At the boarding school Den attended in New South Wales from the age of 13, there was a hierarchy of fields of importance. Rugby topped the list followed by army cadets, other sports and then academia. As a boy who preferred sitting in the library reading books, Den was a target for bullying by other boys and reprimands from teachers, and he said the school’s reputation was placed well above the welfare of students.
On several occasions Den was dragged out of bed at night and castigated by one of the priests or Brothers for not fitting in and participating in the school’s ethos. Punishment was meted out equally for both bully and bullied and once, when a Brother discovered Den being beaten up, he and the offender were strapped the same number of times.
It was the mid-60s and Den, 13, was in cadet training camp, lying on his bed. One of his peers grabbed him and masturbated him until he ejaculated. He said he felt completely lost and didn’t know what to do about it.
The incident occurred soon after the suicide of his good friend, who’d confided to Den that he’d been to confession and been told by the priest he couldn’t get absolution for his sins. The priest had told Den’s friend that he wasn’t allowed to see any other priest and that he wouldn’t absolve him until he did ‘certain things’.
His friend didn’t articulate what the ‘things’ were, but in an effort to help, Den went to see the priest who was known to his family and lived in another part of the school grounds. He found the priest sitting on a seat with a young girl aged about 10 propped up before him on a table. ‘He went bright red and said, “Get out!” I took a step back and shut the door. “That’s the end of that”, I thought, in terms of helping my friend.’
Den told the Commissioner he didn’t attend his friend’s funeral and apart from an announcement, couldn’t recall the death being acknowledged by the school. ‘The personal reaction I had is that this place is really unsafe. You can actually die as a result of what happens here.’
Den was at the school four years and in that time was sexually abused in his dormitory by four boys who held him down and attempted to masturbate him. ‘I wasn’t physically strong enough to defend myself.’
On another occasion, he was taken by one of the Brothers to visit the boarding house’s visiting doctor and told to take off his pants and lie face down on the bed. ‘He inserted his hand very firmly up my rectum, up one side and then the other, and I was in a lot of pain.’ Afterwards the doctor asked Den which side hurt more. He replied they both hurt the same and the doctor told him to get out. ‘It was very, very strange’, Den said.
After years of pleading with his parents, Den was finally taken out of the boarding school and attended a local high school, but failed his final year. After three attempts, he passed when he was in his 30s, and went on to study law and work in legal firms for three decades.
He could usually only stay in a job for three to five years, he said. ‘After that, I’d feel I couldn’t hang onto the job – something about having to confront issues. I shut down completely if someone yells at me.’
Before telling his story to the Royal Commission, Den had never disclosed his abuse. He’d briefly considered civil action against the school and Catholic Church but thought it ‘wasn’t worth the candle’ in terms of the stress it would cause him. ‘I thought it might improve the institution but the sad view I formed was that it was beyond help and that nothing I said would ever change it, then or now. I know too much about how they operate.’