Erin was the second youngest child and only girl born into a devout Catholic family. Her father was a World War II returnee and her mother a homemaker who had numerous hospital admissions for treatment of depression with electroconvulsive therapy.
In later life, Erin reflected that her family background had probably had an impact on the way she became attached to her teacher, Carl Penn.
In the late 1970s, she was in Year 11 at a Catholic school in Sydney. The bus she caught made her 10 minutes late each day and she’d miss roll call taken by Penn. Though he would see her arrive, for a whole term Penn marked Erin as absent and she was reprimanded by the principal. Penn then offered to pick her up from home in his car and this was accepted by Erin, her parents, the teachers and principal, with no one questioning that Penn’s trip now took him an extra hour.
Soon after the transport arrangement was made, Penn started a sexual relationship with Erin. He told her that he’d get into a lot of trouble if she told anyone, and that it was really ‘her doing’ that he felt aroused.
Erin’s constant presence in Penn’s company wasn’t addressed by anyone despite her accompanying him to other teachers' homes for dinner and often being in his office. Looking back, she thought it wasn’t frowned upon in that era for a teacher of 32 years of age to be having close contact with a 16-year-old.
In Year 12, Erin disclosed what was happening with Penn to her best friend who went home and told her mother. The girl’s mother then rang Erin’s mother and told her. Searching through her daughter’s bedroom, Erin’s mother found photos of Penn and Erin in bed together and took the photos to the school principal.
The principal decided that since it was Erin’s final year and Penn was leaving for a job overseas the following year, he didn’t need to do anything and Penn was kept on for the next few months. Going to the police or contacting senior education or welfare authorities wasn’t considered, and Erin and Penn continued to see each other as before. Erin said her mother was ‘completely trusting of the whole scenario’ and assumed the school would take whatever action was necessary.
The following year, Erin accompanied Penn overseas. They stayed three years, before returning to Australia to raise a family. In the years they were together, Erin said she became more subservient to her husband who’d often make derogatory remarks and put her down in front of the children. Seeing her daughters grow up was the catalyst for a reappraisal of her relationship, and she realised she didn’t want her daughters repeating patterns of behaviour they might have seen in her.
In the late 1990s, Erin decided to leave the marriage. Already estranged from her birth family, she now encountered negative responses elsewhere, including from her older children, who thought she shouldn’t abandon their father.
‘There’s been a lot of disappointment and hurt in that department’, Erin said. ‘And I feel that I’ve been blamed for not fulfilling the marriage. Perhaps if I had been like Mrs Bouquet [Bucket] and kept up the appearances you know. Kids, there was a little bit like, “Well, why couldn’t you keep doing that, Mum?” I feel just a little bit sad that they don’t understand that it wasn’t as easy, that you can’t just do that.’
Penn again went overseas and this time remained. He told Erin that she’d struggle, and throughout the children’s growing years he refused to contribute child support payments. Erin took on part time jobs and worked to attain tertiary qualifications so she could become a school counsellor.
She told the Commissioner that she’d noticed there was still a tendency for some teachers to make inappropriate and sexualised comments about teenage girls. She’d confronted several colleagues about it and expressed concern about teachers who’d been moved between government schools after allegations were made of them behaving inappropriately with students. She liked the work though, and felt that she was making progress in her own life as well.
‘I feel like I’ve come to the other side now and I feel that self-actualisation process. I still want to reach my potential but I can see that I’m becoming the person that I could be. You know how you reach your full potential in life? That’s what I’m trying. I’m still striving on that pathway and hoping to impart that to [my] daughters.
‘That was the thing that the kids don’t understand, it wasn’t just leaving for me. I knew I’d repeated my mother’s subservient ways etc. It was to say, no I’m not going to see my daughters do the same thing. When someone’s not treating them well, then they should not put up with it. So it was also for them to realise we’re in the lucky country in Australia, that women can have a go, and a lot of countries you can’t. I’ve got an education. I’m not disabled. I had a lot going for me. They don’t realise that was the impetus for me to think, I’m going to move on from here.’