Gavin was only 15 years old when his dad dropped him off at the training centre in suburban Melbourne. It was the early 1970s and Gavin was about to embark on a live-in apprenticeship.
The foreman, Noel White, seemed friendly enough when he met Gavin at the gate. They walked together to the dorm and Gavin set his bags down, then Noel led him to another room where a group of men were lounging around, drinking.
‘Noel introduced me. It all seemed pleasant but then I heard this voice, this woman’s voice going, “Oh, I love the young ones”. And my attention was directed to this woman who was leaning back naked … in the middle of all these guys.’
Gavin was shocked. He’d grown up in a strictly Catholic household and had never seen a naked woman before. He didn’t know what to do. The woman and the men started taunting him, making lewd comments that he didn’t understand.
Gavin tried to laugh it off but the men only got louder and more excited. They grabbed him and threw him to the floor. He felt hands clutching at his pants, trying to rip them off. He fought back.
‘They almost got my pants off and then suddenly I was sort of lifted up and then thrown on this woman and she kind of locked me in there and then they were pushing my backside and saying all these things.’
Finally there was a ‘break in the pressure’ and Gavin got up and ran from the room. He sprinted out the gate, looking for his dad. The road was empty.
‘I was really upset. Noel White came out and started saying stuff like, “The boys are just having a bit of fun, having a laugh, it’s nothing”.’
Gavin made his way back to the dorm, trying to convince himself that he’d overreacted and that he should toughen up and get over it. He also thought about how thrilled his dad had been when he got Gavin this opportunity – and how disappointed he would be if Gavin ran home to him now.
‘I was in a bit of a dream of his … It made it harder for me because when things started happening the last thing I wanted to do was tell him. Or tell anyone.’
A week later some men grabbed Gavin in the shower, dragged him onto the lawn and painted his testicles with oil. The men called this his ‘initiation’, but as Gavin soon learned, the same technique was also used as a form of punishment. He estimates that he copped it at least 20 times over the next few years.
Three of the men – Campbell, Wade and Adams – took these acts of torture even further. At night, drunk and aggressive, they would blunder into Gavin’s dorm and wake him. ‘They were always just pretending like it was all fun and all of that. And you really had to be so careful the way you responded and reacted.’
Gavin soon realised that if he didn’t ‘play along and laugh it off and put up with a little bit of hands under the covers’ then the trio would get more violent and dangerous, their attacks escalating to include things like penetration. Intellectually, he knew this, but in practice he was always too terrified to make it work. Looking back, he believes that this is part of the reason why the men targeted him especially: they enjoyed his fear.
Sometimes the trio would bring other men and women into the dorm and try to drag Gavin into their ‘gang bangs’. Drugs were passed around. At first Gavin took the pills and smoked the joints they gave him because he was afraid to refuse, but as the years went by and the men showed no sign of relenting in their abuse, Gavin embraced the drugs as a form of escape.
By 19 he was taking heroin in the dorm – he didn’t hide it and no one seemed to care. At 21 he left the centre. From there he went to rehab, and from rehab to jail.
‘I really had to make a decision whether to live or die when I went to jail, because that was just the worst case scenario for me.’
Books, writing and exercise got him through. After jail his daughter was born and this helped him to get his life back on track. He decided that he had to deal with the sexual abuse and then contacted the Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA). With their support he met with a police officer and reported his abusers.
The officer was compassionate and sincere. ‘He didn’t like roll his eyes, he didn’t scoff, he actually seemed like he cared. It really amazed me.’
Unfortunately, that was the pinnacle of Gavin’s experience with the criminal justice system. Charges were laid against the trio. Seven years later Wade pled guilty and the other two went to trial. By then, Gavin was exhausted and unprepared for the defence lawyers’ calculated attack on his credibility. He was cross-examined for five days.
‘I felt they were all against me by the end. I lost my capacity to see. I couldn’t look at the jury in the end. I felt shame, I felt really dirtied on the stand.’
And after all that: ‘Campbell got off completely, and Adams got fined’.
Gavin was crushed. He contemplated suicide. It was CASA, he said, that kept him alive. They helped him to see that even though the outcome of the trial was not ideal, he had still achieved something worthwhile.
‘CASA told me that just on the strength of the publicity … they had more males enquiring with CASA than they’d had for the previous year. In that week they had guys coming out and actually citing my situation.’