‘Prior to anything happening at school I was in a really good family home. Mum, Dad, financially we were stable, lived in a really nice neighbourhood. I have a big sister, she’s two years older than me, and life was good. I really enjoyed school, I was one of those kids. I thrived going to school. I loved going to school, and that’s probably what pointed out to family members that something wasn’t right at school, when all of a sudden I turned off and said, “Don’t wanna go anymore”.’
When Harper was in Grade 2 at the local Catholic primary school in the mid-1980s, there was a rearrangement of teachers and Mr Brennan, who had taught her sister the previous year, took over her class. Each morning Brennan, who was in his 20s, made a point of hugging and kissing all the girls in the classroom.
‘It wasn’t uncommon for a morning he’d come round and make sure that he hugged and kissed all us girls. Although I thought to myself, “That’s a bit different”, everybody else was doing it and I didn’t know any different … I was six, sort of just turned seven. So I wasn’t thinking along those terms.’
Almost immediately after Brennan became Harper’s teacher, he began calling her to the front of the class and would put his hand under her skirt and underwear to digitally penetrate her. This occurred regularly throughout the year and in front of other students.
Confused and ashamed over Brennan’s abuse, Harper did not tell anyone about it at the time. Instead she withdrew from everyone except a small group of friends. ‘My schoolwork suffered. Sport was probably my release. I felt free on a sports field … I couldn’t think about stuff. So that to me was probably my saviour, was sport. But I certainly withdrew.’
The following year a girl from her sister’s class reported that Brennan had sexually abused her. Rumours began to fly around the school and Brennan was eventually dismissed, although the reason for his dismissal was not disclosed.
‘We were in the church practising for a school concert, end of year concert. And Father Pirelli walked up to Mr Brennan and pulled him aside, whispered something in his ear (we don’t know, obviously, what). Mr Brennan left. We never saw him again.’
Sometime after Brennan’s departure, Harper and two of her friends decided to report his behaviour to the school principal. The principal told the girls not to damage the reputation of the school and did not take it any further. By this time, Harper’s mother suspected that her change in behaviour was a result of being abused, and tried to pursue the matter.
‘She tried to sort it through the school and they were to be sort of stonewalled by the principal. She then wanted to go to the police but another parent said he’d been and there was nothing they could do. Which we later on found out that was him protecting his own daughter and he hadn’t really gone to the police. But Mum believed him. He was a family friend and she believed that he’d been and the police couldn’t help … This came out many, many years later.’
Noticing that Harper went from being bright and happy to withdrawn, her grandmother wrote to the Catholic Education Office as well as the archbishop about the matter, but her letters ‘fell on deaf ears’. Harper’s parents sent her and her sister to counselling but the girls did not want to talk about it. Harper’s aunt thought she could get her to open up, but by this point Harper had completely withdrawn.
‘Mum was amazing and she did some amazing things and she tried really hard to get it sorted, she really did … I didn’t wanna open up, I didn’t wanna tell people. I felt ashamed back then, I thought I’d done something wrong. Now I wish I had’ve. I wish I had’ve come out with it, and maybe something would’ve been done earlier.’
When Harper was in her early 20s she was approached by the police in relation to an investigation into Brennan. She made a statement, accompanied by her sister for support, and learned in the process that Brennan lived across the road from a school and continued to teach and abuse other children. Brennan was charged and the matter went to trial, but he walked away with a good behaviour bond in spite of his own family’s admission that they would not leave him alone with children. He continued to live across the road from a school.
Around this time Harper ran into a boy from her class who had witnessed the abuse. He expressed guilt over not saying anything at the time. Meanwhile, Harper felt guilty that her sister was now burdened with details of the abuse after supporting her during her statement. Her sister felt guilty for not stopping the abuse, their parents felt guilty that they weren’t able to protect their children, and Harper felt terrible that she had stayed silent while Brennan went on to abuse other children.
As an adult, Harper married but later divorced. She currently has a supportive partner but ‘still won’t go to a counsellor’. She hates being left alone with her thoughts, choosing instead to throw herself into her work. ‘People see me as this massively confident, out-there person, but … it’s a big facade. I don’t want people to think I’m broken …
‘It is a struggle and random things can trigger memories. And I know I’ve struggled a lot because I have a daughter. This year … she got a male teacher. And I was just a mess when they sent me the email to say who her teacher was going to be. I was stricken … I’m probably a very overprotective mother now … I don’t trust anybody, especially around her.’
Harper has never sought compensation but would like to see the Catholic Education Office and the school, particularly the principal, held to account.
‘I’m very angry at that lady. I have a lot of anger towards her ’cause she didn’t protect us kids and she didn’t protect the other kids at the other school … It could’ve possibly stopped other children at other schools being assaulted in the same way ...
‘I hate to think that there’s still children out there suffering. Horrible thought to think that it still happens in this day and age, that there’s not enough being done.
‘If I can do anything to help in any way to stop this ever happening to another child, and push for tougher penalties, tighter laws, stricter enforcements at schools, at anywhere, I wanna see things change. I don’t want to see kids growing up suffering and having issues because of something out of their control.’