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Nelson James's story

‘Day one is when I first had problems’, Nelson said.

In Years 5 and 6, everything had been ‘fine’ at the De La Salle school he attended in western Sydney. In Year 7, when Nelson was 13, things turned difficult.

It was the early 1980s. Nelson’s older brothers were also at the school, and on that first day the Master of Discipline, Brother Lewis, made sure Nelson knew the family connection was not a point in his favour. When he took the advice of one of his brothers and left his schoolbag outside a classroom, other students followed suit. After assembly, Lewis lined up Nelson and the other offenders, and gave each of them six brutal whacks with his strap. He told the others they could thank Nelson for the punishment.

‘You don’t do anything in this school unless you’re told to’, he said.

Lewis’s strap was four layers of leather with hacksaw blades sewn between them and industrial stitching round the edges. ‘They made them on site’, Nelson recalled. Lewis often singled him out for punishment. ‘I thought, I’m paying for what [my brothers] did.’

One day a few months into the term, Nelson was playing sport in the schoolyard. He was wearing a pair of new shorts, and as he got sweatier the shorts began to chafe. He told the supervising teacher he couldn’t play anymore, and explained why. Lewis was also there, and said he’d have a look at the affected area.

He took Nelson to a small, dimly lit room, sat himself down in the only chair and said, ‘Come on, let’s have a look’. He tugged at Nelson’s shorts and fondled his upper thigh. ‘All the while, I’m trying not look at him’, Nelson said. Then he inserted his thumb into Nelson’s anus – ‘what is known as digital rape’.

Nelson’s mother worked for the Church and Lewis said she would lose her job if he spoke of what had happened. ‘“Who do you think employs her?” … You know, that sort of manipulation. Giving me the sense of "you’re powerless, you’re helpless".’

Nelson confided in his brother, who teased him. And he wouldn’t have told his parents anyway, he said. They were Catholics and strict. They subscribed to the view ‘kids deserve it’.

‘I thought, there’s just no help.’

Lewis punished him even more after the sexual abuse.

‘I think, after that day, the strapping and the excuses for strapping became totally, what would you call it, illogical. They were just reasons that were made up straight out of the blue.’

Nelson left school in Year 10. He went to a technical college and afterwards worked in hospitality. ‘I could never really hold any position for very long.’ A series of jobs eventually led to a position in the security industry.

‘In six years of doing that I hated bullies … It was always a case of “Are you bringing a problem to us?” when I was talking to people. I’d probably thrown out four people in six years of doing that kind of work. And I’d sacked more people who were security staff, because of their attitude – had to get them out of there because they were just violent. They were the problem, they weren’t the cure.’

In the early 1990s, an incident at work led him to a new understanding of the long-lasting impact of Lewis’s abuse. A customer in the bar had hit a woman: ‘I literally just saw red – kicked the guy, took him outside and dumped him on the footpath. I went home and I was in tears because I thought, “What the hell happened?” That’s not me. That’s not what I do.

'Then I realised … I’ve heard people say, “I snapped, I lost control”. At that point did they actually realise to what extent? I think from that point I seriously considered seeking help of some kind.’

Sometime later Nelson approached a lawyer about seeking compensation. ‘I was told straight out you may need to seek counselling, because as I started talking about it I literally broke down. They said you’re going to need to be able to word exactly what you want to do and work through it.’

In the early 2010s he reported Lewis to police. Their investigation found that he was living in Queensland. They told Nelson they interviewed him but his mental state was poor. ‘They said he’s in a nursing home and he has no recollection.’ Nelson doesn’t know whether or not Lewis is still alive.

Looking back, he can’t work out what prompted the abuse.

‘I don’t know if he had sexual intent or just something out of control … Eventually I got to the point where I just thought it doesn’t matter. It’s not my question to answer.’

Nelson saw a counsellor for several years. Through her, he learned for the first time that Lewis was thought to have abused other boys as well. ‘That’s when it struck me, I wasn’t the only one.’

He is trying to wean himself off medication prescribed for depression and anxiety, and is enrolled in an art course.

‘Artwork has just given me, I suppose, expression ... Trying to express what I can’t find in words through art has always been a good out.’

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