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Lewis James's story

‘I haven’t thought about this for many years’, Lewis said, speaking about the abuse he experienced when he was 10 or 11 in the mid-1960s. He didn’t speak of it to anyone till about 12 years ago, when he was asked to be part of a class action against the Christian Brothers’ college where the abuse had taken place.

‘I declined to do so but it did get me thinking about what had actually happened.’

Lewis spent two years as a boarder at the college, in a regional Victorian city. He was abused throughout that time by his dorm master, a lay teacher called Tomkins – Lewis can’t remember his first name.

Tomkins would get the boys in his room, sometimes in pairs, then he’d strip down to his underpants, sit on the bed and get them to massage him. This happened regularly, Lewis said.

‘I always remember when you’d finished he’d hug you and hug you close to him so you could feel his erection in his underpants. But he never actually did anything other than that at that time.’

Looking back, Lewis is puzzled by the way he accepted the abuse. ‘I guess boarding schools are funny places and you get a bit lonely and there was lots on offer, you know – he used to give us chocolates and drinks.’

Once, during school holidays, Lewis went to stay with his aunt. She lived in a town that was also Tomkins’ home when school was in recess. Tomkins invited Lewis to his place for a visit.

‘I guess I was lucky because my aunty came round about 10 minutes later and she met him and she wouldn’t let me stay there … I think that was the first time that anyone in the family identified that there was an issue … She wouldn’t let me stay with him on that day, and I’m pretty grateful for that I guess because I don’t know what would have happened.’

Lewis left the school at the end of two years to complete his education at another Christian Brothers’ college. He didn’t experience sexual abuse there, but excessive physical punishment was commonplace. He recalled canings that left students unable to use their hands for days at a time. In the end, he fought back.

‘I was expelled … for trying to hit a Christian Brother who tried to pull my pyjama pants down. So that ended my association with the Christian Brothers. That was when I was 14 or 15.’

His parents, staunch Catholics, offered little support. His father, now dead, ‘would never question the Church’, Lewis said. And his mother, even now, doesn’t entirely accept his story of abuse and would have preferred he didn’t come to the Royal Commission.

‘She didn’t want me to do anything about this. She said I should just get over it … I think she thinks nothing happened to us. I think she considers that we were old enough or big enough or ugly enough to look after ourselves.’

He believes that if his parents had met Tomkins, they might have had more understanding. ‘Certainly, if they’d understood that being Catholic didn’t make [the teachers] saints they would have been more cautious.’

Lewis went on to have a successful career. He’s married with four adult children, all of whom were educated in the Catholic system. He made sure he equipped them to recognise inappropriate behaviour: ‘All my children went to Catholic schools … They’ve never ever ever – I’ve spoken to them about it – said there was anything untoward ever happened …

‘You don’t want to bring kids up too quick, you want to let them be kids, but I think the problem is now with all these people around that you have to discuss or educate them into these things so they don’t get caught out.’

Lewis described one ongoing consequence of Tomkins’ abuse, but said other impacts were harder to identify.

‘I can’t stand being close to men … I could never stand being close to another man, or touching another man, and that’s always something I felt a bit funny about. But I think there’s a logical reason for that so I don’t worry too much about it …

‘I don’t know if it changed me or not … Whether I would have become the same person or whether I would have been a different person, I don’t know. I imagine it had some impact but I don’t know what that is.’

Lewis doesn’t plan to report his abuse to police, or seek compensation. ‘I sort of don’t want this thing to consume me, if you know what I mean. I don’t want it to define me.’

But he has followed the work of the Royal Commission in media reports and felt strongly that he wanted to contribute.

‘It took me months to decide to do it, but I felt that if people were going to go to all this trouble of having this Commission, then we all needed to understand everything that happened … I felt there was something I could add … It’s an old cliche but it behoves us to put everything into making sure this doesn’t happen again.’

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