‘They talk about stranger danger, but the trouble is they’re not strangers.’
In the 1960s, in a small public school in regional New South Wales, six-year old Fiona was sexually abused by her teacher, Mr Russel. She told the Commissioner:
‘He’d get you to read out the front, read a book at his desk. And everybody else sitting down had to read, had their heads down. And he’d pick who he’d want to come out the front. And this same scenario went on for a fair while. And he’d say, “Stand closer, stand a bit closer, because I can’t hear you”. And then he’d just put his hands down your pants and fondle you and then he’d just call out for the next person.’
Frightened of what Mr Russel was doing, Fiona tried to avoid school. Her mother noticed and asked her why.
‘I just said to her one day, “Because my teacher puts his hands down my pants”. And then that was it. Mum went in to the principal and reported it. And apparently my sister Ellen had been carrying on as well, and getting upset. And Mum asked her what was wrong and she basically said the same thing.’
The police got involved and took statements from Fiona and her sister. After that Mr Russel left the school. Fiona doesn’t know what happened to him from there. The only clue she has is a dubious story that she heard third-hand.
‘She [Mum] said that a policeman had come up to the farm and told her that he’d been killed in a car accident. But she said she never believed that. That’s what she told my sister.’
Whatever the truth might have been, the townsfolk saw it as a scandal that upset their otherwise orderly little town. They blamed Fiona’s mum for speaking out and ostracised her from the community.
Meanwhile, the abuse had a significant impact on Fiona. While it was happening she felt constantly fearful – ‘I couldn’t do my schoolwork. I was paralysed with fear. ‘Cause I’d just sit at the table thinking “Don’t call me, don’t call me”. Sometimes I was lucky. He didn’t call me, he called other people.’
When the abuse stopped the fear continued.
‘I get scared easily. Things scare me easily. Suffer from depression. Tried to commit suicide twice … With my own children I sort of became over-protective because I’d always think “What’s this person’s intentions? Are they good? Are they not good?” Always a suspicion.’
Over the years Fiona has received help from doctors and counsellors, but she still struggles with the legacy of the abuse every day.
‘Even though it happened so long ago, it’s always there in your mind. No matter how hard you want to get rid of it, it is a part of you. It never goes away.’
When the Commissioner asked her how she’s managed to keep herself together while working and raising a family, Fiona said:
‘I just try to not look too far into the future. I just like to take one day at a time, not look too far ahead. It’s probably not the best thing not to have long-term plans and goals but that’s the way I’ve coped with it. Just take one day at a time. Whatever it throws at you that day, that’s what you deal with.’