When she was 12 Mae was moved up into a higher year at her school in South Australia. She felt like a bit of a misfit with the older kids and is sure that’s what made her vulnerable to the friendly advances of her music teacher.
Ben Peterson was a groovy kind of teacher and had a rapport with the older girls. He sometimes made comments about the cool clothes the girls wore on casual dress day.
‘He’d always been a pretty matey kind of teacher … he let us muck around with the instruments at lunchtime.’ He encouraged Mae with her singing and guitar playing and she was delighted when Peterson offered her private singing lessons at lunchtime.
One day during the lunchtime lesson, Mae was upset about something. Peterson responded by closing the classroom curtains, then ‘locked the classroom door … sat down in front of me and started kissing me’.
He felt her breasts, put his hand in her shirt and then fondled her genitals through her clothes. Mae believes the fact that she had her period and was wearing a pad stopped him from going any further.
Mae doesn’t remember how she responded. She hadn’t had any sexual experiences and didn’t know what was going on.
Peterson kept touching her – for maybe five minutes – and then the bell rang. He unlocked the door and put his finger to his lips, saying ‘shoosh’ and motioning her to be quiet.
Mae walked to her next class in a state of shock. In a matter of minutes she broke down and had to leave the room. She told her best friend about Peterson but asked her not to tell anyone else.
‘I was groomed pretty well. I trusted this guy … so I never said anything.’
She did stop the singing lessons, though, and avoided him when she could.
Later in the year a class mate called Nora worked out Mae’s secret. She said Peterson had sexually abused her as well and that she was going to tell someone about it. Mae didn’t want any part of it.
But things suddenly escalated. The school, without talking to Mae, ordered her mother to collect her from school and go to the police station so she could make a statement. Mae was bewildered. She hadn’t yet realised what the issue was. She didn’t want to speak to the police.
Because of this, and because she still felt some loyalty to Peterson, Mae told police he had kissed her, nothing else. They said, ‘If the two of you press charges he can be charged but if it’s just one of you, it’s his word against yours’. Nora was keen to but Mae said no, she didn’t want to.
Later that day Mae rang Peterson and warned him about the allegations against him. He asked her what she’d told them. Mae assured him she’d said nothing.
Charges against Peterson were never laid and Mae has carried a huge burden of guilt ever since. Because he’s only been investigated (several times, Mae discovered later) and never formally charged, Peterson has never been taken out of the school system.
When she was a teenager, Mae ‘went off the rails’.
‘I’d just let anyone do whatever they wanted to me, at parties and stuff.’ She was close to no one and never had talks with her parents about sexuality or self-respect.
Mae’s an alcoholic and is being treated for chronic depression and borderline personality disorder.
‘I didn’t see the incident as particularly upsetting. What I can see now is … what it did to my values and my self-respect. And my trust in people generally.’ She has done lots of work to try and get over the abuse, including contacting Nora, who offered her support if Mae wanted to press charges.
‘It’s a shitload of work to become normal again’, Mae told the Commissioner.
Mae is disappointed by the school’s lack of response and the fact they never talked to her about the sexual abuse. But she never thought about pursuing the case until she read about the Commission. She finds compensation a difficult issue - she’s not sure how much of her life can be blamed on Peterson.
‘To me it’s always been my guilt and shame, not anger or justice. And I didn’t really get any confidence … from the police that I was any big deal at all. I mean they didn’t even keep the record of the interview.’
Mae recommended to the Commission that one-to-one teacher and student lessons not be allowed.
Bizarrely and quite by accident, Mae and a good friend saw Peterson recently. Her friend confronted Peterson quietly. She then walked back to Mae to report that he was ‘really rattled, really remorseful and really ashamed’.