As the child of refugees Oliver stood out amongst his peers, so he liked the positive attention he got from his teacher. What Oliver once thought was Mr Johnson taking an active interest in him, he later came to realise was actually grooming behaviour.
‘I was the wog in the country town. Mum made my clothes – I looked pretty weird – Dad cut my hair, so I think I didn’t know norms of behaviour perhaps that were accepted at school, and so I was beaten quite regularly through school, but I think that had a very big impact – the physical abuse – on the kind of person that I became.’
Johnson taught at Oliver’s Christian Brothers school in regional New South Wales. Compared to the Brothers’ constant use of straps, canes and fists, the teacher appeared ‘sophisticated’ and ‘charming’.
In the late 1960s, when Oliver was in Year 11, Johnson invited him and two other boys to a holiday house on the coast. The school wasn’t aware of the trip, but Oliver’s parents thought it would be fine because their son was with a teacher.
Oliver has memories only of the daytime while they were away and recalls nothing of what happened at night. It perplexed him for years until one day he was speaking to one of the other students who’d been there. Oliver asked him if he remembered Johnson. The man swore and said, ‘I remember that night he drugged us’.
When Oliver heard that, something ‘suddenly clicked’, and he believes that as well as being drugged he was sexually assaulted by Johnson.
Oliver also recalled a later event when he’d been at Johnson’s home near the school, again with several other boys, and after drinking a beer, woke up to find his ‘pants around my ankles’ and Johnson standing over him. He kicked Johnson in the stomach and left the house.
After these events, his grades plummeted and he remained deeply unsettled. He thinks even if he had known the details of what happened with Johnson at the time he wouldn’t have reported it to the school or his parents.
‘My life’s been characterised by alcohol abuse, drug abuse and changing houses, changing jobs. What happened, at some point in the early 2000s, there was some stuff going on in the paper [about child sexual abuse by clergy] and I thought, I’ll just send an email saying I’m putting my hand up as another victim, just to be counted.
‘And the response I got was, “Come and talk to us, be part of Towards Healing” … and almost at the same time there was an article … [that] mentioned Towards Healing as being a pretty terrible experience and so once I read that I thought I’m not going that way.’
Oliver decided to contact a lawyer. Together they met with ‘shadowy figures’ representing the Christian Brothers in a process Oliver described as ‘one of the most disgraceful experiences, horrible experiences, I’ve ever had’.
‘I was humiliated. In the end as we walked out, [the lawyer] said to me, he said, “Look I really apologise for that. I’ll make sure no one goes through that again. I’ll never do that again”.
‘They were very accusatorial, if that’s the word. They picked every little thing I’d written that didn’t fit the timeline or the names were wrong, suggesting I’m making all this up, that’s how they approached it. It was a waste of time. It was just silly. But they were very aggressive in their opposition.
‘They kept making me leave the room, then call me back in, call me back in and [the lawyer] and the barrister I think were negotiating the settlement, or trying to. I don’t know where they started but in the end they said 30 grand. Now, I know [the lawyer’s] expenses were more than 30 grand, you know with a barrister involved as well. They then agreed to give me 20 and take 10, so by then I was feeling really angry. It was insulting to me.’
Oliver has been married for nearly two decades but describes family life as ‘pretty dysfunctional for lots of reasons’. He thinks that without the abuse he might have been ‘a totally different person’.
‘I can’t see where else it came from, but the 60s and 70s were a rebellious time anyway, but it left me certainly, what’s the word, keen to get out, keen to run away, and to become a risk-taker. I think that’s how it affected me.
‘My successful colleagues … all did quite normal things. They went to university, they got married, they had children, they got jobs where they became very successful, bought houses and businesses, and I just kept moving and moving and moving and moving. Running away, running away, having relationships that failed, so all those kinds of things. And instead of being an A grade student I would be a last minute student that would do as little as possible to get, to fall over the line.’