In the early 1970s, at a primary school in the Australian Capital Territory, Odette was sexually abused by her Grade 5 teacher, Dennis Volmann.
‘Mum worked night duty … she was having problems. The marriage was very unstable, a lot of violence and shouting and stuff … He wasn’t really a good father. Very strict, but he wasn’t sort of a loving father. That’s why, even though I didn’t like what was happening to me, I liked the attention of a male. And he saw that.’
When the other students went to the library, Volmann would keep Odette back and take her to a small office at the back of the classroom.
‘And he had it all covered, the windows were all sort of covered, and he’d sit me on his lap. And we’d look through magazines like National Geographic or things, and he’d have my top undone and he would be touching my breasts – well, I didn’t have much breasts at nine, of course. He also used to suck them as well. Very odd, strange things.
‘He used to give me these horrible bear hugs, sort of really tight. I couldn’t stand them, but you don’t have the power, you don’t have the power to say no. He’s the teacher, he’s the one with the power. And he did that a lot.’
On another occasion, Odette recalled Volmann coming up behind her and putting his hands down her pants. And once on a school camp, he came into her cabin to say goodnight.
‘And he, you know, had his tongue down my throat ... I was practically suffocating, felt like I was suffocating … It was horrible, doing that sort of thing.’
The abuse stopped later that year when Odette went overseas with her mother. When she came back to school, the classrooms had been converted to open plan. ‘I still had him but there was another teacher there, and so it was virtually impossible to have anything going on of that nature.
‘There was no little offices or, you know, places to hide.’
The following year, another girl asked Odette if anything had happened with Volmann, and encouraged her to tell the headmaster. Odette said she didn’t go into detail about the abuse, but remembers having the feeling that she wasn’t the only one who’d reported the teacher. Soon after, Volmann left the school.
‘I think it happened in varying degrees to different people, depending how much he could get away with.’
A couple of years later, she learnt that Volmann had moved to another school and almost certainly abused other children.
Odette has felt the impacts of the abuse through much of her adult life. ‘Low self-esteem, not good at relationships with men. I’m sort of picking … psychologically abusive types. And just not being myself, hiding myself. It’s only now that I’m starting to be myself, or I can feel comfortable being myself, and I don’t have to be whatever they want.
‘I move in some directions but I just can’t move on. I just feel a bit stuck, in my life.’
In recent years she told her mother and a former partner about Volmann. She’s had counselling for other issues, but never for the abuse. ‘That was sort of buried a lot … It’s been repressed. Pushed back.
‘But then I think, well, you have to get it out there. Got to get rid of it.’
For personal reasons, Odette never reported the teacher to the authorities. But after speaking with the Commissioner, she said she was happy for his name to be given to police and to make a statement. She was interested in learning more about counselling, too.
Odette also had a number of recommendations for the Royal Commission. She thought there should be a system in place where all allegations of abuse are properly investigated and reported. Odette still wonders why the school never informed her mother about Dennis Volmann.
Working with Children Checks should be applied to other vulnerable groups like the elderly and the disabled.
And there should be more education for children about inappropriate behaviour, so they have the tools to speak up about anything that makes them uncomfortable.
But Odette is also worried that we’re moving too far in the opposite direction, where all hugs are suspicious and a teacher is not allowed to comfort a distressed child.
‘Where do you draw the line? … It’s really hard. We are smothering our children, we’re not letting them do things.’
Although the trauma of the sexual abuse has been with her for many years, Odette has managed to take something positive from the experience. She said that she’s become ‘much more understanding’ of people, and much less quick to judge them.
‘Even though their actions might be negative, that there’s something behind it. We don’t know what their experiences are … Even him, we don’t know what he went through ... I mean, he wouldn’t just be there, out of the blue, doing this. What’s behind it?
‘And I’m still here. That’s the other positive.’