Joan came to speak to the Commissioner about one of her older male relatives. Joan had been sexually abused by the man when she was about 12 years old on a holiday at his home in regional New South Wales. The man, who had had a career in the military, also offered respite care for children of veterans through a volunteer organisation. Joan knew that he had hosted individual girls for short stays over many years.
Joan didn’t tell anyone of her abuse when it happened but when she was about 40 years old, she told her mother that the relative had sexually abused her.
‘[She] believed me straight away because when I told my mother … the first thing she said was, “Oh no not you too”, because one of my cousins had actually told the family [about her abuse] only months before.’
The man was still alive at this time and Joan’s parents confronted him with the allegations. He denied it all. The family didn’t alert the police because, ‘[My] father was a very timid, very shy retiring man so my dad would never have done that’. Joan, at the time, was focused on her marriage which was ‘falling apart and I could only look after myself, I couldn’t look beyond that’. The man died not long after this.
A few years later, Joan contacted the veterans’ organisation to let them know about her abuse and to ask them to contact any of the girls who had been placed in the man’s care.
‘I wanted [the organisation] to contact them. I had that overriding thing that it [the abuse] … wasn’t their fault and [I wanted them] to get help.’
The organisation ‘didn’t write back for months and then they said … “We can’t do anything because we’ve destroyed the records”, and that was the end of it’.
Joan has ‘always wondered if that was in fact true’, especially as the organisation did confirm that only girls were sent to the man for respite. She believes that it was a ‘very poor’ response.
‘You can’t help but feel that it would be great if something could happen to call them more to account. At least to respond better than they responded to me. If that’s all that other people who suffered directly through [the organisation receive] … ’
Joan believes that there would be many girls who were abused by the man. ‘They absolutely had to have been’.
The experience of sexual abuse isolated Joan. She never felt comfortable around older men and ‘felt it definitely made me retreat more into myself’. Joan also felt that ‘when I got to high school I felt kind of older’.
‘I do have one vivid memory of being in the change rooms at PE and all the girls giggling about … boyfriends and kissing and stuff and I felt like an old woman. I just felt like – you don’t even know what you’re talking about.’
Joan pursued victims of crime compensation and received a small amount of money but ‘It wasn’t the money, it was actually the closure’. She hopes that by coming to the Royal Commission some of the children who were abused by the man will read her story and feel validated, seek help and find some peace.
‘To think that a group like [the organisation] just let children go to somebody that they didn’t know.’