opportunity Carla couldn’t resist. ‘Having come from a poor school to an influential school, I suddenly had all these shiny toys to play with. I was like “Yup, I’ll do one of everything”.’
She began learning the violin from the longstanding music tutor, James Robson. She began private lessons when she was seven, and was sexually abused by Robson for the first time not long afterwards. The abuse continued until the end of Year 6, when she refused to continue the lessons.
Robson told her not to tell anyone. ‘It was like, “It’s our little secret” – I just remember that phrase.’ Her parents were oblivious to what was happening; their marriage was ending at the time, Carla said. ‘And the teachers weren’t the soft cuddly types that if you had a problem you would go and see.’
So Carla obeyed Robson and didn’t disclose the abuse till was 16, when she told her mother. Robson had left the school by then. Carla was sure she was not his only victim.
‘I had heard one or two little things from other girls.’ She recalled one saying ‘He put his hand on my back and I didn’t like that’.
‘To me it was like, that’s step one. I would expect there were dozens and dozens of girls that were abused by this man.’
When Carla was in her second year at university, she reported the abuse to the police.
‘I always knew I wanted to report it to police, but as you can imagine going through the HSC and everything else – I wasn’t in the right sort of place to do that. And [the school] being so elite and influential it would have been really difficult I think to report it quietly while I was there. And I couldn’t be positive I wouldn’t be treated differently, by the school. So I kind of decided in my head that I was to wait to leave before I did anything else.’
The detective she spoke to was sympathetic and helpful. An investigation got underway, and eventually Carla heard that other victims had been confirmed. None were prepared to give evidence in court, however, which Carla felt was in part due to the status of the school.
In the mid-2000s, on the day before Robson was due to be formally charged with offences against Carla, he disappeared. ‘I got told that he went for a walk and never returned’, Carla said. His body was found some time later – he had taken his own life.
Carla had mixed feelings when she heard the news. ’I was kind of at peace with the fact that the universe had kind of taken care of this for me, and I never have to worry about him hurting anyone else again’, she said. But she had also looked forward to going to court. ‘It was my opportunity to challenge him and the school, so I kind of felt a bit cheated out of that.’
Carla has never been contacted by the school about the abuse. She recently sought legal advice on how she might seek redress from them. But she was disappointed by the advice, from two different firms.
‘It was all about the compensation and the arguing … That was not what my focus was on’, Carla said. ‘I felt really pressured.’
What she actually wanted was support in approaching the school. ‘I have no idea how to get that kicked off. It’s really scary to go back to them and knock on the door.’
Carla had received counselling when she first told her mother about the abuse, but it hadn’t worked out. She told the Commission she felt group counselling would have been more appropriate – ‘because half of what you want in that first step is just a validation that you’re not alone, this does happen and unfortunately to a lot of children.’
The pressure of the school environment was also a factor.
‘My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be believed, or listened to … [The school] had a history of asking girls to leave who were a bit left of centre or who didn’t cut it in their eyes, and I had concerns that I would be marginalised and exited.’
Carla had useful recommendations for the Royal Commission.
‘I want to see a greater emphasis on moving away from the compensation debate to the conversation aspect of this, focusing on mediation and healing … It’s the closure, the healing, it’s for us to move on’, she said.
She wants to see children better educated about sexual abuse. ‘I think it needs to be scenario-based play, not putting a whiteboard up and here’s all the things you have to look out for.’
And she believes parents need education, too. ‘They don’t know what they’re looking for. Other than what they see on TV, they have no idea. My parents missed the signs and they’re two of the most highly educated people I know. Where are their tools? Do they exist?’
She would like to see greater clarity about a school’s responsibility – for instance, whether it is obliged to conduct an investigation. She wants there to be transparency about the actions they take, and more accountability in reporting back to the victim.
Carla told the Commissioner she wanted to share her story because it probably reflects the experience of many victims of child sexual abuse.
‘I think one of the reasons my story’s important is that it’s not sensational. … I think it’s the ordinary story, it’s the one that should scare the parents, because I was from a good home, I went to a good school, and my parents did everything right to make sure this didn’t happen. I think that’s why I wanted my story to be heard.’