For most of her life, Judy believed that her relationship with Mr Flaherty was normal, and that the harm it caused was her own fault. Only very recently, after reading some material about child sexual abuse, did she realise that she had been groomed and abused.
Flaherty was a teacher at Judy’s high school in regional New South Wales in the 1960s. He took an interest in Judy when she was 14. After about two years of grooming he began having sex with her.
Flaherty bragged about his behaviour to students and teachers; the relationship was an open secret. Still, no one intervened. Judy recalled ‘the last two years of high school he’d get me to knock on the staffroom door at recess and lunchtime, and ask for him with a maths book in my hand … and then he’d take me to a little room or a classroom that was isolated at lunchtime.
'I did that every day of the school year for two years and no teacher was vigilant enough to think there was something wrong there.'
Judy’s parents discovered the relationship when they read her diary one day. They brought Flaherty into their home and confronted him. He confessed. And blamed everything on Judy.
‘I instigated it, apparently’, Judy said. Judy’s parents took Flaherty’s side. He interpreted this as a kind of permission, and went on to abuse Judy more brazenly and frequently in her last year of school.
Judy’s relationship with her parents never recovered. ‘They disowned me and disinherited me, and my relationship with them was never the same after that … I was told never to talk about it again. And they virtually hardly talked to me again.’
Flaherty broke off the relationship soon after Judy left school. Judy was devastated. ‘I missed him. I know that sounds really bad but I did. And I’d have nightmares. I’d be in a room and I’d see his face, and then I’d try and stumble to get through the crowd to reach him and I never could. He was always just out of reach.’
In the years that followed, many things went wrong in Judy’s life: she couldn’t study; she formed a relationship with an abusive man and stayed with him for years; she formed a relationship with a kind man and ran away; she was overprotective of her children but hid from them sometimes, locking herself in the bedroom to cry. She didn’t know why these things kept happening so she blamed herself.
‘I was very confused. I did stupid things. I just wasn’t thinking properly. It wasn’t until I had children – and even then that created problems. I couldn’t breastfeed – I shouldn’t tell you this. But I couldn’t breastfeed because it made me feel panicky, you know, the breast being touched, all that sort of, just little things. I used to question: why do I do that? That was probably my middle name, if you want one: “Why Did I Do That?”’
Judy is now seeing a counsellor to help her get a better understanding of the abuse and its effects. But counselling is no miracle cure, unfortunately. ‘It’s okay to have an understanding of why it happened but it doesn’t change all the anxiety … I do like to think I’ve overcome a lot but in reality I haven’t.’
And now that she’s started revisiting the past, Judy is fearful of what else she might find, especially as she gets older.
‘It doesn’t get better as you get older, it actually gets worse because you can remember – your brain does this thing where you remember more from your childhood as you get older. And I don’t like that very much.’
These fears have motivated Judy to take action. Flaherty died in the 1970s, which means that Judy will never be able to bring him to justice, but she is considering taking legal action against the school and the Department of Education.
‘I need to start proceedings because I want this to be over. I don’t want to have to go through this much more with anybody. But I do feel I at least need an apology, and I feel like my early childhood was ruined and I’d like to think that at the end of my life there’s a bit of comfort there.’