John’s parents were followers of tradition, so although they were not strict Catholics they enrolled John at a Christian Brothers school in Western Australia, because it was the school his father had been to. John arrived at the school as a Year 5 student in the late 1960s and remained there until he finished his schooling eight years later.
John was a shy child, quite isolated socially but studious and academically very successful. He enjoyed school on the whole, and respected his teachers, with one exception. Brother Hodges was a classroom teacher with additional roles in the school, who behaved in strange and unnerving ways.
Brother Hodges sexually abused John. At the time John thought he was the only boy it happened to. ‘I didn’t actually witness him touching other boys in that way’, but looking back now, he believes there were probably multiple victims.
Brother Hodges fondled John’s genitals while John stood at the front of the classroom reading aloud. It took a while for John to recognise this as a sexual assault. ‘I think at that time I was very confused by what had happened.’ John told the Commissioner that he didn’t want to over-state the significance of the episode.
‘I am clear that it is a sexual assault, but I’m aware that it’s on the lower scale of incidents that have happened to other children. Part of my reticence about calling it an assault is I don’t want to give it too much gravity. But I also want to acknowledge that it’s happened.’
The incident took place within what John described as a ‘sexualised culture’. He recalled a physical education class where Hodges instructed a boy who was more mature than the other 10 and 11-year-olds in the group to take his shirt off. ‘We had to admire his body, and that was the physique we should be aspiring to, and we had to follow [Hodges’s] physical instruction, you know.’
John remembered another episode, when the boys were in the classroom getting ready to go swimming. One boy was getting changed underneath his towel. ‘[Hodges] belittled him because he was wearing a towel to change. He was saying “We’re all men here. We should all be proud of our bodies, and we should display them”.’ When new showers were built at the school, ‘he just stood there the whole time while we were in different states of undress, kind of looking at us … ’
John also remembered being at a choir rehearsal when Hodges punished a boy by requiring him to take off his trousers and stand in front of the group – and the female piano accompanist – in his underwear. ‘When I reflect on it I’m just astounded that he would do that’, John told the Commissioner.
Hodges’s behaviour wasn’t overtly discussed between the boys, but it was no secret. ‘I don’t recall it being that clearly articulated, but there was a sense that we all knew what he was like’, John recalled. He believes school staff must have been aware of it as well.
John didn’t report Hodges’s assault to anyone at the time. ‘I don’t think I knew what to do with what was happening … I was 11.’ He eventually told his parents, though he doesn’t remember their response. He discussed it with a counsellor, during regular sessions he had some years ago, and with his partner.
John doesn’t feel the abuse has significantly affected him, but he is aware of it as a potential issue. ‘I don’t know whether it’s necessarily held me back in achieving what I want to achieve. I guess there just have been those reflections from time to time that this happened to me, and happened at my school, and has there been any effect on me?’
John’s sexuality has also been a factor in how he thinks about Brother Hodges.
‘I’m a gay man, and the interesting thing for me has been dealing with that stereotype that gay men assault children. So to be very clear, this is not about sexual identity, it’s about power – power and abuse … Because those stereotypes are still thrown about in our society. So I’ve reflected on that from time to time’, he told the Commissioner.
John has not sought compensation for his experiences, but is considering seeking an apology. ‘I guess I have some unresolved anger at the school that this kind of stuff happened.’
He would like schools to ensure that there is someone safe kids can talk to in situations like the one he found himself in. In his case, he was assaulted by Brother Hodges, then had to sit down in the classroom and carry on working.
‘If there was a culture in schools that actually empowered children to be able to go “This doesn’t feel right to me, and I can go to that person and actually talk about it”… because when I reflect on my situation, I didn’t know what to do. I was really confused. I can remember the incident happening to me and from then on it was a blur.’