Polly joined her local Sydney surf lifesaving club as a teenager in the late 1980s, attracted by the community and the chance to compete in events. One night when she was around 17 years old she got drunk at a club function.
The club captain, Barry Matthews, offered to drive her to his house, saying she could stay there overnight. In the car he forced her to perform oral sex and tried to further assault her, but she was able to escape.
A few weeks after this incident Polly reported it to police. An officer jotted down some notes but basically told her that ‘it was just going to be his word against mine’. No investigation was undertaken or charges laid. ‘They said I should try and take it up with Surf Lifesaving [NSW] because they should be able to do more, being an institution.’
Polly ‘kind of lost my shit down the surf club one day’ a couple of months later ‘and told one of the guys’ what had happened. ‘What annoyed me the most was that they said that they knew. Two of the older guys in the surf club ... said, “Oh, we know he’s like that, we know someone else he’s done it to”.’
She asked for the other girl’s name so she could advise the police there was another victim, but they would not disclose her identity. Rather than supporting her, the older boys told her that ‘I needed to keep my mouth shut’.
Some years later Polly decided to report the matter to Surf Lifesaving NSW and went to their offices. Two very young staff members took down her account, which made her feel that she was not being taken seriously.
‘What’s going on here? Surely someone with a bit of responsibility should be listening to this story. And I made a statement, and then nothing happened for months and months and months.’
Around a year later the organisation responded to her by letter, stating that as she had made a report to police they could not follow the matter up or speak with Matthews, so as not to disrupt any police investigation. They also advised that if Matthews was charged by police he would be suspended, pending the outcome of these charges. She did not receive this letter at the time however, as she had moved house before they sent it.
Polly has had professional counselling ‘on and off’ over the years. ‘I’ve kind of come to terms with the fact that I’m about as good, I don’t know ... you have good days and bad days.’
The cost of therapy is a big issue, with one counsellor she liked charging $400 a session. She realised that for the cost of three sessions she could get to Hawaii and go surfing instead – ‘It’s much better for my mental health’.
Recently Polly decided to call Surf Lifesaving NSW in an attempt to obtain the statement she had given them, but was told ‘“Oh no, we don’t keep that” – which I know is a load of shit’. They did however email her a copy of the letter they had written after her initial report, which was the first time she had seen it.
Polly is aware that Matthews is still on the committee of the club ‘and young people that were in my situation will still look up to him, as I did, as someone of responsibility’. If anyone asks what she thinks of him, she tells them ‘he’s a paedophile ... it’s not defamation if it’s true ... And I will tell as many people as I can, if that saves one person from going through what I went through’.
She believes girls in surf clubs are ‘absolutely’ still vulnerable to this kind of abuse from older boys and men. ‘I look back and I think, you know what, I wish someone had of pulled us aside and said “Hey listen, this is a great institution but you need to be careful” ... All those girls are coming through, the guys are like 30, they’re supposed to be the people you look up to, they’re supposed to set examples.’
Now she’d like to speak to the police again, in case anything else can be done. ‘It was so long ago now that I’d kind of gave up ... but that when I saw something about the Royal Commission I thought “You know what, I’m going to put something down and see if something comes of it”. I’d love for him to be outed out of the surf club – and I’d probably go back.’