Nino and his mother Irena came to the Royal Commission on behalf of their brother and son John, who took his own life in the 2010s.
In the mid-1960s, John was attending a Catholic primary school in Sydney’s west. ‘At the time we were okay financially’, Irena said. ‘We could have sent them literally around the corner to a public school but chose, because of our religion, to put Nino and John on a bus to go up to the college. And then pay school fees and uniforms and things because I thought I was doing the right thing, you know? You just don’t know ... you’d think a child would be safe in school.’
In Year Four John was taught by George Windle, a lay teacher Nino remembered as friendly and caring. ‘He was a soccer referee, he would invariably have excursions during school holidays and take groups of boys out, way beyond what any of the other teachers would get involved in. And that all seemed to be that he was just a very good person.
‘He used to come to our house.’
‘He ingratiated himself with us’ Irena said.
John was sexually abused by Windle for three years.
When John was about 12, Irena noticed changes in his behaviour. He became increasingly aggressive and moody, talking back and refusing to do as he was told. One day, when Irena reprimanded John, ‘he started to cry and he said, “Mr Windle’s been interfering with me at school”’.
Irena immediately rang the principal, Brother Benedict. ‘And he said he’d get investigators in. And apparently he did, he had investigators in, and they said there wasn’t enough evidence … but what they’d do, they thought it was safer to keep him [Windle] there, where they could keep their eye on him and see that nothing like that happened again.’
John stayed at the school for one more term, and continued to be taught by Windle. Irena now realises how difficult this must have been for him, but her son appeared to be coping.
‘He was excellent at soccer, he met a lovely girl … and seemed to have a typical, happy teenage life, always laughing … and I thought he’d forgotten about it.’
After leaving school, John never spoke about the abuse. Irena sometimes thought about asking if he was alright, but she didn’t want to upset him and so didn’t bring it up.
For Nino, there was never any indication that his brother was struggling. ‘His behaviour was always very normal. He showed no signs of any depression, anxiety … he was quite a character. And to our amazement, we got a phone call … his wife told me the police had found him, he was dead.’
Irena said, ‘He had a successful life, a wonderful marriage, he was a security blanket for the children. The night before he died … he and his wife had a jukebox and they were out dancing together … I said, “Did he make any special long goodbyes?”, and no, just the same as usual.’
After trying for a number of weeks, Nino managed to get hold of his brother’s work computer. While the company had wiped a lot of the files, Nino was able to learn that there was some kind of serious dispute between John and his business partners. ‘That I think was sort of like the final straw for him.’
On the laptop Nino also found two documents addressed to him, one dated 2004, another 2009. They were John’s suicide notes. ‘So he had a number of years of torment, which was not known to any of us. And so he had these dark moments, where he obviously had thought of taking his life on previous occasions. But for whatever reason, hadn’t taken that final step.
‘He specifically mentions George Windle in the first letter.’
The notes also revealed the depths of John’s anger and despair about a number of incidents in his career where he lost significant work and money.
Sometime after John’s death, Nino saw a media report about the teacher and started to investigate. He discovered that, when Brother Benedict left the school, the new principal, Brother Thomas, allowed Windle to keep teaching. And when Thomas moved to a new school, Windle went with him and lived on the grounds, where he sexually abused more children.
Nino personally knows of one couple who spoke to Thomas about Windle and were told, ‘If you’ve got a problem, see a solicitor’.
Over the years Nino and Irena have learnt of more lay teachers and Brothers, known predators who were simply moved to different schools all over Australia by the Church.
George Windle is now dead. There were rumours of cancer, but Nino believes he killed himself. ‘The world’s a better place without him.’
Irena and Nino will always miss John, and wish more than anything that they could have done something to help him.
‘That’s the vital part’, Irena said. ‘I think, if people talked about it more, it might prevent a lot of people from taking their life.’