Cinthia told the story of what happened to her son, James, who was 10 at the time she spoke to the Royal Commission. Cinthia came from a strong Catholic family and wanted James to have a great Catholic education, like she did.
At the Catholic college he attended in Perth, James was sexually abused over a number of years by two of his classmates. Initially, Cinthia and her husband did not know of the abuse.
She said she knew there had been bullying, and sometimes James would want to stay off school, complaining of feeling ill. She had also noticed changes in his behaviour.
‘He had been getting very angry so we could see something was going on but we didn’t know what.’
One day when James was in Year 5, things came to a head when he hit one of the boys. Cinthia asked him why and he said ‘I’ve just had enough’. When she pressed him further he told her the boys had been regularly targeting him, slapping his bottom and grabbing his private parts. He said it had been going on for a long time.
‘I said, “Why haven’t you told me?” He said, “I’ve done everything that you and Dad have told me to do”.’
He said every time he told the teacher, the teacher would get the boys together to talk about it, but because there were three of them it was always two against one and nothing was ever done about it.
‘He said “This is what keeps happening, it’s happening every day”. And that’s when he said he couldn’t go to school.’
Cinthia kept James off school but immediately contacted the principal, who referred her back down the ranks to the junior school head. The junior school head in turn was very defensive and said if she was so worried about James she should take him to the doctor.
Cinthia did then take James to the doctor, who was very reassuring and called the school on their behalf to give advice on how to solve the problem. She also reported to the police.
The following week they had a meeting at the school where they put a safety plan in place, including keeping the abusive boys away from James and for other teachers to be made aware of the situation.
‘They said “Trust us and have faith that we will do the right thing” … It turned out that what we heard never took place. The teacher’s word was the only “true” account of what actually happened.’
She said the school had not stuck to the agreed plan. They had placed James back in the same class as the two boys and not told any of the teachers.
Cinthia then started to record conversations and meetings she had with the vice-principal and principal. ‘The principal said quite clearly: “I know what sexual abuse is – this is not it”.’
By this time the Child Protection Unit had a report. They investigated the family and cleared them of any problems, saying the problem was at the school. They also clearly labelled it as sexual abuse. Because one of the boys was still under 10 years old, no charges were laid.
‘The school and the parents of the boys clearly believed because there were no charges there was no crime. They implied James was simply a cry baby.’
However three other children came forward with reports of the same behaviour.
Cinthia contacted the Catholic Education Office about the situation. They told her the school had assured them they were working on the problem and that she needed to keep working with the school to get the problem resolved.
But the school offered no counselling or psychological support for James. He was told he wasn’t allowed to talk about the abuse to any other children, and was given detention when he did so. One time Cinthia was accused of trespassing after she collected James from school during the day because he was distressed.
Cinthia said she was disappointed by the actions of the other victims’ parents.
‘These parents knew their boys were also being abused and did exactly as the school asked them to do – not seek outside help … minimise the child and eventually not hear the child. The other families stopped complaining to the school, they all simply stopped. But I didn’t.’
Eventually the principal suggested a different school might be more suitable for James, and they withdrew his offer for a place in the secondary school.
Cinthia moved James to a government primary school, but had to uproot the family in order to move house and be in the catchment area. He is happy at the new school and has settled in well there, despite having some ‘survivor’s guilt’ about the kids who are still at his old school and possibly still being abused. He also remains confused about relationships with friends and who he is able to trust, and is receiving regular counselling.
‘He wants an apology. He just wants someone to say I’m so sorry this has happened to you. No one has ever said that.’
Cinthia said the whole thing has been ‘horrific’ and her deep Catholic faith has been severely shaken. She was grateful for the opportunity to tell the family’s story and – through her – for James’s voice to finally be heard.
‘It’s actually nice having someone that will listen … or hasn’t told us that we’re lying or that we’re neurotic.’