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Dermot James's story

‘I couldn’t read and write very good in those days. Even now I can’t.’

Dermot struggled with dyslexia at school in Sydney in the 1950s. His reading problem was largely ignored while he was in primary school and he threw himself into various sports to get out of schoolwork. But his literacy troubles were spotted when he was sent to a Catholic College run by the De La Salle Order for his secondary schooling.

Dermot’s English teacher, Mr Dickens, spoke to his parents and offered to help Dermot with some extra lessons. ‘I would stay back after school and he was going to tutor me’, Dermot told the Commissioner.

‘He’d be sitting down and I’d be standing beside him, and then he would play with me, type of thing … That went on for quite a while. And then I was dead scared of him.’

Dermot was 13 years old. He could not bring himself to tell his parents what was happening. ‘Then I tried to get out of going to see him … I’d think of an excuse.’ Dermot lied about having sports training to go to and began skipping the tutoring. His parents realised he was missing both the classes and sport, however, and insisted he return to Dickens.

‘But I couldn’t say why I didn’t want to go and see the teacher, so it kept going on a bit, on and on.’

Dickens contacted Dermot’s mother and invited Dermot to his home during the holidays for a few days of intensive tutoring. ‘I still couldn’t say no.’ Dermot’s parents drove him over and dropped him off at the pleasant family home of Mr and Mrs Dickens. On the first morning Dermot was taken to the beach for a swim.

‘When we return to Mr Dickens’s home he told me that he had prepared some lessons for me but before we did that he was going to run a bath for me. Mr Dickens watched me as I undressed to have a bath and stayed in the bathroom watching me as I bathed for several minutes before leaving the room.’

Mrs Dickens appeared a little later with a towel and helped Dermot dry off. ‘This was very uncomfortable as she spent time drying my private parts.’ Dermot was then given some lunch, which he could barely eat. ‘I felt very frightened and anxious around them both.’

Dickens showed Dermot to his home office. ‘When I got in there I knew what was going to happen. I sat on the lounge in his office and he fondled my genitals again. On this occasion he exposed himself again and masturbated while fondling me, to the point of ejaculation.’

Dermot never revealed the abuse to his parents. ‘I didn’t say anything. I could not say to my mother … All my life I didn’t tell anybody …

‘I know now they would definitely understand but I could not come to that. I had no knowledge - whether I felt it was my fault, but I could not.’

Dermot believes the abuse all but ended his chances of learning to read and write properly. He left school as soon as he was able, at 14, and took up a trade. His mother told him he should keep working on his literacy, which he would need for technical college. ‘[She] said there was another teacher that could help me as I got older …

‘He came and I just freeze. I couldn’t listen to what he was telling me and tried to learn. I just didn’t want to be beside a man, in that respect.’

Dermot had to abandon the tutoring. The distrust he felt towards males infected all of his early adult life. ‘I had mates. I’d clown around and that.’ But in any enclosed space, like a pub or a friend’s home, Dermot would ‘freeze up’ in the company of men.

Dermot lived for half a century without revealing his childhood history. Then, as the family sat around the dinner table, discussion turned to the Royal Commission. Dermot’s wife suddenly revealed that she had been abused as a child during her time at a boarding school. Her disclosure prompted Dermot to tell his story to his family at last.

Not long after that Dermot became aware that an old friend of his from school days had also been sexually abused by Dickens. The two men wondered how many other victims suffered at the hands of the English teacher.

Dermot has not sought counselling nor compensation, but he chose to tell his story to the Royal Commission to help keep children safe in the future.

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