‘I just remember being angry at the teachers. Why weren’t they there? Why didn’t they help us?’
Julie was born into a large family in South Australia. When she was about 12 her parents separated and she moved with her siblings and mother to Queensland. She helped her mother raise the younger siblings.
In the early 1990s, Julie enrolled in a new primary school. The state school was small and the teachers never seemed to be on duty. Children were able to wander across the grounds without much supervision, so Julie did the same. It wasn’t long before she came into contact with the school’s groundsman, Frederik Sander.
Sander was a friendly and charismatic man. Julie was instantly drawn to him and he became a ‘father figure’ to her. He took her for rides on his mower during lunch break and showed her his gardening tools. Before long, Sander began to sexually abuse Julie in the shed.
Julie was molested three times a week during lunch breaks for several months. She didn’t know what to do or who to tell, but she knew it was wrong. After a while, she started to notice Sander’s behaviour towards other children. There were several others who seemed to always be around Sander, including one of Julie’s friends.
On one occasion, she walked into the shed and saw Sander abusing her friend. It all became too much for her and she had to tell someone what was happening. She disclosed the details of her own abuse and her friend’s abuse to the school’s principal. She was scared to report Sander because his daughter worked in the school office. The response Julie got was negative.
‘[The principal] was really aggressive with me, he called me a liar. He said I was lying and [told me to] stop making up stories. I felt really bad.’
Julie walked away from the principal’s office feeling like she was the one who had done something wrong. She was surprised by the principal’s aggressive attitude, and didn’t like the fact he thought she was lying. She thought nothing more would happen.
However, the school was small and news travelled fast. A few days later, several other children reported Sander’s abuse to the principal. The victims’ families were told, and a meeting was held on the school grounds. The families were informed that Sander had been suspended, and was in the process of being removed from the school.
The principal told the families that he was going to report Sander to the police which would require each child to give a statement with the permission and accompaniment of a parent. He also said that the children would receive group counselling.
Group counselling did little to help Julie and the other victims. She felt victimised and segregated from her peers and was bullied as a result. The school never issued an apology, and the principal’s attitude did not change - she felt personally victimised by him.
‘I was just a kid shoved in the corner while the adults were talking.’
In the mid-1990s when she was in her mid-teens, Julie and the other victims were involved in a criminal case against Sander. Her experience with the police was awful, and she felt like it would never end. By this time, Julie’s high school education was constantly disrupted by the court case. Sander was convicted of multiple counts of child molestation but he didn’t go to jail.
She was shocked to discover that Sander had not been found guilty of the abuse perpetrated against her.
‘I didn’t know who to turn to. I felt so shocked, how could they say that he’s not guilty? I’m the one that said something.’
Julie was furious with the outcome of the criminal case and dropped out of school.
Throughout her teens and adulthood, Julie has had anger and stress issues. She has had low self-esteem and has suffered from depression and anxiety. She has always felt guilty about the abuse, and feels that she could have prevented her friend from being abused by Sander. The stress caused her to drink and smoke heavily for several years, as well as abuse drugs for a long time.
By the mid-2000s, Julie’s partner had left, and she took comfort in drugs. However, this became too much, so she sought out a counsellor and eventually disclosed her experience of sexual abuse. She then contacted a lawyer regarding a compensation claim.
Julie came to the Royal Commission to share her story in the hope that child abuse won’t happen again. She would like to see a better response to child sexual abuse from schools, and believes harsher penalties should be in place for perpetrators.