For Michael, the events that unfolded in the aftermath of the abuse caused more damage than the abuse itself. ‘I don’t carry any great emotional scars over Gilmore’s physical abuse,’ he told the Commissioner, ‘but I suffered the consequence of his actions’.
It began in the mid-1950s when Michael was a 12-year-old student at a state high school in Victoria. There he encountered Mr Gilmore, ‘a predator disguised as a teacher’. Gilmore sat down next to Michael one day in class, put his hand into Michael’s pocket and fondled his penis.
Gilmore repeated this behaviour several times over the next few months. On a few occasions he kept Michael back after class so he could try a different form of abuse: ‘placing my hand down the front of his pants’. Michael found these attacks ‘repugnant’ and was ‘passively resistant’.
The turning point came one day after school.
‘He induced me to ride in his vehicle and drove to his lodgings. He took me into his bed/sitting room and caused me to drop my pants. Now I can’t fully remember whether he fondled my genitals or just studied them closely.
‘It was a strange sort of thing that he was doing. I became quite frightened and began to cry, saying that I would tell my parents. He then promised that he wouldn’t touch me again if I didn’t tell. To my mind as a 12-year-old kid that wasn’t a bad sort of contractual relationship to enter into.’
Gilmore didn’t touch Michael again after that. Instead, he turned his attentions to the other kids in the class and abused many of them over the course of several months until one boy disclosed the abuse to his dad. The police investigated and Gilmore was charged with offences against Michael and one or two other boys.
This was the beginning of the worst stage for Michael. The trial process took months. The police were terrifying and the courtroom was a ‘fearsome’ place. Michael didn’t understand what was going on, and no one explained it to him. Sleepless and emotionally exhausted, he leapt to the worst conclusions.
‘You were isolated and alone, full of all your fears and doubts and concerns and worries, feeling that you had somehow brought it about … I came to feel that I was more the perpetrator than the victim.’
Though many of the townsfolk wrote and gossiped about the case, no one inquired about Michael’s welfare.
‘My parents didn’t ask how I felt or ask whether I wanted to testify in court. No teacher ever inquired into my wellbeing. A kind word from somebody may have done something to assuage the deep-seated dread that I’d felt within.’
Michael particularly resented his father for forcing him to take the stand – offering him up, he thought, as a ‘sacrificial lamb’. The sacrifice, as it turned out, was for nothing. With the help of a top QC, Gilmore was acquitted.
Gilmore’s freedom confirmed and exacerbated all of Michael’s worst fears. He assumed that he’d done something wrong, that he was a liar and a bad kid. As he got older those feelings evolved into a fearful mistrust of authority. He responded to his teachers with an attitude somewhere between ‘passively rebellious and sullenly reactive’.
When teachers responded angrily he responded more rebelliously, and so the cycle went on. ‘It’s like one domino falls and all the rest follow. So in terms of my emotional and psychological health as a young person, there was no sense that I had of being able to move forward or to find a way up. It was to simply exist.’
Fortunately, this cycle ended soon after Michael left school. His first boss was a kind and insightful mentor who set him on a better path from which Michael ‘never looked back’.
In his adulthood Michael became closely involved with the Anglican Church. He was saddened to discover that two Anglican clergymen he had known years ago had recently been convicted of child sex offences.
Michael believes that every member of the Church, himself included, was ‘complicit’ in these offences, just as the principal and teachers at his old school were complicit in the behaviour of Gilmore. And they all have to work to improve child protection policies within these institutions.
On that score, Michael has been impressed with the efforts of his local bishop, who has been at the ‘forefront’ of child protection policy in the Anglican Church. But he believes the Church, and his old school, still have a long way to go.
Specifically, Michael made two recommendations. First, ongoing monitoring. Leaders at institutions should not use Working with Children Checks as an excuse for complacency, he said. There should be active and ongoing monitoring of all staff, and leaders should be trained to spot suspicious patterns of behaviour.
Second, institutions should treat victims with more kindness. The welfare of the institution should not be prioritised over the needs of its individual members. In a speech delivered at his church Michael offered this quote:
‘People are not all bad, nor all good. But there can be moral disengagement in which there is a malignant self-love and no care for others. Moral disengagement also happens when an institution only cares about its survival and is without empathy for the individual.’