Oliver is from a large Catholic family and attended a primary school run by the Church in his country town. His Year 3 teacher in the early 1970s was Brother Preston. Preston would regularly tell the class of boys to ‘air yourselves’, which was the cue for them to stand up and drop their pants.
‘It was not unusual for Brother Preston to randomly choose kids from the class’, Oliver told the Commissioner. ‘[He would] have them sit on his knee and he would fondle and kiss them.’ Sometimes these students would stay behind with Preston during play time.
One day it was Oliver’s turn. He was invited to sit on his teacher’s knee. As the other students were leaving for lunch Preston asked Oliver to stay back. He invited Oliver down to the boiler room, on a pretence. There he told Oliver to ‘air yourself’. Oliver obediently pulled down his pants.
‘Then I felt Brother Preston put one hand on the back of my neck and push me forward. My underpants were slid down.’ Oliver remembers being penetrated three times.
‘Immediately after that I was told by Brother Preston that I was never allowed to say anything. We'd already seen Brother Preston lose his temper a few times in class with students and I knew the ramifications of telling people.’
Oliver also remembers feeling ashamed of what had happened. He did not try to tell his family about it. But four days later, when Preston again called Oliver up to sit on his knee, Oliver refused. ‘I said, “No”. That’s when I started to get the physical abuse.’ Many times Oliver was called up in front of the class and given the strap or the cane for trivial reasons.
Even as a nine-year-old Oliver knew what was going on. ‘I was able to make that connection … I had said "No" to going up and sitting on his knee, or potentially being taken down to the boiler room again, and that was my punishment.’
The beatings eventually ceased, and for the rest of his time at that school Oliver was left alone by Preston. It was as if he had ‘inoculated’ himself against the abuse.
Oliver was aware that other boys were not so lucky. Other boys were being called to sit on Preston’s knee. Other boys were staying back with him at play time. ‘Something that I've struggled with for a long time is the idea that, I guess – it sounds callous and heartless – but I felt at the time that it was much better them than me.’
About three months after his abuse Oliver finally felt he had an opportunity to tell someone about Preston. A visiting priest was taking confession at Oliver’s church. Oliver slid into the booth and was asked what his sins were.
‘The first thing I said was, "Well, Brother Preston had done things to me". I remember there was silence for probably about 30 seconds and then the Father said, "That didn't happen". It was right then that I knew that, okay, that didn't happen. I've never – that was it. I never told anybody else until my wife nearly 30 years later.’
Oliver got on with his life. He became a teacher and worked within both the government and independent sectors. He married and raised children of his own. Oliver believes whole decades went past without him thinking about the abuse he suffered. But then many stories of abuse within schools began to appear in the media and Oliver found his own experiences began to trouble him. Problems he’d had with intimacy became worse and threatened his marriage.
Oliver has sought help through counselling to deal with his intimacy issues and his strong feelings of guilt over the students he knew suffered at Preston’s hands, when he had been spared. Oliver understands that a nine-year-old bears no responsibility for the abuse that happens to him, or to others around him. Healing the pain is more difficult, however. ‘It's really hard, isn't it? It's an intellectual understanding, but the feelings are still there.’
The past can haunt Oliver. Now living and working back in his home town, he was recently helping assess a Year 12 English student, listening to her oral presentation. She announced that she would be talking about the history of child sex abuse at the local Catholic schools. Oliver decided he could handle it. The first half of the talk was indeed just facts and figures.
‘But the second half of her presentation was talking about her father’, Oliver recalls. ‘I realised that I went to school with her father. Her father was in my class and her father was one of those that I saw sitting on Preston’s knee quite often.’
The man had become quite violent as an adult and eventually had killed himself.
‘I made that realisation in the middle of her speech and I don't know whether I had some look on my face or whatever, but she looked up … and she just looked at me and she immediately burst into tears.’
‘I said, "I knew your father. I was in your father's class". I said, "I'm just so sorry”. We had a bit of a hug.
‘It really did bring back to me that, yes, there was me and that's my story, but my story is nothing compared to other people's stories, and other people's stories are still affecting their children, their children's children.’