‘The impact outstrips what he did … You just felt powerless and even when you go 10, 15 years later, you’d be walking down the street and then that feeling would wash over you. It could pop into your head and you’d be like, “Oh, how did?” Why does it pop into your head?’
Over a period of two years, Hershall was sexually abused by three different teachers at his Jewish high school. The abuse by Joseph Berg was worse than the rest, Hershall said, because he was a trusted friend of the family. Hershall didn’t tell anyone about Berg nor any of the abuse by the others, partly because he didn’t recognise it as abuse himself.
On one occasion, he and some friends were playing a game when Hershall found himself alone in a room with a teacher, Mr Fisher. ‘I don’t know what the game was we were playing. We were hiding and he had me down under a desk and pulled down my pants and pulled down his pants and he had an erection, and interaction. I don’t know how to word it, you know, I didn’t react and then he goes, “Oh”, and in terms of how you deal with it, that’s something that at the time I didn’t even recognise – that something had happened and it wasn’t until like a month later that I recognised, “Well, something wrong happened there”. … You almost feel yourself as an idiot that you didn’t, the feelings with that one is I didn’t recognise something wrong had happened until much [later] after what had happened.’
At the age of 13, he was sexually abused by his religious studies teacher, Mr Egert. Private classes were held in the front room of Egert’s house and on the occasions Hershall went there, Egert began fondling his genitals and masturbating him. ‘I’d get an erection and essentially I’d move his hand away before I orgasmed, sort of thing, and that happened and again I didn’t recognise anything as being wrong. In some way I suppose you enjoy, I enjoy, physical contact.’
Hershall left school in the middle of Year 10. Looking back he thought it probable the school had had complaints from other students and knew about allegations of sexual abuse. Having made the decision to leave, Hershall was kept in at recess for a week by a senior teacher who pressed him for his reasons for leaving.
‘I just sat there in silence and every now and then I’d say, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand why I’m leaving”, because my reason was because I was rejecting the religion. So I didn’t think a very religious person’s going to understand when I say, “Well, I don’t believe in God and this is all a load of rubbish”. And so it’s only now that I’m thinking maybe he knew, he was fishing for am I leaving because something happened in terms of Berg … It’s made me rethink that week, being kept in every single day, being tortured through that week. It was horrible, just in silence with this very dominating personality.’
In the 2000s, Hershall was approached by police after other ex-students of the school had come forward with allegations of sexual abuse by Joseph Berg. Hershall made a statement and was surprised to be called without much notice to attend a committal hearing. His matter didn’t proceed to trial however, and he was ultimately left feeling disappointed.
‘Initially I was like, well, I’m not chasing any charges’, he said. ‘So it’s sort of like you’re torn between, okay, I wasn’t chasing any charges but then they laid one and then it got ignored. So you’ve gone through this whole process, two-year process, and been stressed out of your brain, and there is an ending but there isn’t an ending at the same time. I found that very frustrating.’
Hershall said he found it hard to isolate the effect of the abuse from other events in terms of its impact on his life. ‘I don’t how to disassociate those events from the fact that just growing up in that religion I think messed me up quite a bit, and growing up with my mother, who was quite into emotional blackmail and things like that. It’s almost like the whole – to try and pick those events out of the whole and say, “This created this impact”, when to me it’s more all of those things created an impact. Like, I’ve never had an intimate relationship with the opposite sex. So is that derived out of all of this or is that my personality, or is that my mother, or is that just the Jewish community?’
He told the Commissioner that he doubted civil redress or an apology would make him feel any different. ‘I might end up with some money and that’s great, but it’s not worth it to me to go through that process and stress.’