‘I just thought to myself that if I just let him do what he wanted he wouldn’t hurt me and, more importantly, he wouldn’t have me expelled. In [the 1970s] it was a major disgrace and humiliation to be expelled from a school, especially a private school.’
Denis commenced his high school education at an elite private institution when he was 13. Having come from a poorer background than most of the other students, he stood out from the crowd. Within a week a teacher named Robert Maher took a ‘special interest’ in him. As Denis recalled, ‘He would put his hands on me, using the guise that he was straightening my tie and checking my uniform’.
Other boys saw this happening and teased Denis about it. Humiliated and embarrassed, Denis decided to stand up to Maher and put a stop to his behaviour. But when he finally plucked up the courage to say a few words, Maher laughed at him, ridiculed him in front of the other boys and dragged him into the change rooms.
‘Once there’, Denis said, ‘he slammed me into a corner near the showers and forced me to undo his pants and masturbate him’.
Things only got worse from that moment. Over the next two years Denis was sexually abused by Maher on many occasions. The abuse included masturbation as well as oral and anal rape.
To keep Denis quiet, Maher used verbal threats, saying he would hurt Denis and expel him from the school if he ever spoke out. To keep Denis restrained during the attacks, Maher used physical violence, twisting Denis’s arm behind his back or squeezing his throat so tightly Denis ‘could hardly breathe’.
As the severity of the abuse increased, Maher became more controlling. Several times a week he would ‘demonstrate his power’ by trumping up a charge and sending Denis to see Mr Corrigan, the school disciplinarian. There Denis would be whipped across his bare backside with a cane until he bled.
Eventually Denis couldn’t take any more and decided to report the abuse. He told at least five different people over a two-year period and none of them intervened. When he told his mother:
‘She gave me a powerful backhander that knocked me onto the floor. She yelled at me, maliciously telling me that I didn’t appreciate the excellent education that she and my father were paying for. She yelled that “that sort of thing wouldn’t happen at [the school]”.’
When the headmaster stormed into the change rooms one day and started berating Denis for his poor performance on the footy field, Denis broke down. He explained that he couldn’t run fast because of the wounds inflicted by Corrigan. He explained that Maher was the one who sent him to Corrigan, and he explained that Maher had been sexually abusing him. The headmaster sent Denis to the nurse and promised to take care of everything else.
‘I duly attended the nurse’s clinic two days later and never heard another word from [the headmaster]. In fact, when he saw me, he just turned and walked away.’
Denis also tried to tell some of his fellow students what was going on. They advised him to keep quiet for his own good. Denis had no one to talk to and no reprieve from the abuse. Even at home in his bed he’d have ‘severe panic attacks and horrific nightmares’.
When Denis was about 14 the headmaster contacted his parents and advised them that Denis should leave the school. He said it was because of Denis’s poor academic performance, but Denis believes it was because of the complaints he’d made about the abuse.
Denis moved to a state high school, left when he was 17 and started work. By his mid-40s he had a successful career and a long-term relationship. Then he committed a violent crime against an adult and ‘lost everything’. At the sentencing hearing the judge turned to the matter of Denis’s horrific childhood and discounted it with a few casual words.
Denis himself discounted it too, until very recently when he spoke to some lawyers from the Knowmore legal service. They pointed out the link between the abuse inflicted by Maher and Denis’s subsequent crime.
‘It was a lightbulb moment, that I understood: “Hang on a minute, there is a link between the two situations” … It’s like if you’re doing something in Excel on a computer and you get to a state where it’s a mess, you just go push the Undo button until you get right back to the beginning, to where you were going straight. And where I went off the track is after I went to [the school].’