‘James never married. He had no children and never had a girlfriend for years. He was unable to hold a relationship due to his depression and alcohol abuse.’
Cherie came to the Royal Commission to talk about her son, James.
James went to a Christian Brothers boarding school in Queensland from the age of nine, after Cherie split up with his father. Cherie said she thought she was doing the right thing by sending him to a Catholic school with a good reputation.
‘I do not know what year James came into contact with his abuser but I do know that whilst in Grade 9 James begged me to let him come home to be with me … as he said he was very homesick.’
She agreed, and he did Year 10 at a school near her home, then returned to board for years 11 and 12. She knows he started drinking then as she got calls about it from the Brothers.
After school, James went overseas and worked. Cherie said this was her first inkling that he might have mental health issues as every time he phoned her he was crying.
He came home and took up an ambitious training course. Cherie said he was a natural at the task, but he couldn’t pass the medical exams because of his mental health issues. He was then accepted into a degree, but again couldn’t follow through. ‘There was always something blocking his brain.’
He tried many different jobs but he always had trouble working with other people. He started electroconvulsive therapy, which he was to continue over the years.
In the early 2000s, Cherie was living with James to care for him while he had treatment, when they saw a TV program about sexual abuse that had occurred at his old school.
‘I just remember James starting to cry, like really cry. And I asked him if this had ever happened to him whilst he was at the school. He just said, “No Mum, but I know someone it happened to”, something like that. But he couldn’t look me in the eye. He got up from the lounge and went into the bathroom to wash his face.
‘James had been drinking at this time. When he came back I asked him again if this had ever happened to him and he said no. I asked him did his friend ever tell anyone what had happened to him and he said yes. I then asked James what happened to that Brother and James said they, the college, just moved the person on. We never spoke about this again as I felt James didn’t want to discuss this issue further.’
Over the years, James went to many doctors and had more courses of ECT. He suffered from chronic depression and drank heavily and in the early 2010s he attempted to take his own life. He was found in time by a colleague and Cherie went to look after him.
‘It was during the first counsellor session … that James admitted to being sexually abused whilst at boarding school. James had asked me to come in with him to this session. I looked at James and mentioned that he never told me this and he said he thought I knew … I was absolutely dumbfounded. I had goose bumps. Because I knew he’d denied it years ago to me. And I said if I had known I would have done something about this abuse.’
For the next year, James continued to see a doctor and had more rounds of ECT. Cherie spoke to him often on the phone and he told her he’d changed, and that nobody understood him.
‘I flew over to … spend a week with him and he was very low. We had some serious talks. And I let him know that it was okay if he couldn’t go on. I told him I wouldn’t like it, and I would be very sad but I would also understand.’
Cherie saw James again for his birthday. A few days later he was found dead from an overdose of prescription drugs.
While going through his paperwork, Cherie found a letter to James from a support service for victims of child sexual abuse. He had given them information about the person who abused him and they were seeking his permission to pass the name on to police. Cherie doesn’t think that ever happened as he was too unwell to follow through.
She said now that James is gone, she’d like to see the abuser identified and brought to justice. She also feels the school should be held responsible and accountable for not taking procedures to ensure James’s safety while in their care.
Cherie said she regrets not questioning him more, but he didn’t want to talk about it. She said it must have been the shame that stopped him, as he was a very quiet and reserved adult, although as a child he had been fun and quick-witted. She has questioned his friends and brother as to whether any of them knew, but they all say no, he kept it to himself.
Since James’s suicide, Cherie has been seeing a counsellor, but she said the impact on her has been devastating.
‘The hardest part is my partner. She just doesn’t understand, I’m sure she doesn’t … At first after a couple of months when I was still crying she’d say Cherie get over it, get over it. And I said no, I can’t just get over it. It just hits you like a ton of bricks every so often. Like this afternoon, I’ve been as good as gold and then all of a sudden about two hours ago I just started bursting into tears and it’s like a stab in your heart and that’s when it hits you.’
Cherie said she feels the loss of her son’s dreams most deeply of all.
‘I know he doesn’t have to suffer anymore, and that’s the best part of it – if there could be a best part.’