Nathan attended an Anglican school in Victoria in the early 1960s. At age 11 one of his teachers took him aside after a school play, forced him to strip down and tried to molest him.
‘It was in one sense nothing massive’, Nathan said, ‘but it was part of a whole set of circumstances in that first year that were very uncomfortable’.
By the end of the year Nathan had gone from ‘a convivial and active boy’ who excelled at sport and study to ‘the second most caned boy at the school’. When the holidays came he was relieved, and when they drew to an end he was terrified.
‘Before I had to go back to the school I remember crying for about three days. I did not want to go to the prep school and I couldn’t articulate it to anybody – I just didn’t want to go back.’
Nathan did go back, and unfortunately for him, his mother had mentioned his tears and his reluctance to some of the staff members at the school. Nathan’s dorm master decided to raise the subject one night when Nathan had been caught talking after lights out.
‘And he yells across the whole dormitory that, “And you dared to complain to your mother that you don’t like the school, and what do you expect” and yada yada yada. So that was part of an experience not to complain about people’s behaviour. So not only was I bawled out in front of the class and caned afterwards anyway but it sort of led to my introduction to an environment where I found no basis to engage with anyone. I basically closed emotionally.’
Transformed into a silent, isolated child, Nathan became easy prey for school chaplain John McNair who sexually abused him on two occasions. To cope, Nathan turned to alcohol. He funded his habit by covertly selling liquor to the other students. The enterprise was an early example of Nathan’s resourcefulness and ability to channel his psychological troubles into practical action.
He applied these abilities to more worthwhile projects as soon as he left school, working in the trade union movement and as a political activist. His work was often fueled by anger, distrust of men and a ‘very sharp cynicism regarding any form of authority’.
Though a powerful motivator and an effective means of self-protection, these harsh attitudes took their toll on Nathan’s marriage. His wife suggested that he seek counselling, which Nathan did. During a session he disclosed the sexual abuse for the first time. He was ‘totally devastated’ by the discussion and from that moment on has never found it helpful to talk about what he went through.
‘It’s pretty exhausting. Sort of like taking a package out of the drawer, unwrapping it, seeing what it is, not liking it, getting a better understanding of what’s in the package, wrapping it back up and putting it back in the drawer.’
Nathan’s marriage ended in divorce. After that he closed down again and rarely mentioned the abuse to anyone. Then in the early 2010s he saw a news story about child sexual abuse and was prompted to write a letter to his old school.
‘I was seeking … a sense of commiseration, compassion, understanding and possibly even an apology.’
He asked the school about their complaints procedure and whether they were aware of the chaplain who had abused him. Nathan received a reply stating that the chaplain he’d named had never worked at the school. It was then that Nathan realised he’d got the man’s name slightly wrong. He wrote back to the school. They never replied.
A few years later the school came under the scrutiny of the Royal Commission. In response the principal issued a notice. One of its closing paragraphs said:
‘The school deeply regrets the wrongful conduct of some of its former staff. I assure you that the current school leadership is doing all that it can to address these matters and, in an understanding and caring manner, support those who have been affected.’
That last sentence is the one that Nathan ‘takes greatest exception to’. He believes that the school was ‘inept’ at dealing with his complaint and showed him neither understanding nor care. And despite the rhetoric in its notice, Nathan doubts that the school will ever take proper responsibility for the harm it caused.
‘I suspect … that they are so rooted in conservative values and so rooted in the establishment that they will be incapable of acknowledging it.’