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Colum Thomas's story

‘He asked me about sex. He asked me if I understood what happened between men and women, and I hadn’t been told anything by my parents – and never have been. They were very conservative and shy, I suppose, about that sort of thing.

'He asked me if I was attracted to women and I said, “Yes”. He said, “Well, when you’re attracted to a woman, what part do you look at?” And I was feeling very uncomfortable because I’d never been talked to like this before.

‘I can’t remember how long that lasted. This happened over four or five times and each time he became a bit more explicit. He actually told me about sexual intercourse. He asked me about erections and if I’d had erections. So, on one side I was thinking, "Okay, I’m feeling very uncomfortable about this, why is he giving me this attention?" But on the other hand I was going, "Well, I’m getting special attention". I didn’t know at the time but I was being groomed.’

In the mid 1960s, Colum was 12 when he was sexually abused at his Melbourne school by Christian Brother Noel Hara.

The abuse started with Hara taking Colum out of class and asking him about his interest in women. At the end of one conversation, Hara asked Colum whether he wanted him to tell his parents about their discussions and Colum replied that he didn’t. ‘I kicked myself. I should have said, “Yes, I would”.’

Then one day after telling Colum to follow, Hara took him to the Brothers’ residence.

‘I walked behind him and he said, “Walk up beside me like a man”. Anyway, he took me inside, took me into his little bedroom which I remember thinking how dark and how small it was, and he continued the conversations in the sense that he asked me about erections and he said, “I’d like you to show me if you get an erection”. Of course, I’m freaking out.’

Hara told Colum to take off his trousers, sit on his knee and masturbate. ‘I had no sexual excitement whatsoever’, Colum said. ‘I just felt fear.’

Colum wonders how Hara ‘was able to leave the classroom and nobody saw him’. He doesn’t recall the abuse happening again and didn’t tell anyone about it.

‘I just thought, "Okay, shit happens, get on with life". I had no idea of the psychological implications of what had happened. I knew there was something wrong with me. I mean, I had periods of depression starting as early as 16. I didn't know why. They’d last for maybe a year, two years and then I’d come out of them – and then I’d go back in, so they were periodic. And that happened until I actually went to a doctor.’

In the mid-1990s, Colum contacted a person overseeing a website that documented abuse by clergy. He was told there weren’t any other reports of Hara abusing children but that he should contact a particular police officer to report the matter. When Colum called the given number he was told the officer was on leave or had left the force. He didn’t call back to pursue it any further.

Then a decade later, Colum’s sister sent him a newspaper article that mentioned Hara’s abuse of other students.

The following year Colum contacted staff at Towards Healing. A meeting was arranged; a lengthy process of assessment and acceptance of his claim ensued, which Colum found very traumatic.

At the first meeting Colum was told to document what had happened. ‘I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was given no preparation except to meet her, and the next thing I knew she said, “I want you to write down your complaint”. I thought, huh? “And what you want”. Anyway, so I did that.’

Colum found the whole thing ‘very business-like’, and was upset when he later found out the assigned mediator was an employee of the Catholic Church.

‘I found very little sense of empathy or compassion, and it was all kind of designed to get me to sign on the bottom line so that I wouldn’t be carrying anything further in terms of legal action or whatever.’

When the time came for negotiating the settlement, he was given the name of a lawyer but met him for only five minutes before the final meeting. He was excluded from discussions about compensation payments even though he’d stated he wanted to be present during those negotiations. He accepted $33,000 because he ‘wanted to get it over and done with’.

One of his requests had been for an apology and when he said he hadn’t received one, the Brother overseeing the process told him that he had. When Colum looked back at correspondence he found the third paragraph in a letter stating they were ‘sorry for the actions and attitudes to which you were subjected’.

The signatory had also written of his ‘hope that gradually your unfortunate memories may become less intrusive and that all the events, including those of your school days, will be better integrated into a life that is much easier to live with’.

‘That was their apology. I suppose in my own mind I just wanted a letter saying, “We sincerely apologise”. I don’t know, it was buried somewhere and I think when I read it I didn’t feel like it was an apology.’

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