‘I learnt very quickly as a small child that if you say anything about adults or anyone else at the school I attended, you were told you were tittle-tattling. I can distinctly remember both in infants and primary school that if I saw something I didn’t think was right, and I went to tell the teachers, I was often in trouble. I was told to stop telling tales, and I would get detention.
‘My parents, they were working seven days a week. My father was absent from the home. He spent a lot of time drinking at the RSL club. He was a returned soldier from many years ago and so I was left alone.
'My parents were working so hard, they were really not there emotionally for me. Being tired and being stressed out, they also were not really interested in hearing any more problems that were going on. They were just struggling to put food on the table and that kind of thing. So I learnt very young as a child: "Don’t tell anybody anything, you’ll get into trouble and something might happen to you".’
Looking back, Orla realises now the way her public school teacher, Bruce Edwards, interacted with her parents was a form of grooming. It had the effect of them not objecting to him spending large amounts of time with 10-year-old Orla, and he was able to bring her to his home and take her on train trips to Sydney from their regional town in New South Wales. Edwards also often took Orla to isolated pockets of land on the pretext of bushwalking and birdwatching.
For two years in the late 1960s, Edwards sexually abused Orla, kissing her with his tongue, exposing himself and fondling her genitals. She knew what he was doing wasn’t right and on one occasion when she protested he told her a story about a 10-year-old girl who married a lighthouse keeper. She didn’t know what he was talking about but thought it was a way of trying to make it seem that what he was doing was normal. ‘He was trying to say it’s perfectly okay, although I knew it wasn’t’, she said.
She wasn’t sure when, but at some point she must have said something about Edwards to a friend or teacher, because one afternoon she was told to stay back for detention.
‘He said, “If you tell people, I could get into a lot of trouble, you could get into a lot of trouble. I might go to jail, your parents might wind up going to jail, you could get taken away from the home and you could be put somewhere."
I was terrified and I thought, "I’m doing something wrong". And so that stopped me. That was just another point in a long line of, "Don’t tell anybody anything that’s going on because you’re likely to get in trouble". So I never ever did until I got older and needed to see someone.’
Orla wondered why adults in the school and town never questioned why Edwards always had a large group of children in his home and backyard. She was sure he’d abused other children and though he was never violent towards her, she said he was ‘an odd man’. In the classroom he would periodically hit himself in the head with a ruler, saying ‘God help me’, and when angry, he’d throw a pair of scissors at pupils.
The impact of the abuse for Orla was that she found it difficult to trust people, and from being a good student she lost interest in school and learning. At the age of 12, she ‘got wiser’ and managed to avoid Edwards, despite him seeking her out and writing notes imploring her not to break ‘the chain’ they had.
Orla left town at 17 and never saw Edwards again. She worked for many years in ‘low-paid, low-skilled’ jobs before going to university as a mature-age student and studying psychology. Anxiety she’d developed as a child interfered with her ability as an adult to complete performance tasks like getting a driver’s licence, and it made social situations difficult.
‘I can get close to maybe one or two people and that’s okay’, she said. ‘But I don’t like meeting new people. I don’t like being in crowds. I have intimacy problems in romantic relationships. I don’t like people touching me. People can’t just come up and hug me whenever they feel like it. All of those things around my personal space: very problematic.’
As a counsellor, Orla has met clients who disclosed their sexual attraction to children. They were men, she said, who fitted the clinical diagnostic criteria of paedophile but they’d never acted on their feelings and weren’t sex offenders. She believed the lack of services for these men was a growing issue.
‘If you want to protect children, we need to recognise that paedophilia is common – very, very common and it’s the clinical diagnosis. They’re not sex offenders yet until they’ve acted on it, done something.
'There’s a new cohort and a new body of research to show that there are many, many young men – and old men – who are sexually attracted to children, and they’re terrified to tell anybody because they think they’ll go to jail.
‘If we’re going to protect people, they need to be able to come forward, and speak with someone with specialist qualifications and experience to help them manage that, because it’s never going to go away. To help them understand that you’ll be a paedophile for the rest of your life, just like I’m going to be a victim for the rest of my life. But I can manage it and they can manage it too.’