In the 1980s, when she was nine, Melissa was sent to a boarding school run by the Uniting Church in rural New South Wales.
‘What was a common theme … among some of the teachers there was a dislike of children … Some of them seemed to take pleasure in debasing kids.’
Melissa told the Commissioner that the houseparents were ‘damaged people who took to humiliating, controlling and hurting young girls with seeming relish. Many of us did not feel safe there.
'I was pretty out of control, as I didn’t feel I could trust anyone and decided the best form of defence was offence … I got into a lot of fights, and never did any homework.'
The preparatory school principal was feared by most of the children. Older students would call him names such as ‘rock spider’, ‘faggot’ or ‘poofter’. ‘I never knew what these words meant, just that many of the older kids didn’t like Mr Barber.’
When Barber called Melissa into his office one day to punish her, she showed no emotion as he ranted and waved his cane around. After that, he took Melissa under his wing. ‘He started giving me special writing assignments and telling me I had ability as a writer and an artist.’
Because she was in his office working on assignments so often, Melissa witnessed Barber sexually abusing young male students. ‘I saw Barber kissing little boys fully on the mouth, touching their buttocks and genitals, and sitting them on his lap for long periods, while he cuddled them.’ He would also do these things in front of other children.
‘I remember feeling embarrassed a lot of the time and I would look away. It was such a creepy feeling … I trusted him completely, but I knew it wasn’t right. The more I learned about sex, [I] started to understand what the older high school students were talking about when they called him a rock spider.’
Melissa remembered some of the boys in the school as being very quiet. ‘Some of them I even thought to have zero personality. Looking back now, I realise it’s because they were numb with fear.’ There were rumours among the children that Mr Barber had sex with some of the boys.
‘He would act like the little boys were his lovers, or more like sexualised pets … He would sweep them onto his lap, and start either moving his legs around underneath them, jiggling his legs up and down … or rub part of their body.’
Melissa told the Commissioner, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t yell out that it was wrong. I don’t know why I didn’t punch him. I should have protected those kids.’
Melissa felt special to be one of Barber’s favourites. ‘I was the only girl among his coterie of young boys. Now that I’m older, I can see he was using me to deflect the negative attention he may have attracted, had he only chosen boys for his entourage.’
In the 1990s, Melissa discovered that Barber had been charged with more than 30 counts of indecent assaults of more than a dozen boys aged between nine and 12, between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s. He died in jail.
When Melissa was 12, she went to live in Sydney. She listened to late-night radio and began calling a DJ. They began to talk on the phone quite often, and she believed that Pete cared about her. When she was 13, Pete told her he wanted to meet her in person, and threatened that he would stop talking to her if she wouldn’t do so.
Melissa snuck out of the house to meet him. When he walked up to her, ‘he reached into his pocket and pulled out a long silver knife … he grabbed the back of my head with one hand and took a bunch of my hair … and cut off quite a long section … He said he wanted something to remember me by’.
He then raped Melissa on the back seat of his car.
Pete dropped Melissa home, sobbing, covered in bite marks and bruises, and with torn clothes. ‘[A friend] who stayed over that night … never approved of sneaking out to meet boys or any of that, so she was pretty disgusted when I woke her up crying … That’s pretty much all I remember about that incident, other than the pain afterwards. And loneliness.’
Melissa remembers meeting Pete a second time, when she was 14 or 15. ‘Why, I do not know. I had become promiscuous and was using drugs … I was drunk when he took me to [a local swimming pool] … He had sex with me … When he had finished he got off me, and then sat on my stomach like I was nothing but a piece of furniture. It hurt … I don’t know why he did that.’
Melissa told the Commissioner, ‘It wasn’t the violence itself, it was that if you really love someone, you let them do that stuff to you … And that lesson, I couldn’t unlearn that’.
When she was 16, Melissa was living in an inner-city hotel. One night, a radio industry event was organised at the hotel, and Pete was there. ‘I wanted to exact revenge on him, or confront him for the vicious, nasty, cruel sex he put me through when I was too young to know any better.’ Her counsellor advised her that ignoring someone with a huge ego like his would be the best revenge.
When Melissa saw Pete sitting a few metres away, ‘death staring at me’, she didn’t react. She ‘continued laughing with the people at the bar and I carried that moment there, as lame as it sounds, as one of the highlights of life for many years. It felt like a bit of a victory’.
Melissa told the Commissioner, ‘Now I’m an adult, I know that his violence had a lasting effect. Only now, in recent years … after a lot of work, have I been finally able to engage in sexual relationships that are not of a violent, demeaning nature. The cost to me over losing those years has been profound’.
At the end of her private session at the Royal Commission Melissa commented, ‘I thought I was just coming to tell my story, but if any information I’ve given does go towards that bigger picture, which is so important …
‘[It] doesn’t matter which institution’s in the spotlight really, it’s changed all of them … It’s a different society now, because of the Royal Commission. I think people are just amazed at what’s coming out, and it just keeps coming.’