‘I wanted it, I needed it, yeah, and I didn't know why. It made me function, that’s what it did. It was the only tool I had in the box’, Harris told the Commissioner.
Harris was explaining his dependence on alcohol, a legacy of the abuse he suffered at the hands of two Christian Brothers, teachers at his school in regional Victoria in the 1960s. His self-medication with alcohol and drugs over the years repeatedly brought jobs and relationships to an end. But it also sustained him long enough to find new purpose in life, as the father of his five children.
‘As the children come into the world the focus changed within … That was the big change in my life. But yeah, the drugs and alcohol, without that I wouldn't have even got to the children, wouldn't even have been married or anything, I don't think I would have been here’, Harris said.
It took many years before Harris connected his substance abuse with the abuse he suffered as a child. For a long time he simply thought he was crazy.
‘Yeah, I thought there was a screw loose in here somewhere; that’s the way I am, you know. You know, the self-harms and things I used to do, it was just normal.’
When he eventually connected with a men’s support group, the counselling he received gave him new understanding of the course his life had taken.
Harris first attempted to end his life when he was 15, and he’d tried numerous times after that. He’d struggled with education, leaving school at 15 and enrolling at night school a year or so later so he could learn to read, but he didn’t last there long. ‘I’d get home and I’d go, “What the hell have I written?” I couldn’t even read it … I couldn’t understand it, no one could. So I left that’, he said. ‘I picked up little bits but it goes in and it goes out, it doesn’t stay.’
He struggled to keep employment. It made him angry when he worked hard and his efforts weren’t appreciated. ‘The anxiety just gets so much; I can’t confront them so I just leave.’ But a boss wanting to promote him was no easier to deal with. ‘That was no good for me either because then that put me in the spotlight so I would leave again. So I couldn’t win, no matter which way I went … Over the years it’s just been the same pattern.’
His relationships with women failed. ‘When I look back on it’, he said, ‘yeah, I was just like a cold fish basically and I can’t be any different. I can’t change that. I wish I could, but I’ve given up on that completely now. I would not put a woman through any of that ever again, them thinking they’ve got a partner that’s not a partner, you know, so that’s not gonna happen.’
All this, he came to understand, was the result of the abuse he suffered as a primary school student, first at the hands of Brother Donaldson, and then Brother Teague. Looking back, he could see his Grade 2 teacher, Sister Dominica, had tried to warn him and his classmates. She had gathered together the boys who were moving on to Grade 3 at the Christian Brothers school, Harris recalled.
‘She says, you know, “About your private parts. They’re yours, to keep them private and look after” – I can’t remember the exact words, but along the lines that “Your private parts are your private parts”; I remember those words, “And they’re only for you”.’
The Grade 3 teacher, Brother Donaldson, was physically violent. ‘I can remember him belting kids with a cane, duster, a ruler, drag them by the ears, all this sort of stuff you know, and I was petrified.’ Harris, though, was Donaldson’s pet. That meant he didn’t get beaten but he did get sexually molested. Donaldson would tell the other students to put their heads on their desks and go to sleep, then would call Harris to the front of the classroom and fondle and kiss him and rub himself against him.
Harris’ experiences with Donaldson were deeply traumatising, and left him vulnerable to physical abuse and sexual molestation by his Grade 5 teacher, Brother Teague.
‘What [Donaldson] did to me was – what he put in my brain was fear, absolute horror and fear. As I progressed through the school and came in contact with Teague, I was gone. I was nothing by that stage’, Harris told the Commissioner.
Harris had received some compensation for his suffering as part of a class action against the Christian Brothers. He made a number of suggestions to the Royal Commission, among them that organisations such as schools should run prevention programs to reduce the risk of child sex abuse, and that structures should be put in place to ensure children can safely speak out. He wanted measures introduced to require organisations to follow through on their promises – as he put it, ‘Do what you say, because we’ll be watching’.
Harris continues to receive support from a counsellor and others. A major turning point came with his children’s decision to remain in his care when he and his wife separated.
‘My ex-wife wanted to take the children completely and I knew at that stage if I’d lost the children that was … I was gone. … It was the most difficult time in my life to go through the system and fight and it came down to shared care, but the kids said, “No, we’re staying with Dad”. So even though the system said the shared care, they still come with me anyway … That was a very big thing for me to see that happen.’