Leo grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and attended a primary school run by the Christian Brothers.
It was ‘a different world … corporal punishment was the norm rather than the exception … usually the strap, three or four layers thick. Used to take the tips of your fingers off in the Melbourne winter mornings … and they used it with gay abandon’.
In the early 1960s, when Leo was 10, ‘one of the Brothers, he decided apparently that knocking me round with the strap wasn’t having the required result, so I was told to stay back after school’.
The Brother took Leo to a storeroom after everyone had gone home. ‘In this particular case, it was, pants down around the ankles, and across the knee, quite a physical walloping, bare hand.’
When the Brother had finished, Leo stood up and ‘being a 10-year-old kid, I was sobbing and crying and he sort of grabbed me and hugged me which at first I thought, “It’s over now”. You’re very powerless. You’re pathetically grateful for anything that might have seemed like, “It’s all over now. It’s for your own good” sort of stuff’.
The Brother then began to sexually abuse Leo. At first, Leo didn’t know what was happening when the man began to rub his buttocks. ‘I thought that was, “There, there”, and then there was an attempt at digital penetration … I squirmed and the hand moved between my legs, fondled my genitals and I was sort of struggling.’
Because he was resisting, Leo thinks the Brother ‘must have decided that I wasn’t going to sort of put up with it, so it was a case of, pushed me back, told me to get dressed, “Get out of my sight”’.
Leo went home and told his mother what had happened. ‘To the best of my recollection, I think it was the next day that she actually went down to the school. She wanted to get to the bottom of [it]. They convinced her that I was making it up.’
The headmaster told his mother that Leo had ‘been disciplined, but it was just normal discipline … I’d misinterpreted it, or just trying to make mischief … I came to terms with the brutality of these sons of bitches, but the fact that my mum couldn’t believe me …’
Leo told the Commissioner, ‘I think the most hurtful thing for me, apart from the betrayal of trust, as rough as it was … My family was Irish Catholic and everything that goes with that. Any member of the clergy … they sit up on the right hand of God, sort of thing’.
Leo doesn’t blame his mother. ‘I’m convinced that she believed me. She was a bloody mad Irish woman. If she was protecting her brood, she’d protect her brood’, but because his mother was struggling with the recent death of his father, ‘I just think she couldn’t deal with it’.
After his attempt to report the abuse, Leo ‘paid the price for telling my mother and bringing her down to the school. After that, without being melodramatic … if I didn’t do anything wrong, they found something … I still feel I was singled out and punished for opening my mouth, even though they “got away with it” … I was quite glad to get out of there’.
Leo told the Commissioner, ‘I remember the headmaster … with a little bit more loathing than I did the perpetrator. He had the wherewithal to do something about it. The guy that interfered with me … he was a sick man, but [the headmaster] wasn’t. He could have at least asked me.’
Leo made sure that he was never alone with any of the teachers again, ‘even the guys that I thought were reasonable … Never trusted a teacher from that day to this, which is unjust because I’ve got no doubt that I’ve had some good teachers, but never trusted one again’.
To cope with the sexual abuse Leo ‘drank a lot. To be brutally honest I started boozing, I guess, when I was about 13 and quit about 18 months ago. Obviously if you’ve been on the turps for four or five decades, it’s about time to take stock. Otherwise, you’re not looking for a long and happy retirement … Nobody starts pissing on at 13. I’ve always been aware that that wasn’t normal. Even for the bloody Irish’.
When Leo heard about the Royal Commission he ‘had a couple of bad dreams … it’s one of those things that you did put aside, and when something pokes it awake, it’s very hard to put it back to sleep again. And to be honest … [when] everybody was talking about justice … I thought, “I don’t want justice. I want vengeance”. That’s probably not healthy, but they had no right to do that to a 10-year-old kid’.
Leo decided that he should finally talk about the abuse because he’s getting older and he doesn’t think it’s right ‘that I go into my box without telling somebody. I’m still sort of angry … If I had my way, if [the perpetrator’s] dead, I’d dig him up and punch him in the mouth’.
Leo brought his old school badge to his private session. ‘I’ve kept that just to remind me … I’ve finally spoken to somebody after all this time, so … I think I might throw it away. Fifty years is enough.’