Collette grew up on a farm in rural Victoria. She and her brothers were the first kids on, and the last kids off the bus to and from school, which was a short distance from their home.
Colette had a great time at school, until she fell victim to her class teacher, James Woodward, in Year 6 in the late 1950s. The local community thought Woodward was ‘a good bloke’. He played for the local tennis team and could do no wrong. Collette could have told the community a very different story.
‘He’d call you up to the front of the class at his desk, and you’d stand beside him … He’d put his hand on your leg and inside your undies and fondle your genitalia and then he’d take his hand out and sniff it … I knew what was right and wrong at my age and I made the decision I was always going to wear trousers to school. So he probably didn’t do it to me more than once. I can remember vividly the one time.’
She didn’t talk about the abuse with anyone. It was the nature of the times. ‘You got on with it and kept your mouth shut. You didn’t talk about those things with anyone.’
One day Colette saw Woodward abusing her friend Robyn. Most of the students had left the classroom for the lunch break. Colette saw that Robyn was sitting there red-faced and crying. Woodward was sitting next to her with his hand up her dress.
Eleven-year old Colette felt that she could look after herself but she knew Robyn was a timid girl and she was concerned about her welfare. This drove Colette to report Woodward’s abuse to the headmaster. He was shocked when she told him. He thanked Collette for coming to see him and said he’d do something about it.
That was the last discussion Collette had about the abuse. The school didn’t ask her about it and Collette can’t remember ever talking about it with Robyn.
‘We must have gone back in the class but … from that moment it’s sort of like, I’ve got a blank.’
She can’t remember if she told the headmaster that Woodward had abused her as well.
Collette left for high school soon afterwards.
‘I wish my parents were still alive so I could ask them did anyone ever contact them. Nothing was ever said from that day I went to the headmaster.’
Years later, her younger brother, who was in Year 5 when Collette was in Year 6 in their composite class, told her that Woodward was abusing many of the girls.
‘He didn’t stand out as a particularly nasty person … He was the teacher who taught you, and out of the blue this is what he was doing.’
Robyn’s husband introduced himself to Collette several years ago. He told her that Robyn would always be grateful to her for reporting the abuse. ‘It was the first concrete evidence I had that maybe something was done.’
It’s unlikely the headmaster went to the police because neither Collette nor her parents were ever interviewed by them.
Collette thinks that after the abuse she was ‘a bit stand-offish’ and kept to herself. Her school work wasn’t affected and she went on to have a worthwhile and demanding career.
‘You had to get on with life … but it’s always been with me and locked away in a part of my brain that I didn’t want to think about … I’ve been married for [over 40] years but it’s only in recent times that I told him about it.’
Collette told the Commissioner, ‘I’d be happy to know that … something was done about it. I guess that would set my mind at rest.’
Collette first rang the Commission when she was in Western Australia, far away from her home state. ‘I felt that nobody I knew would know about me over there … I didn’t want people to know it about me.’
Collette said that after her private session she might try and get in touch with Robyn to tell her that she’d talked to the Commissioner about the man who’d abused them.