‘They come across as gentle and kind and everything until you do something wrong and then they don’t seem gentle and kind anymore, when they’re holding you down and another one’s hitting you with a phone book. You don’t know who you can trust.’
After a troubled early childhood interstate, Lowell was sent to a boys’ residential school in Sydney when he was 14 years old. The school was run by a Catholic order and had a reputation for stern discipline.
It was a brutal place. Lowell was physically and sexually assaulted many times in the 18 months he was there. The abuse began almost immediately.
‘It was late at night and two other boys who were there decided they were going to give me the “induction”, which entailed them holding me down, raping me – anally, orally. Both of them took it in turns.’
‘The thing that really scared me the most at the time was the fact that they told me my home address and told me my family was in danger if I told anybody.’
Lowell did not speak up. He was raped at least six more times by these two boys, who were roughly Lowell’s age.
Rita Smileski was twice his age. She was a teacher at the school who helped supervise several of the boys on a bushland camping trip. One night Smileski walked with Lowell to a private spot away from the tents. She put her hand on his leg, ‘basically one thing led to another and we were having sex, out in the middle of nowhere’.
‘Afterwards she turned around and told me that she thought it would be best if we didn’t mention it to anybody. That that could get me into a lot of trouble.’
Lowell did tell a friend the next day, but he was not believed. ‘For quite a few years I wore it like a badge of honour. But it still didn’t make it right … I lost my virginity to her. It was like the big milestone and it shouldn’t have been.’
At the school Lowell was also targeted for attention by Father Ryan Burke. Father Ryan was a popular and friendly priest who supervised the dormitory Lowell slept in. ‘When we were on our breaks and that he’d try to coax me over to sit on his knee. He’s invited me up to his room a few times to have a beer with him. The first time he invited me up for a beer a friend of mine was standing behind him and he was just shaking his head, like “Don’t go”, so I just said, “No I can’t”.’
Father Ryan would stand and watch Lowell showering. He gave Lowell tips on washing himself, ‘which 90 per cent of the time was pretty much washing my genitals’. He offered to help Lowell soap up, but Lowell always refused.
‘I hated every second of it. I didn’t want to do it. It’s just I didn’t know how to get out of it.’
‘We never spoke about it. No one ever said anything bad about Father Ryan.’ Lowell did not disclose his abuse to his parents either. He was fearful of causing his father pain. ‘So as the years went on it just seemed easier and easier not saying anything to anybody. I just seemed to virtually block it.’
As an adult Lowell has had trouble trusting people and gets into fights easily. ‘You just never know who’s what.’ He eventually moved into solitary work with heavy machinery. He feels safest when he is on his own and above the crowds.
Lowell has used drugs. ‘You name it, I’ve taken it. Over the years – cocaine, speed, ice. Even to today … lately I’ve been having really bad nightmares.’ Marijuana helps Lowell sleep peacefully.
Relationships have proved difficult. ‘Had a lot and lost a lot. I’m always being told it’s my fault the relationship is breaking up … It just seems like I don’t know how.’
Lowell is seeing a psychologist and has disclosed his abuse as part of his therapy. ‘He’s told me that I suffer from PTSD and also disassociation disorder and I also have anxiety attacks and stuff. He believes that’s all a direct result from my childhood and what happened at [the boys’ school].’
Lowell has been charged with a child sex offence and is facing prison. He has the support of his current wife and a few close friends. ‘If it wasn’t for my wife I wouldn’t be alive now. She’s been there. She took a noose off my neck.’
Looking to the future, Lowell hopes schools will be required to have a trusted point of contact for children in trouble, either within the school or independently.
‘The whole time I was in [the school] it never felt like you had anyone to turn to … There never seemed to be somebody saying, “Oh, if anybody touches you the wrong way you come and see me and I’ll put it right”. Never anything like that.’
‘It was a “them and us” feel about the place.’
‘Everyone these days has mobile phones. Even if there was a help line set up, even if it’s anonymous and you just say, “Hey look, this teacher’s doing this at this school”.’
‘I know that when I was at school there’s no way you’d ever pry information out of me back then about what happened.’