‘Being 14 years old it was nice to have someone say I was beautiful just the way I was’, Phoebe told the Commissioner. ‘He told me that I could trust him, and to talk to him, about any problems happening at home, things like that. We talked a lot. And just slowly things sort of progressed’.
Phoebe was explaining how, when she was in Year 9 in the early 1990s, she came to be raped by a male teacher. She was a student at a Sydney high school, on a trip with fellow students and others from another school. The three supervising teachers, including the one who assaulted her, were all from the other school.
Phoebe had an eating disorder and that provided the initial connection with the teacher, Charles Kramer. He noticed she wasn’t eating, and tried to persuade her to. After that, he began spending a lot of time with her, sitting beside her on the bus and finding other opportunities to talk to her – and touch her. ‘A couple of times he’d write his initials on my leg in sunscreen … Just little things that when I look back now I know weren’t right from a teacher.’
The three-week trip took the students and teachers to destinations in northern Australia. During one stop, Phoebe went swimming. Kramer followed her and began touching her. He told her she mustn’t tell anyone about it. He also said he’d fallen in love with her.
For the last five nights of the trip, the group slept under the stars. On the first night Kramer fondled and touched Phoebe, instructing her not to tell anyone because if she did he would lose his job and perhaps his marriage. He also said no one would believe her. On the second night, and successive nights, he ‘went all the way’, Phoebe said.
Phoebe felt powerless. She was far from home and didn’t know the other teachers. ‘I just felt really alone’, she said. ‘There was nothing I could do.’
Back at home Phoebe still didn’t tell anyone about what had happened. She was an only child and her mother was a single parent. The two of them were fighting a lot at the time as Phoebe’s mum tried to get her to eat. ‘But I think even if we did have a good relationship I wouldn’t have told her. I’d promised him I wouldn’t’, Phoebe said.
It remained a secret until one day when Phoebe was at school and her mother read her diary. She was hoping to find out why Phoebe had begun cutting herself. Instead, she read about Kramer’s sexual abuse of her daughter.
Phoebe’s mother immediately got in touch with the school. They contacted the Department of Community Services (DOCS), who contacted the police. ‘It was all really overwhelming. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, and now everyone wanted to talk to me. ... It was just so confusing because I felt like it was my fault. And I didn’t understand why all these people had to get involved when I just wanted to forget about it.’
DOCS interviewed Phoebe at home but the police deeply embarrassed her by coming to the school. ‘I hated that’, she said. And when she told them she didn’t want to press charges, they said that if she didn’t they would call her as a hostile witness. ‘So I thought I had no choice.’
The case went to trial and was a gruelling experience for Phoebe. She found the police and prosecutor unsympathetic. ‘I felt like they were just trying to get him, not help me.’ She faced a difficult cross-examination from Kramer’s lawyer. And the judge publicly doubted Phoebe’s version of events, telling the court ‘A man of Kramer’s stature would never do something like this’. He was acquitted.
The Department of Education, which in its own investigation had found Phoebe’s allegations to be substantiated, then had to allow Kramer to return to teaching.
‘Sometimes I think that not being believed, told that you’re a liar – that stuff hurt more than the actual incident.’
Phoebe didn’t finish school. She left in Year 11 and had a child before she was 20. She has suffered from severe depression and been in and out of hospital many times over the years. She has had ongoing support from a range of counselling and other services. The assault by Kramer changed her life, she said.
‘I don’t trust myself. I don’t trust any of the things I do. I don’t trust other people. I feel like when that happened something inside me was taken away, because I was a totally different person to before I went on the trip. Everything - everything about me just changed. I lost Phoebe, somehow, on the way.’
Phoebe had a second child, and is studying at university. For now, her ambition is just to feel better.
‘I would love to be able to say “I’m feeling okay” and actually mean it. I have a habit of telling people I’m feeling okay when I’m not. But I want to feel it for real.’