‘I was told to respect people with authority whether it be a policeman or the headmaster or a doctor or whoever. When they took advantage of that, these kids they must have known were vulnerable, [it’s horrible].’
Elsa was born into a large family living in regional New South Wales. She was a baby in the mid-1950s when her eldest sister became her legal guardian. Her mother didn’t want any more children, her father had left the family and her sister wasn’t able to conceive.
Living with her older sister was ‘fine’ but Elsa would have liked more contact with her mother. When her sister finally did conceive and give birth to a child, attention towards Elsa, who’d started misbehaving, faded. Threatened with being sent to a distant girls’ home, Elsa then became a quiet and obedient child.
In the early 1960s, Elsa was attending the local public school. In Grade 4 she was taught by Mr Callaghan who was also the headmaster. Over a period of a year, Callaghan sexually abused Elsa several times in the classroom during school hours.
He would call Elsa to the front of class, stroke her legs and put his hands inside her underwear. He also took her to the storeroom at the back of the classroom, and sexually abused her there. On occasions, Callaghan would call Elsa’s friend, Cecilia, and he’d abuse both girls at the same time.
Elsa was told the abuse their ‘little secret’. She was scared of Callaghan and worried that she would be punished or sent away if she told anyone about it.
‘Mr Callaghan would reward me with money and gifts. Pens, pencils, erasers … He would give me some money after each assault and told me to go to the local shop and buy some lollies. He made sure I ate them all before returning to school so there wasn’t any evidence where I got the lollies from.’
Shortly after the abuse started, Elsa was introduced to Mr Bedward, a friend of Callaghan’s who lived close to the school. On several occasions, she and her classmates were playing at Bedward’s house when he told them to put their hands up high in the air. As their skirts rose and made their underwear visible, Bedward would take photographs. Elsa still has some of the photos in her possession.
In the mid-1960s, Callaghan suddenly left the school and Elsa didn’t see him or Bedward again. She never told anyone about the men and their behaviour, but it started to impact upon her in different ways. She stopped concentrating at school and would often act out. She left school altogether when she was 14 years old.
Elsa wanted to be a midwife but had to work full time from the age of 15 to support herself. She said her brother-in-law ‘drank, smoked and gambled away’ most of the money she paid in board. Elsa eventually moved out of her sister’s home and their relationship had always been strained. She felt her sister ‘didn’t protect’ her properly at the time the abuse was occurring.
Throughout her adult years, Elsa has experienced flashbacks, especially during times of sexual intimacy. This has been a factor in the breakdown of several relationships. She’s had difficulty in managing money, and has always been a heavy drinker.
Elsa first disclosed details of her abuse in the mid-1970s when she told her first husband. She didn’t really feel that he understood or supported her and were it not for a classmate contacting her via social media in the early 2010s, she would have ‘taken it to the grave’. A counsellor she’s been seeing has been of great help and she sees her regularly.
Elsa never reported Callaghan or Bedward to the police. She understands that Callaghan is dead and that at some point Bedward had been charged with child sexual abuse offences. She is currently seeking legal advice about making a civil claim for compensation.
‘If anyone did anything to my grandchildren or children that I know, I’d go straight for the throat. I know how detrimental it has been to my life and marriage.’