‘He told me no one would believe me because of his position in the school … He’s a respected community leader. “Who’s going to believe you? No one’s going to believe you. You’re nothing. You’re nothing.” And that’s what I believed for a long, long time. That no one would believe me. And it’s almost like they infect you with anxiety and doubt, self-doubt. It’s an infection that the only way you can cure it is by realising yourself, what you are.’
Peter was a Year 7 student at an Anglican boarding school in regional New South Wales in the 1980s when he was sexually abused by a senior teacher named Mr Murphy. Peter had an injury at the time and Murphy offered to give him a massage.
‘He used that as an excuse. And then it went from massaging to removal of my pants. He took his pants off. He put my hand on his penis and then he put his hand on my penis. He asked me if I liked it, you know, “Does that feel good?” That kind of talk.
‘And then – because this was my first sexual experience, I finished, if you like, orgasmed, whatever you want to call it. And I think that probably saved me from a worse fate because that shocked him, I think. I think he would have gone further, a lot further, had that not occurred.’
Mr Murphy never sexually abused Peter again but he inflicted years of psychological abuse.
‘For the next four years he would take me into his office, which was next to the teacher staffroom and he’d ask me questions about who I’d been talking to, had I said anything to anyone, reinforcing that “No one will believe you” scenario.
‘It even got to the point where I was chewing gum, walking through school just chewing gum and he pulled me out of school, took me into his office, caned me and then he hugged me, told me he loved me, said he couldn’t play favourites and he wanted me to love him as my father, away from my real father. And this happened a lot.’
As Peter got older, Murphy lost interest in him and let him be. By then the damage was done. At 15 Peter was drinking a cask of wine every weekend. Sometimes he’d be overcome by fits of uncontrollable sobbing. He was badly bullied at school. Eventually he got away from the wine but the other troubles followed him into adulthood.
‘It’s affected everything. Work, relationships, trust. Authority. Oh my God. Authority is the worst. It is the worst.’
Peter said he had to give up his job recently because workplace bullying was reviving his memories of the abuse. ‘You relive – not in “flashback” form, not visually, but the emotions, the emotion of feeling out of control or unworthy, feeling disrespect is just – it weakens you. It wears you out.’
Feeling out of control is a major trigger for Peter. It led to his very first disclosure of the abuse. One day when he was in his early 20s he came home to find that his flatmates had taken something from his bedroom without asking.
‘Don’t know why, it just triggered it. And it came out. You know when – I don’t know if you’ve ever hyperventilated. Your whole – your arms, it’s like pins and needles going through you, going through your arms, your legs, your head. It’s like a river of energy and you just – it was like an erupting volcano and I just let it all out. And it was something else … It was not having that control. “That’s my stuff” … I think that’s what it was.’
Peter’s flatmates didn’t know what to do. ‘Poor things, they were taken aback a bit. They rang Mum and Dad and then Mum and Dad came down. Dad said to me “You’re not afraid to hug me are you mate?” And ever since then, ever since that day, I give him a hug hello and I give him a hug goodbye. And it’s not something we talk about. It’s just something we do.’
Peter’s parents and his wife, Gina, have fully supported his efforts to bring Mr Murphy and the school to justice. In the mid-2000s Peter reported Mr Murphy’s behaviour to a lawyer and the police. Unfortunately, the lawyers advised that the case was too old to prosecute, and the police said they would have to keep the case on hold pending further evidence.
Still, Peter wasn’t bothered. He found another way to get what he needed.
‘As part of my empowerment I wanted to tell him [Murphy] that he didn’t have any power over me anymore. So I found out his address and whatnot and I sent him a registered mail letter – sort of wanted to make sure he got it, so that they had to sign for it. I basically told him in that letter that he was more scared of me than I was of him and that he had zero control or power over me and I’ll tell whoever I want.’
This act, plus family support and ongoing counselling, has made a huge difference to Peter’s mental health. ‘I’m still dealing with what happened to me, and I always will, but I’m much stronger. I’m a much stronger man than I was.’