‘My memory is … completely shabby. It’s just a series of unrelated snapshots that I’ve tried to put together and … I don’t have a clear enough picture of who did what … It’s only that horrible photo … [He] just had this look on his face and I knew then …’
Mitchell was physically and sexually abused by a number of Brothers at the Salesian college he attended in Victoria in the 1970s. He had blocked his memories of the abuse for most of his adult life, but when he saw a photograph of one of his abusers in a newspaper in 2013, ‘that just triggered everything. Like it just made sense’.
Mitchell told the Commissioner that his primary school years were ‘pretty happy. I wasn’t a bad student. I liked learning’ and early life consisted of a series of big, happy family get-togethers.
The first time Mitchell was sexually abused was when he attended a live-in orientation weekend, prior to starting at the college. On the second night of the weekend Mitchell was taken into the cubicle where the Brother in charge of the dormitory slept.
‘I had no idea what was going on, and I was sat down on the bed, and I can remember details. I can tell you what colour the bedspread was. I can tell you so much detail, but I couldn’t categorically say which … Brother it was.’
There was an older boarder in the room. ‘I remember him … it’s only with age that I worked it out … masturbating the Brother, [who] opened his robe … and pretty much exposed his, you know, erect … just sort of moved towards my face and then sort of started hitting me either side of the face with [it].’
Mitchell doesn’t remember how he got back to his bed. ‘I was shitting myself, because … even though you grow up with lots of farm animals … I had no bloody idea. And that was … the orientation weekend.’
Both the boarder and the Brother threatened Mitchell. ‘[The student] was going to beat me up and [the Brother] was going to make sure I couldn’t start school.’
Mitchell was sexually abused by several teachers during the next three years. The one incident he remembers most clearly occurred in the sports shed. ‘I was sent down there for some reason … It was very isolated … I remember being really scared at the time.’
One of the Brothers came into the shed and ‘said something and I couldn’t do anything. I just froze on the spot. He banged my head against the wall … He held my face. I can remember … all I felt was basically the pain and the stink of the shed, and it was dark’. The Brother then forced Mitchell to perform oral sex on him.
Mitchell doesn’t remember how he got back to class or what happened afterwards. ‘All I can remember is just being scared witless. Completely scared.’
Not only were many of the Brothers at the school sexually abusive, they also physically abused the boys. ‘They used to beat you up for anything. Like there was this one guy … you did something wrong, he’d open the desk and slam your head in it. They’d hit you with the sharp end of a steel ruler. Another … Brother, he would beat you with a broomstick … There was lots of violence at the school.’
When Mitchell was 14, he was in the sacristy with the local parish priest. When the priest attempted to grope him, Mitchell told him to ‘“Fuck off” and that was kind of like a watershed moment where for some reason … I’m pretty sure that’s when it kind of stopped at school as well’. The sexual abuse stopped, but the physical abuse continued until Mitchell completed Year 12.
Mitchell told the Commissioner that at school he was ‘introverted. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I didn’t play sport … Mum and Dad … they’d find me under a table, reading, or I’d be down the creek, just by myself, staring into nothing. One time … they found me in a wardrobe, reading. I was pretty insular … I would just withdraw I suppose. That’s the best word’.
After he left school, Mitchell ‘just started to put everything behind me … it just seemed like everything went into a lockdown’.
Mitchell went to university, began his career, got married, and had children, but he always knew there was something that was not quite right. ‘I wasn’t coping with the workload. I was angry a lot of the time. Sometimes, for just no reason, I’d just get upset … I’d cry … There were lots of sorts of incidents … like a weakness.’
In the mid-2000s, Mitchell was forced to stop working when he began to suffer from depression, and he has been in and out of hospital ever since. He believes that it is ‘quite clear that a lot of incidents, not all of them, but a lot of incidents can be tied back to what happened’.
The last time he was in hospital, he was told that it might help if he wrote down what he could remember. ‘I’m quite happy to remember the colour of the curtains. I just don’t want to remember anything else. I can remember all the sensory stuff. I can remember fear, pain … anger came a lot later. Bewilderment. Guilt. Shame. All of it.’
Mitchell told the Commissioner, ‘I’m kind of hoping … I came here really not expecting to walk out … like it’s been cathartic. Maybe it will. I don’t know. I’ve got no pre-conceptions’.