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Desmond John's story

‘Even my father, when I told him recently about it, he said to me he didn’t understand how people would keep going back to an abuser over a period of months. It didn’t make any sense to him.

'I don’t think people necessarily understand the profound grooming, and the desire to be special, the desire to be given attention, to be part of a community.’

Desmond was an extremely vulnerable young man when he first met Frank – lonely, naive and marginalised. His dream career had been denied to him by a medical check and he had no clear idea of what he wanted to do. He had just started university in the late 1970s at age 16 – younger than his peers because he was smart in primary school and had been moved up a grade, which meant he didn’t have many friends.

‘I think, given my vulnerability at that time, what I really desperately needed was career guidance. I think in hindsight, "Yeah, that was a turning point" – and at that very point he just completely manipulated the situation.’

He responded to a notice to visit the student counselling service, where he met Frank, a psychologist in his 50s. After he went to a few group sessions on communications skills, Desmond asked Frank for a one-on-one session.

‘He was brilliant, a very clever, intelligent counsellor … very much pushing people into emotional reactions, and pushing buttons and getting people to get into traumatic feelings.

'I found it exciting. I saw the way he popped people’s bubbles and I had a bubble that I needed popped. For a long time afterwards I thought, "You’ve done a lot of good by popping that bubble" – but he kind of smashed the bubble and left a bit of wreckage behind. It was smash the bubble and take advantage of the vulnerable person underneath.’

In their one-on-one session, Frank lay on the floor and asked Desmond to try ‘an experiment’ and to touch him wherever he wanted. Desmond said he was still very sexually naive and doesn’t understand why he did so, but he touched Frank on the crotch.

From that point on Frank got Desmond to meet him at his house, in his car or elsewhere away from the university. He masturbated Desmond and got him to do the same to him. He once asked Desmond to have anal sex but Desmond refused and Frank didn’t force him. Desmond said he was always charming. The abuse continued for several months and – Desmond later found out – he became known as one of ‘Frank’s boys’.

‘It took me a long time to work out what happened was really, really wrong. One of the messages I want to try to get across today is how difficult it is – or was – for my mind to accept that I was completely conned at the time.’

He saw Frank again one time, and Frank told Desmond he thought he was gay and had schizophrenia. Desmond said he knew he wasn’t gay, and always felt uncomfortable about their encounters, but was just craving some love and attention. After that he stopped seeing Frank.

Desmond read the Commissioner a letter that Frank had written him after a residential encounter group. It said in part: ‘It’s been hard to love you sometimes … I don’t have the time as I must get my needs met too … Your loneliness is self-inflicted … Kissing lets people in, so does fucking.’

Desmond said the letter still resonates with him and it was painful for him to read.

‘I think I just buried it for many years and I pretended to myself that he had helped me, because your mind doesn’t want to accept that you’ve been conned.’

During his university years, Desmond had a few relationships with women but he said he was still very lost. He experimented with drugs and then fell in with a meditation group, whose leader, a guru figure, became a powerful ‘significant other’ in his life for the next 15 years.

‘Throughout my whole 20s I was celibate, basically like a Buddhist monk, and didn’t have any relationships and was in this cult thing. So again I was looking for guidance … Had I not met Frank and been spat out the other end, I’m sure I probably wouldn’t have got into this cult.’

Desmond is sure there were others who Frank abused, but they were probably older than him. He also thinks other counselling staff knew what was going on but nobody said anything. He said it’s very important for the community to recognise that young people don’t suddenly become self-aware and lose all vulnerability the moment they turn 17.

‘He was a powerful person. And there’s the bystander effect as well – if no one else is doing something, it must be okay and why should I put my hand up?’

Desmond had told a few friends about Frank's abuse and they advised him to report it; but he never did. He said he was partly still convincing himself that Frank had helped him in some way, but also that he didn’t want to go down such a hard road.

As he went through adult life, Desmond struggled with depression and suicidal feelings. He has been through many different counsellors and said he has never found any real relief from feeling confused and lost. However, he recently decided to give a statement to police in case anyone else came forward; he was very impressed with the respect he was given during the process. He was very grateful for the opportunity to tell his story to the Royal Commission.

‘I feel comfortable now sharing my story, it’s been a long time. I’m confident in myself, I know what happened and I can defend my record and my memory … So if this story becomes a more public story, I’m quite happy with that.’

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