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Dermott Ralph's story

The sexual abuse Dermott experienced in the early 1960s changed the course of his life, he told the Commissioner. Tom Lenton, the lay teacher who made his life a misery for six months, was the head of religious education at a Catholic college in Sydney. He personally recruited Dermott for his Form 5 class when he saw how bright he was.

Lenton had trained as a priest but was never ordained. On the school’s orientation day, during the service in the chapel, Lenton squeezed onto the bench next to Dermott. While Dermott’s mother was standing at the back with the other parents, he rubbed his hand up and down Dermott’s leg. Dermott, only nine years old, thought how strange that was. He wondered if Lenton realised how far up his hand was going.

That same day, when they moved to their various class rooms, Mr Lenton was unhappy with the room he’d been given. He wanted the room without windows and with no walkway, so that the Brothers couldn’t walk past and interfere with the way he ran his classes.

‘Sometimes we like to have a bit of fun and … make a bit of noise’, he told the kids. The school reluctantly gave him the room he wanted and Lenton was ecstatic. Dermott was abused in the new classroom from day one.

Lenton made him sit in the back row where he could walk behind him. He circled the room three or four times each lesson and make it impossible for Dermott to work. The harder the problem, the more uncomfortable he’d make it for him.

He groped Dermott with one hand when he stood next to his desk. ‘He asked did I like it. And I told him that I didn’t. Would I tell? Yes I would. That was the start of our daily fight about being abused.’

On that first day, Lenton opened Dermott’s pants as he stood with his back to the class doing a sum on the board. Lenton wiped off his calculations and kept adding numbers to the problem. ‘Why don’t you turn around and tell the class how bright you think you are?’ he said. ‘Are you prepared to turn around?’ Dermott said no. Lenton said ‘No, I thought so’.

The abuse continued. One feast day, all the Brothers were away and the kids had free time. Lenton said to Dermott ‘You’re staying with me. We’re going to have a picnic’. He locked Dermott in a room, came back dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a hat and gave Dermott some juice. ‘And that’s the last thing I remember for a long time.’

When he woke up, the door was unlocked and he was dressed only in pants. Lenton said to him, ‘You fell asleep so I made you comfortable’. Dermott stood up and went outside. He felt stuff running down his leg. Not until he was older did he realise he’d been raped.

It was then that Lenton started threatening to kill Dermott’s parents. He had a gun, he boasted, and if Dermott’s dad came after him he’d shoot him. For months Dermott was too frightened to disclose the abuse. He went to bed scared he was going to die.

He didn’t talk to anyone in the school. ‘It didn’t occur to me … I don’t think they were that approachable … There weren’t counsellors.’

Finally, things came to a head. Dermott took a knife to school, determined to stab Lenton. But he was very agitated and Lenton grew suspicious. He asked Dermott what was wrong, then made him fetch the knife. Lenton then produced his own knife and told Dermott to go ahead and stab him, because it would be so easy to castrate Dermott.

Dermott realised he couldn’t cope any longer and he told his parents. His parents told the school. Dermott was questioned by the headmaster Brother Rhodes who asked him only one thing – had Lenton touched his water works?

The police rang his dad but Dermott’s not sure if his father had made an official report or not. Either way, the police said that it ‘wouldn’t be much good’ if nine-year-old Dermott gave evidence.

‘I just wished they’d asked me what actually happened because that set off my biggest fears’, Dermott said. He was convinced that friends of Lenton’s would now hunt down his family. ‘That’s the only point I really wanted to make.’ But it was as though everyone was just too embarrassed to delve deeper.

Tom Lenton was removed from the school and was appointed director of an orphanage. ‘Is that the best thing you can do?’ Dermott’s dad asked Brother Rhodes. ‘I feel really sorry for those kids then.’

Dermott gave Rhodes the names of other kids that Lenton had mentioned to him. But they all denied having anything to do with Lenton or even seeing him abuse Dermott in class.

Dermott was treated as though he were tainted. So he began cutting people off. He thought maybe he was attractive to adults because he liked to be cuddled, so he didn’t let anyone cuddle him anymore.

And at school he couldn’t do the subjects he wanted. One Brother said, ‘I don’t want him mixing with the good kids. He’s experienced’. Dermott’s only other choice was a class for misbehaving kids, ‘which is where I went from Year 7 to Year 10’.

Dermott changed schools in senior high school and his grades got better. But any one-to-one tuition made him highly anxious. He still has panic attacks and is not particularly assertive.

He is married but there are ongoing issues in his relationship. He gets his strength from music, counselling and from having good male role models in his life.

He’d always believed his dad might have killed Tom Lenton so he waited until his dad died before he himself reported the abuse to the police. They told him Lenton was now dead.

Sometimes Dermott goes to the beach and swims out way past the breakers. ‘There are no priests out there’ he told the Commissioner.

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