In the mid-1980s Ellen and her family moved to a new house outside of Melbourne. At the age of eight she was sent to the local Catholic primary school where her arrival coincided with that of Mr Backhouse, a young man fresh out of teacher’s college.
‘He was very friendly’, Ellen recalled. ‘I said it was my first day at the school and he said, “Oh, it’s my first day too”.’
It was not long before Backhouse began to sexually abuse not only Ellen but almost every other girl in the class.
‘He’d come around to correct your work. So he’d sort of kneel down next to you, pop his right arm around the back of the chair and pretend he was kneeling down looking at your work and while he was doing that he would place his hand up under your dress and fondle and feel your vagina over the underpants and sometimes underneath the underpants.’
Sometimes Backhouse would take girls up to his desk and abuse them there and sometimes he would take them into the staff room.
‘Very brazen, now I think of it, to take a pupil into the staff room. And the abuse would sometimes happen in there as well. And I was told, “This is our secret, you’re not to tell anyone”.’
Ellen said that all the kids in the class knew about the abuse but were too scared to speak out. ‘You just wanted to keep your head down and not make eye contact so you weren’t the next victim.’
The abuse continued for several months before ending abruptly.
‘I was going to bed one night and the phone rang and Mum came into my room and said, “Has Mr Backhouse been touching you? It’s okay, you can tell me, you’re not in any trouble at all”. And I said yes and she asked where, and I explained what happened and then she comforted me and then obviously she went out and made more phone calls.’
Later Ellen learned that one of the other girls in her class had broken down and reported the teacher to her mother, who then contacted some of the other parents. The next day, Backhouse was gone from the school.
Ellen’s mother has since filled her in on what happened, explaining how the headmaster and the parish priest spoke to the parents and reassured them that Backhouse would be removed. The school didn’t offer any counselling and didn’t mention the police.
‘Mum said at the time the parents amongst themselves thought about going to the police but once again they weren’t offered any support for what direction to take … and at the time they felt they didn’t want to put us through a court system and have to put us up on the stand and feel that we’d done something wrong.’
In her late teens Ellen started to feel the psychological impact of the abuse.
‘I had my first boyfriend, and you’re experimenting with your sexuality, and I suppose you watch movies and they’re all beautiful love scenes. And for me everything was very uncomfortable if he went to touch me around the vaginal area. I would just freeze. And I couldn’t work out why I was uncomfortable and then everything came flooding back for me.’
Ellen told her boyfriend about the abuse and he was very supportive. She also told a counsellor and found that helpful, but there were no quick solutions and eventually her relationship fell apart.
‘One of the main reasons was my sexual issues. There was nothing he was doing wrong, it was me and I just didn’t know how to enjoy people touching me. I just thought I’m never going to become a mum and that was something I’d always wanted to be.’
A few years later Ellen received an unexpected call from the police. One of her classmates had pressed charges against Backhouse. Ellen made a statement and was told the police would contact her again before the trial to get her victim impact statement. But they never did, and Ellen opened the paper a few months later to discover that Backhouse had gone to trial and received a two-year suspended sentence.
‘That was devastating. First that I wasn’t included and no one wanted to hear how it had impacted on me as a child and as an adult when I was having issues, and secondly that he got off.’
Years later Ellen married and had two kids. She said that her husband is supportive but her issues with intimacy still cause problems in the relationship. She also suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said that she had a breakdown when she first heard about the Royal Commission.
‘Talking with my psychologist I realised, over many sessions, that for me to get closure – I didn’t have a voice as a child. No one’s really heard my story. I gave it to the police all those years ago and that was it, nothing seems to be followed through. And finally I thought that with the Royal Commission this will help and stop it happening with future generations. It’s sort of part of my healing as well.’