When Irina was 10, in the early 1970s, she was sexually abused by her Grade 5 teacher, Donald Heaney. In class he would sit next to her and place his arm around her shoulders, pretending to help her. Then he would put his other hand into her underpants and fondle her. He also tried to digitally penetrate her, but by squeezing her knees tightly together she was able to prevent him.
Heaney was molesting other children in the class in the same way. Irina saw it happening. After several months, she told her friend what Heaney was doing. Her friend told her parents, who spoke to Irina’s parents. They took her to the police sexual assault unit in the Victorian town where they lived, and she filed a complaint.
The matter came to court the following year. Other children from the school came forward with complaints, and joined in the case against Heaney. All gave statements which were read in court, but as far as Irina could recall none were asked to appear in person.
Heaney was acquitted of all charges. In part, Irina told the Commissioner, this was because his brother, a Catholic priest, spoke as a character witness for him.
Irina recalled she heard about the verdict from her mother, on the drive home after the trial. ‘I asked if [Heaney] was going to go to jail and Mum said no. And I remember her buying me a watch. I don’t know if that was supposed to be a consolation prize … I just couldn’t believe it.’ Multiple children gave statements against Heaney, she said. ‘And the jury obviously thought all [of them] were lying.’
Some years after the court case, Irina had this confirmed when she heard secondhand from one of the jury members that the charges against Heaney failed because the jury didn’t believe the children‘s statements. ‘They thought we were all making up stories’, she said.
Heaney left the school shortly after Irina made her complaint to police. But no other follow-up occurred. She received no support from the school or police, and no counselling. Her family didn’t want to talk about it either. ‘It was swept under the carpet’, she said. She didn’t receive an apology from anyone, and the school never accepted any liability.
‘I remember feeling that it doesn’t matter what people do to you, you don’t matter. They get away with it. Especially if they’ve got a priest for a brother’, Irina said.
In later life Irina has had mental health issues and ongoing problems with relationships and wellbeing. ‘I feel my spirit was broken and my innocence taken away as a result of my abuse’, she wrote in a statement. ‘I would not trust anyone after my abuse and my laughter was taken from me … I’m struggling even now with what happened to me. It has been detrimental to my physical, emotional and financial wellbeing.’
She hoped the Royal Commission’s work would result in legislative changes so that victims have more time to press charges against their abusers. ‘If possible I would like to have the laws changed so I can make a civil claim against my teacher, as he has never paid for his crimes against me in any way’, she said.