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Ilse's story

Ilse and her husband raised their family in regional Victoria. Her children were happy and performed well at school, enjoying playing sport when they weren’t studying. Her son, Joel, who was ‘just a lovely little boy’, was finishing Grade 4 in the late 1970s when Ilse and her husband decided to send him to an Anglican school for the remainder of his education.

For the first year Joel’s teacher, Phillip Wallace, seemed to take a keen interest in him, and would often keep him back after school to help with his handwriting. Since it was a long bus commute, Ilse and her husband became concerned.

‘We didn’t like the attention. He used to come home and say that he was made to sit in the front all the time and he didn’t like it, and he was being kept in.’

They went to the school to speak with the principal, Mr Gable, about their concerns, ‘and he told us that we were just basically being stupid’.

What Ilse and her husband did not know at this time was that Wallace was sexually abusing Joel.

After Joel finished Grade 5 and left Wallace’s class, Wallace’s attention turned from helping Joel with his homework to victimising him. Joel was constantly punished by Wallace, and repeatedly told his parents he didn’t want to go to school anymore.

‘Joel kept coming home and saying, “Mum, I’m not allowed out to play”. And so my husband and I went up to Mr Gable again … My husband got really angry and said it was “unhealthy what’s happening”. And Mr Gable more or less told us we were being stupid, to go away.’

Later that year, Ilse received a call from the school to come up and see Gable again. She was told that ‘filthy’ material had been found in Joel’s locker, but he denied that he had put it there.

‘I went up and here’s little Joel, I can still see him sobbing at Mr Gable’s desk. And he just said … “Filthy stuff’s been found in Joel’s locker”. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t ask to see it. And Joel’s sobbing and saying “Mum I didn’t do it”. And Mr Gable kept saying “He’s a liar, he’s a liar. Don’t you take any notice of your son, he’s just a plain liar”.

'And finally I said, “Look, I’ve had enough. I’ll take Joel home and my husband and I will discuss this with him, and I’ll get back to you”. And poor Joel said no he did not. I rang Mr Gable the next day and said, “We’ve decided to believe our son”. And he said “I don’t know why you do, he’s such a little liar”. Anyway I don’t know why we didn’t take him away.

‘After that I went to pick up the kids from the school and met one of the sports teachers. And he called me over and he said, “Do you know Mr Gable’s going around telling people, teachers not to take any notice of you because you’re mad?”

‘And then Mr Gable called a special parents’ meeting, which we were all told to go along. He got up there and was just saying that there were some parents spreading lies about the school, and to not believe them because they were just crazy people. It was awful.’

Joel’s academic performance suffered, and he left school before he could complete his final exams.

‘He got into so much trouble. He started to drink … Called up by the police “Come get him out of jail” … And then he finally left school, he didn’t pass his VCE but he did get a job …

'Most of the time he was a little bit drunk or he lost his licence and we used to pick him up … Then he finally finished his apprenticeship and went overseas. I don’t know what happened, I hardly ever heard from him. I know he got into a lot of trouble, he got into drugs. And finally he phoned up and said he was coming home. He came home and he was broken, he was a mess for a while.’

Although Joel never disclosed to Ilse that Wallace had sexually abused him, she finally worked it out from ‘the way Joel was behaving and the way he just seemed not to care anymore about anything’.

In the 1990s Ilse was approached by a parent of a former student and asked to give evidence as part of a class action that a group of parents were taking against the school.

In addition to Wallace, at least one other teacher, Mr Felton, had repeatedly abused students during his time there. Ilse had been referred to the group by her good friend Donna, whose son had also attended the school and subsequently suicided. ‘She hasn’t got him anymore. Thank God I’ve got mine.’

It was around this time that Ilse received a call from Denis, a man who had a role on the school board. Denis ‘creepily’ tried to dissuade her from giving a statement. ‘He phoned me and suggested it would be better if I didn’t go and give evidence. I’ve known Denis for a long time. And I said, “Denis, don’t you dare talk to me like that, I’ll do what I like!” and hung up.’

Ilse and her husband both gave statements to support the class action and the matter was settled outside of court. She believes Gable had known what was happening at the school but was more intent on protecting his teachers or the school reputation than his students.

‘Whether he was protecting them or the school’s name, I don’t know. But he must have known … [It] was already known that Mr Felton had been in trouble before he came to the school. I don’t know about Mr Wallace … I just don’t think the man could not have known.’

Although Joel has never been able to bring himself to tell Ilse exactly what Wallace did to him, they have a strong relationship. She deeply regrets that Joel was not able to reach his full potential and sees this as her fault for not removing him from the school.

‘He’s turned around and he’s such a good man. But he could have had a better life had I done more. I just feel guilty. I just feel so guilty … I didn’t know how to stand up to it. I should have just taken the children away from that school … It will never go away. I did the wrong thing.’

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