In the mid-1980s, when Palmer was in Year 7 at a Catholic school north of Sydney, he was sexually abused by a teacher at a swimming carnival.
During a race, the cord came out of his swimming trunks and they wouldn’t stay up. ‘Mr Heygen said, “Come on, I’ll fix it up for you”. So we went to the change room and he said, “Take your pants off” and I said, “No, I don’t want to take them off”. He said, “Well, I’ve got to get the cord in”. And he just sort of grabbed them and pulled them open at the front and had a good look down the front, and then he sort of put his hands down …
‘I don’t know if I’ve blocked it … I know he didn’t excessively touch me, but he was very forceful and adamant that I had to do it. And in the end - I don’t know if I pushed him or not - but I just sort of went “Nah” and I walked away and I didn’t let him do it. And he just said, “Look, this is between you and me, this doesn’t go any further ...”
‘And then from that day on … he would always just walk up to me and squeeze me on the shoulder and just always touch me and make me feel really uncomfortable all the time. And always degrade, like, put me down. If I got something wrong he’d make an example of me and say, “What an idiot this guy is” … continued through high school, that.’
Palmer was often physically abused by another teacher, Mr Sallis, who would throw wooden blackboard dusters at him from close range. ‘I remember copping it in the head all the time, or in the shoulder.
‘And then, yeah, like, he’d make all the girls sit up the front. He was really nice to all the girls, the girls could get away with murder. I know now it was just so he could look up their dresses.’
Like Heygen, Palmer suspects Sallis may have also sexually abused students.
At the end of Year 10 Palmer left school. He got an apprenticeship, and later travelled around Australia. In the mid-90s he returned to the east coast and met the woman who would become his wife.
‘Basically, before I met my wife, I didn’t really have anything to do with girls. I didn’t know how to talk to them. I still struggle talking to females, even my own wife I struggle to talk to her sometimes. And even being intimate, I’ve struggled my whole relationship with it …
‘I’ve just always had trouble getting close to people, know what I mean? I don’t know if it’s just because of the alcohol or … I was just always at the party, the single bloke, getting really drunk. Not talking to anyone.’
He said he’d often thought about the sexual abuse over the years, particularly when he heard about several classmates who died young, from suicide and drug overdoses. He’s always wondered if they were abused, too.
In the early 2010s three members of Palmer’s family passed away. ‘I was just having a really bad time, coping. I was very depressed and drinking lots, taking prescription medication excessively, and off the shelf. I was just taking anything to make me feel numb. People at work were noticing and everything, and my family was noticing. I was just isolating myself.’
His wife suggested he go to a rehab clinic. ‘And I learnt a lot about myself. And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’d sort of blocked these memories out of my head all this time, and I’ve never told anyone until I went to this place … they brought this out of me.’
Palmer came to understand that the abuse has had a much greater impact than he realised. ‘I think it’s part of the way my life’s panned out, just from these events in my life as a young child. You know, drinking, and experimenting with drugs, and driving fast. I’m surprised I’m alive, you know, like, some of the things I’ve done have been crazy.’
Since becoming a father, there have also been new impacts. ‘I really struggle with letting my children have sleepovers at friends’ houses … Unless I really know the person I’m not really trusting of them …
‘I know I wouldn’t ever do anything, and I could never think of anything worse than harming another child, even my own child, because of what’s happened to me, in my life. But I just have, I have this, like, paranoia that people don’t trust me … that people talk about me.’
Palmer believes more people should have to undergo Working with Children Checks, so that everyone who has contact with kids is properly vetted. And he’d like to see a program that teaches and encourages children to have a voice.
‘I’ve always told our children that, if something’s not right … don’t be afraid to speak up. And don’t ever be embarrassed about saying anything … if they say something to you like, “Don’t tell your parents”, it’s not right and tell us straight away. Because I never did.’
When he came to the Royal Commission, Palmer was given information about the free legal service, knowmore, in case he wanted to consider a legal claim against the Church. The Commission also gave Heygen’s name to the police.
‘Previously I sort of thought, “Just forget about it”. But when I see what damage it’s done to people’s lives … I’m not like “an eye for eye, tooth for a tooth” sort but … people need to tell their story and put these people back in jail if they’re not in jail now. Because they really do need to be there, for what they’ve done to people. Like, my life, I’ve got a pretty good life. But I think it could’ve been a lot better.’