‘I’m just grateful that I’m able to have a voice. This is an old scar on my heart, you know’, Deirdre told the Commissioner.
Deirdre had spoken before about the abuse she suffered in the mid-1950s at a Melbourne primary school - to her husband, her children and in counselling sessions, both group and individual. She has had eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment to help her banish the images of her abuser’s face from her mind. The opportunity to speak to the Commission was another significant moment in dealing with the effects of the abuse. ‘It’s been cathartic for me’, she said at the end of the session.
Deirdre was 10 or 11 when the abuse by her classroom teacher, Robert Niven, began. He asked for a volunteer to go and buy his lunch. Deirdre, a shy child who wanted to please, put her hand up for the job.
‘I think this teacher targeted children like me, who were vulnerable and easy to manipulate’, Deirdre said.
When she returned to the classroom with the lunch, the other children had gone outside to play. ‘He locked the door after I came in … and he kissed me as a husband would kiss a wife. And I was shocked but I just had no voice. I just didn’t know what to do. From that day on it was constant. It was penetration, every day. And I thought I was the bad one. I thought I invited it.’
Niven was a bully as well as an abuser, a frightening figure who intimidated the children in the class at the beginning of the year by making them watch as he beat a small dog in the playground almost to death.
‘I realised over the years it was his way of controlling us as children. It was a message he was giving us’, Deirdre said.
Deirdre was not the only child in the class he sexually molested. He would take small groups of girls or boys into the sickbay, she said. He would lock the door and make them masturbate him and kiss his penis. ‘He used to lie on top of us. And none of us said anything.’
Deirdre’s parents were ‘quite authoritarian’, and brought up their children to believe that community figures such as teachers, doctors and police were to be trusted, respected and obeyed. As time went on Niven threatened Deirdre by saying if she didn’t do what he wanted, he’d do the same to her younger sister instead.
‘He had absolute control over me … I was so scared for my younger sister, who was coming up two grades behind me. I’d always had to look after her so I did what he wanted me to do.’
At the time and for years afterward Deirdre felt terrible guilt as a result of the abuse. She felt she had allowed it to occur. As well, she explained, ‘The guilt of actually enjoying the stimulation was a huge thing for me, and I think probably for all children who are penetrated ... He used to question me about my period. I was nine and 10 - I didn’t even know when I was nine what a period was. It used to excite him I think.’
Niven was eventually investigated as a result of complaints made by another parent. Officials came to the school – Deirdre still doesn’t know who they were – and took children one by one out of the classroom to interrogate them about Niven. ‘We were very confused. Most of us felt it was our fault. “Did it really happen, or are you just making it up?” – those sort of questions.’
She wasn’t sure what happened to him after that, but he was replaced by a different classroom teacher.
Deirdre struggled throughout her teenage years with the trauma of what had occurred. ‘My teenage years were hell, with my self-loathing and lack of self-worth and self-esteem’, she said.
‘At 13 I … would look in the mirror and say “Why are you alive? Why do you exist?” I really believed I was evil.’
A few years later her father died, followed not many months later by her grandmother. ‘I lost my lifelines’, she said. She had a tempestuous relationship with her mother, who didn’t want to believe the abuse had occurred. That denial was extremely distressing. ‘I felt that if my mother didn’t believe me then who would?’
Deirdre married young and had several children, now adult and with families of their own. She was a good mother, she said, very protective of her children’s vulnerabilities and determined to make sure they were well informed about what they might find in the world. ‘I wanted them to learn to say yes appropriately and no appropriately’, she explained. She had a professional career and then retrained so she could work with children who had been sexually abused.
Looking back, she believes Niven must have abused hundreds of children.
‘There were children before me and there were children after me’, she said. ‘And I’ve been fortunate - I don’t consider myself a victim, I consider myself a survivor. I’m very independent … I’ve had I believe a really rewarding life, and he didn’t damage that for me.’
Nonetheless, she said, she cannot forgive him for what he did. ‘And I don’t hate anyone but I do hate him. Which is terrible I know, but he really did take my childhood away. I was always scared after that.’