Colm was 17 when he started an apprenticeship through the Western Australia government in the early 1980s. He was looking forward to it and was encouraged by his father as well as the strength of the manufacturing industry that meant job prospects would be good.
For the four years he was with the government department, Colm was constantly physically and sexually abused by older work colleagues.
‘Within the first two, three days I was there it started, man’, Colm said. ‘And it didn’t stop … People got no idea what they did to you. I was stripped naked. I had spray paint sprayed on my balls, sprayed on my penis. And that wasn’t just once. I lost count, man. And every opportunity that they had of getting me, they did. There was one in particular, the ring leader, and the thing was you knew straight away, you learnt pretty quickly that if you spoke out, which I tried, I did try, but nobody bloody listened because it was all in-house. Then they’d go, “We’ll get you twice as bad next time”, so in the end you learnt not to speak.
‘They hung me up on a fence. They used a certain mixture. They used to trap you. They’d say, “Come down to the store”, and then four guys would jump you, and then the party was on for them. They’d dak me; they chained me up against a friggin’ fence upside down, they stripped me naked, down the bottom half of myself, and they put a cutting compound which was a mixture of oil, kitty litter and like a cutting compound - what they used to cut steel, which was a white liquid - and they used to shove that up your arse, on your penis, everywhere they could think. I mean the old thing: “Go and get a left-handed screwdriver” or “Go down for a long weight”, I mean you could understand. This was just beyond a joke.’
Colm’s immediate supervisor offered some protection, but he was often away at meetings and the workforce culture was stronger than any conviction he might have had that the men were doing wrong. In the years he was an apprentice, Colm estimated 200 apprentices went through the government department and of those, probably 50 were abused in similar ways. Those who were small in stature like him were particularly targeted.
‘The only time it stopped was towards the end … they started getting female apprentices’, Colm said. ‘And that was the only reason why it stopped. Somebody did tell and then, bang. But the damage was already done, man.’
Towards the end of his apprenticeship, Colm’s father heard about the ‘victimisation’ of his son and made a complaint to the state government board that oversaw apprentices. Colm didn’t disclose the sexual abuse and he said things got worse after his father’s actions and ‘it was party time’ for the other workers to further persecute him.
Colm told the Commissioner the abuse had haunted him all his life. His two main relationships had failed and although he was close to two daughters, he remained estranged from another. He said he’d lost faith and trust in humanity and had thought several times about committing suicide. When he decided he had reason to live for ‘me as a person’, he’d sought the help of a counsellor. Memories of the abuse had become worse as he’d got older and media coverage of sex offenders often triggered flashbacks.
‘The only reason why it’s probably come out now is ‘cause of the last few years, how far we’ve come to sort of realise these things did happen. And as much as we don’t want to believe it, well I’m sorry I’m sitting here right now and saying that it did. It did happen. And I can go on a lie detector 60 friggin’ times and I’d pass it every time. It hurts that much that I’ve shed so many tears that I can’t cry anymore. …
‘The thing I really wanted was just a sorry from them … for them to say sorry, that this happened and it went on for far too long and you were one of the main friggin’ victims of it. Like I say, I can take jokes, I can take things, but not this.’
He hoped that young apprentices were never put in the position he was, and that they received training about what to do if they were being bullied and harassed.
‘I’d like to see young apprentices either take a course before they actually go and do an apprenticeship. There’s got to be some kind of safe procedure. If this happens to you, this is what you’re going to do about it or this is the way you should approach it, whereas we were threatened into a scared position, in other words you just didn’t do it.’