‘The shame of this teacher’s action took away the most important years of my life, when I was just starting to know who I was.’
It was the late 1980s, and Meagan was a 15-year-old student at a state high school in Sydney, when she was sexually abused by Gareth Cullen. Although Cullen was a staff member at the school Meagan didn’t know him at all.
The first time she met him she was out for a walk with her friend Laura, and he stopped in his car to pick them up. Meagan followed Laura’s lead and got into the back seat.
Cullen took the two girls to his flat. Laura seemed to know her way around the place, like she’d been there before, and at one point she left the room to get a drink. That was when Cullen kissed Meagan on the mouth.
‘At the time I remembered being quite happy. You know, I was getting the attention from a nice guy, what I thought was a nice man.’
Looking back, Meagan can see how susceptible she was to Cullen’s grooming techniques. He was not the first man to make advances towards her. When she was 12 her stepfather had made inappropriate comments to her, groped her, and tried to teach her how to kiss. He only backed off when she threatened to tell her mother.
‘That’s the background, in terms of my home environment. And I believe that put me in a situation where I was vulnerable, and I believe that the teacher, Mr Cullen, took advantage of that.’
Nothing more happened on that first trip to Cullen’s flat, but the next time he brought Meagan there alone. She can’t recall how she got there, nor how she ended up naked in his bedroom. Cullen directed her to lay down and then raped her – she recalls ‘being uncomfortable’.
Afterwards Cullen’s manner changed abruptly. ‘We talked a few minutes before he said “You need to go away”. I remember this specifically as I was initially hurt by this statement as I thought he really cared about me.’
Cullen drove Meagan home. His cold attitude made her feel like ‘an inconvenience’. She didn’t see him again until a few weeks later when she bumped into him at the school and exchanged a few polite words. She doesn’t remember seeing him again after that.
Meagan couldn’t talk to her parents about the abuse. She didn’t trust her stepfather because of what he’d done to her in the past, and she was too scared to raise it with her mother.
‘When my mother was angry she would sort of shut down and she would not speak to me for long periods of time, so I believe that didn’t help our relationship and I was actually scared to even speak to her about anything else, like the incidents with my stepfather or the teacher because I was afraid of that, that happening again, that she would shut me down.’
Meagan did mention the abuse to a youth worker who was associated with her church. The youth worker rang her stepfather and told him what she’d said. Later, her stepfather confronted her about it and they fought.
‘I, of course, denied the whole thing … I felt quite ashamed of what had happened, thinking it was actually my fault.’
In the years that followed, Meagan’s relationship with her mother became increasingly strained. It’s never fully recovered and while the two of them get along okay these days, they are not close.
Meanwhile, the abuse has had many other impacts on Meagan’s life. In her twenties she suffered depression, and had suicidal thoughts which led to a deliberate overdose of prescription pills.
Throughout her twenties and into her 30s, Meagan continued to believe that she was somehow responsible for the abuse she’d suffered. It was only through her studies and some conversations with a friend that she gradually came to believe otherwise.
A major turning point came when she realised that she probably wasn’t the only girl to be abused by Cullen. Recently Meagan made a statement to police. At the time of her session with the Royal Commission the police investigation was ongoing.
Meagan still slips into her old feelings of shame and responsibility every now and then, but she’s able to manage herself better these days. ‘It took many years. I mean, sometimes I sort of have to just breathe and to come to terms that: “No, you were not at fault”. Because sometimes it does creep into your thinking.’