Pavel’s parents emigrated from Europe to Australia in the early 1950s and settled in Melbourne. His father had high hopes for his son and sent him to a Catholic secondary school where he thought Pavel would get the best opportunity to excel.
Pavel felt culturally very alien from the other boys at the school. His own family’s culture was very different and he found it hard to make friends. The school was authoritarian and the clergy there had no hesitation in using corporal punishment. Pavel wasn’t bookish and he found the work intellectually challenging.
He loved physical activity though, and he felt especially drawn to his PE teacher, Mr Herring, who also had European heritage. Herring was engaging and friendly – ‘an attractive person; he was dynamic’.
Herring was trusted and well-liked by the boys. He would organise outings, such as a trip to a lake, or rock climbing. Herring’s conversations were sometimes ‘extraordinary’ – he raised the topic of sex quite a lot with the boys. At the end of Form 1, he went on a camp with Herring and several other kids.
After dinner the boys divided into two teams and played a game. Pavel was hiding in some shrubbery when he felt Herring embracing him from behind. ‘I felt extremely uncomfortable … It just didn’t feel right.’
According to Pavel’s mother, when he returned from the camping trip he was very emotionally detached.
On a second occasion, Herring drove some of the boys to a local beach where they wandered around the dunes for hours. Somehow Pavel found himself alone with Herring, who asked Pavel if he’d like to drive his car around the dirt roads for a bit. Pavel said ‘Sure’.
As Pavel started driving, Herring leaned over and started massaging his genitals. Pavel froze. ‘I was in a state of shock.’ Herring kept going. ‘I was just in this state of having no repertoire of response.’
Pavel told no one what happened but his behaviour changed. He began a long battle with his father to change schools. Finally in Form 4 he left. Herring was still at the school.
His new school was much better, despite some bullying and fights, and after school Pavel started university. He dropped out at the end of his first year and then worked in a range of different jobs.
He coped with the sexual abuse by burying it for years, denying it even to himself. He told himself, ‘That’s life. Get on with it’. Then there was a change in the social climate. ‘The general issue of abuse in religious contexts … was beginning to percolate through the public discourse.’
Pavel finally disclosed the abuse to a trusted partner when he was in his 40s.
Pavel decided to report the abuse to his old school as well. He tried to meet with them to talk about what happened to him, but was given no access. They insisted he go through the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing process. The school did report it to the police, however, who asked Pavel if he wanted to make a statement. He said no.
At the same time, issues were coming up in Pavel’s relationship and he realised they were linked to the abuse. He started getting counselling, which helped him to understand the impact of the sexual abuse and unpack it.
One night while Pavel was watching TV, he saw students from another Catholic school who had taken Herring to court. ‘The response I had to this … was so overwhelmingly emotional. That’s what set me on this pathway.’
Pavel then contacted Towards Healing and began a mediation that his lawyer said was the most fraught he’s ever been involved in. Pavel’s old school refused to engage directly with him at all. His request for a letter of apology to be addressed to his deceased parents as well as to him, was denied. The school’s lawyer minimised the abuse and denied commonly known facts about the case.
It was an ordeal that lasted for more than three and a half years. The whole process was so stressful for Pavel that, for the first time ever, he had suicidal thoughts. He was not offered any counselling by Towards Healing.
Pavel believes that if he hadn’t had strong psychological support he would have given up very early on. In the end he settled for the amount that was ‘on the table’, knowing that legally there was no other option.
However, with a strong personal support system around him, he was able to say yes when the police asked him a second time if he wished to make a statement about Herring.
What would have helped his early disclosure?
Pavel believes that there was no language in his family that could have helped him articulate the abuse. The climate of the time just didn’t allow for such things to be named.
As for the process of redress at the moment, Pavel can’t believe the lack of care taken by institutions. Especially as there is so much expert knowledge about the emotional consequences of trauma.
‘I can’t understand in this day and age … how it is possible for any institution engaged in these kinds of processes to not avail themselves of this knowledge and incorporate it into the process that they offer as … a “towards healing” process?’