Denis grew up in the 1960s, one of three children in a Ukrainian family whose parents spoke little English. The Ukrainian community where the family lived was small, close-knit and insular. ‘As a child if I went to town and did something wrong and somebody saw me, you’d know the drums would be beating and my mother would know within 24 hours’, Denis told the Commissioner.
On Saturdays the children went to Ukrainian school at a community centre, which was also home to various Ukrainian youth groups.
Denis recalled spending a lot of time alone and feeling very isolated as he grew up. Going to Ukrainian school on Saturday mornings meant he couldn’t play sport. His parents worked on Saturdays, so after school Denis would often be alone at the hall for several hours, waiting for them to pick him up.
Waiting on his own, Denis became an easy target for Artem Seiber, an adult leader of one of the youth groups that also met at the hall. ‘He lured me into – you know – in the sense of here’s 50 cents and come with me sort of thing, into the toilet’, Denis said. There he got Denis to masturbate him.
Denis said it was impossible for him to tell anyone about what Seiber made him do. He knew he would be met with disbelief. ‘They think it can’t happen, especially in those days. It’s a community, you know, we don’t have these things.’ His mother, in particular, would have regarded any suggestion of wrongdoing by someone within the community as ‘sacrilege’, he said.
Denis’s wife Marla, who came with him to the Royal Commission, spoke about this in a little more detail.
‘His mother is a very strong woman who did everything for the Church without questioning anything, and did everything for the Ukrainian community without questioning anything, because that’s where she felt she belonged’, Marla explained.
‘That’s where she had an identity. That’s where she could contribute. And if Denis was to bring that into disrepute, she wouldn’t believe it.’
Denis has still never spoken of the abuse to his mother, who is now in her 90s, or his siblings. ‘I couldn’t go to my sister or my brother and tell them about this … They wouldn’t understand’, he said. But he told Marla about it, and sought counselling, when he was in his late 50s.
‘I was a bit depressed, a bit down, our marriage had its ups and downs, not knowing why – intimacy wasn’t as great, sort of thing – things just built up and as time went on I just got flashbacks of my childhood’, Denis said. ‘I think there was just a build-up of everything … I just felt like I was alone in the family. I couldn’t let anything out. I just felt, like in the cage, and I had to let myself out somehow.’
He has deep regrets about not being able to speak about the abuse at the time, mainly because he fears he was not Seiber’s only victim. But back then it wouldn’t have crossed his mind to go to the police, and there was no one else he could speak to. ‘Something happened to me and I couldn’t say anything about it to anyone because I wouldn’t get assistance, I wouldn’t get help, because for them, it couldn’t happen’, he said.
‘Everybody knows everybody’, Marla added. ‘And whereas that should be something that works for you, it works against you. It’s like being in a country town I guess. Everybody knows everybody’s business. If something happens it depends on who it happens to and how they’re regarded as to whether that’s listened to.’
And as a child, Denis said, he had no chance of being listened to.
Denis is yet to decide whether he’ll report Seiber to the police. He and Marla have discussed the pros and cons. He wants to help ensure Seiber doesn’t molest anyone else. But because he doesn’t remember exact dates and times, he’s concerned too about the possibility that Seiber would escape conviction due to lack of evidence.
‘I’ve been swaying one way, swaying the other way, thinking would I do it or wouldn’t I do it, sort of thing, and I’m leaning towards going forward, on a tentative basis’, Denis said.
Denis had told his adult children about the abuse just a few months before. ‘I held that back for a little while’, he said. Their response has been very supportive. It’s another step in getting his life back on track, he said.
Marla, who is also the child of immigrants, said she understood the difficulty Denis has had speaking out. Growing up at that time was hard, she said. ‘You feel inferior, like you don’t have a right to be here, that your voice doesn’t count … You very rarely had a voice about anything.’