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Helen Debra's story

In the 1990s, Helen’s son Tom was sexually abused at his Anglican school by Reverend Barry Devlin. Tom had been going to the school since he was a little boy, and loved it. However, after Devlin arrived, his parents watched in bewilderment as their only child transformed from a ‘lovable, open, friendly boy’ into a recluse who refused to sleep in his bed or get undressed.

Helen had been to a girls’ school herself and thought a single sex school was the right way to go. ‘I couldn’t have made a worse mistake for him.’

Tom became an assistant sacristan to Devlin, which meant that he dressed Devlin and readied the chapel before a service. Devlin was also preparing him for his confirmation. The Reverend was very charming, Helen said, and knew how to draw people in. She and her family didn’t realise they were being groomed.

Helen remembers Tom always being late when she picked him up from scout meetings, which were held in the school grounds behind Devlin’s house. Tom, who was 13, had started to behave oddly. His school work was deteriorating, and he was stealing.

More alarmingly, Tom had been collapsing at school and at home, and was sent to hospital on numerous occasions. No one from the school rang to see how Tom was. ‘Not one person inquired.’

At this time, another student called Michael Ashton reported Devlin to the school for sexually abusing him. A fortnight later, Michael’s abuse was reported to the police.

The school quickly organised Devlin’s flight out of the country before he could be questioned. Helen obtained a copy of the letter the archbishop wrote to Devlin, which contained the following:

‘I think I can say without fear of contradiction that had you stayed the Family and Community Services Department would certainly have involved you in a deep and painful investigation ... You will see that I have done everything I can both to support you and to preserve your reputation ... I am sure the whole experience has been "like a bereavement". It was very sudden and rushed; however, both the school and I would do exactly the same if it happened tomorrow.’

By this time, Tom had been admitted to hospital where he laid unresponsively in a fetal position. The psychiatrist suggested that Tom may have been the victim of sexual abuse.

Helen went to the headmaster Peter Roth and asked if it was possible that Tom had also been sexually abused by Devlin. ‘We were treated like social pariahs’, she said.

Roth was adamant that Michael Ashton’s abuse was an isolated incident. He also denied knowing that Devlin had a live-in boyfriend, even though it was common knowledge among the boys.

In the face of the school’s indignation, and with no evidence, Helen didn’t feel she could go to the police. The Ashton family would not speak to her about their son.

‘I know that day if I could have walked into a lake in front of that school I would have done it. I’ve never felt so alone.’

Much later Helen discovered that two sets of files were kept at the school and that when the police came to investigate Michael Ashton’s complaint, they were given the records the school wanted them to have, not the ‘other’ set.

Helen also found out that the school had been warned about hiring Devlin ‘because of conduct unbecoming a priest with young men’. The school chose to ignore that.

When Tom was discharged from hospital, he was constantly depressed. He changed schools, but the damage had been done and he didn’t finish. Tom later managed to have a successful career, but he moved constantly from one job to another, numbing his depression with drugs and alcohol.

Ten years after he was abused, Tom told his parents what had happened. For years, psychiatrists and psychologists had tried to find out what was wrong with him, and now they had an answer.

Tom’s parents began a campaign to get redress. Following their submission to an Anglican Church Inquiry, the police extradited Devlin back to Australia to face multiple charges.

On the morning of the trial, Tom attempted to take his own life. He was placed on life support for several days, and the trial was ‘aborted’. Devlin left the country again, and later died overseas.

Helen hoped that Devlin’s death might make Tom feel better, but it didn’t. Tom felt cheated. Several years later, after writing a final letter to his parents, Tom committed suicide.

Helen said that she would like an apology ‘from the top ... And it’s got be a heartfelt apology. And that trust has to be built up again.’

She’d also like the school to be held accountable for the cover up of records and for failing to report the sexual abuse of students in their care.

‘It doesn’t bring these people back but I don’t want my son’s death to be in vain … No one can hurt him anymore. Some of my friends have said to me, “Helen, let it go”. And I’ve said, “No, I can’t let it go because I owe it to him”. We’ve lost our beautiful son. Our only child. And I just want some person to be accountable for that.’

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