In the early 1970s, Reni was in his second year at a Christian Brothers high school near Melbourne. He was taught and coached in sport by Howard Klegston, who had trained to be a priest but left the order to become a lay teacher.
Klegston sexually abused Reni several times a week for almost three years. It began with him fondling the boy’s genitals one day after class and quickly escalated.
‘When it started happening to me I used to freeze – freeze solid. And just stare at the wall, whatever was on the wall, or the shelf in the science room or on the dashboard down at the park on the way home or whenever the abuse occurred. I’d just freeze.’
In statements provided to the Royal Commission, Reni wrote, ‘I remember he mentioned not to tell anyone. I didn’t tell anyone because I was scared, I thought I had done something wrong.
‘He also told me that it was all right to be bisexual, that it was natural for him to have sex with his wife and with me.’
Reni went from being an above-average student to failing every subject. ‘Klegston did my homework for me. He would confiscate sixth formers’ cigarettes to give to me as a reward and bribe for keeping quiet about “our little secret”.’
In his mid-teens, after being very confused about his sexuality, Reni met a girl and lost his virginity. ‘The next time Klegston approached me to meet him in the science room after school I said, “No. No more”. Because what I’d experienced with my girlfriend at the time was so natural. And I thought, this other stuff, it’s just not normal.’
In the first few years after leaving school, Reni was still scared of what people would think of him if he disclosed the abuse, so he tried to put it out of his mind.
‘Life was going along all right, until one day I was driving a truck ... I see Howard Klegston in his car waving to me. This was before I even told anybody, this is when everything started to come back.
‘And it just triggered off so many memories and visions, and flashbacks of everything that happened. And all of sudden I just seemed to be losing my grip on reality. I remember nightmares, waking up punching my pillow, covered in sweat. Drinking till I could get back to sleep …’
Reni wrote, ‘I would break glass and then pick up the sharpest heaviest piece and stab my arm. Drawing blood was the key. Seeing his face would produce uncontrollable rage. Self-harm was punishment for letting the abuse happen and not putting a stop to it’.
In the mid-80s, when he learnt that his younger brother was about to go into Klegston’s class at the high school, Reni revealed what the teacher had done to him.
‘I first told Mum … “wash your mouth out with soap”. She couldn’t come to believe that Klegston would do something like that to her own son after the way he would walk out from the school after abusing me in the science room … I could hardly believe it myself, after the abuse was performed, that 10 minutes later he’s walking me to the car that my mum’s sitting in, and freely walks up to her and starts a friendly chat.
‘To hear Mum happily chat back and to think, “How can this be happening? How can someone that’s just done that to me and almost had me vomit on the floor or on his erection from choking me, how can this conversation be happening?”’
Reni’s parents immediately went to the headmaster, Brother Vick. Vick passed it on to the provincial of the Christian Brothers, who said he would talk to the order’s solicitor. A month later Reni’s family were told that little could be done due to a lack of corroborating evidence and the possibility of ‘defamation of character’ lawsuits.
Despite constant attempts to contact the Christian Brothers over the next few months, Reni and his family heard nothing more. They were offered no support or counselling, and there was no investigation into Klegston, who was still teaching at the school. Reni’s father eventually confronted him and told him to resign. When Klegston did, the headmaster told Reni’s father that he had ‘upset his curriculum planning for the next year’.
Soon after, the family learnt that Klegston was moving to another Christian Brothers school nearby. He was never questioned by the order about the abuse, nor was the headmaster of his new school told about it.
Later that year, Reni had a breakdown. He was battling severe anxiety and depression, and often thought of suicide. He wrote that his dogs kept him alive through this time.
Eventually, although his mental health was still very fragile, Reni reported Klegston to police. Klegston was committed to stand trial but, after attempting to bring it to court three times, the case was dropped. In desperation, Reni carried out his most serious act of self-harm.
‘I remember thinking, “How do I draw attention to this? People need to know about Klegston abusing me” … I felt like I didn’t have anyone to speak for me publically. Klegston was still free and still teaching … potentially harming more students!’
When the story received some media attention, more of Klegston’s victims began to come forward. The Christian Brothers were forced out too, offering Reni counselling. He commenced legal action against them, but it was another five years before a settlement was reached.
‘The small amount that was offered and accepted at the time was under duress. I was desperate, I owed a lot of money ‘cause I was off work for a long time after breakdowns.
‘I was given the ultimatum “take it or leave it”. And the solicitor that was helping me negotiate at the time … was in a way putting pressure on me to take whatever was offered because he was concerned that he might have to wait for his money.’
In the mid-90s, Howard Klegston was jailed for child sexual abuse. Since then, even more survivors have made police reports, some from the school he moved to after abusing Reni. At the time of the Royal Commission, a number of allegations were being investigated.
When he spoke to the Commissioner, Reni was talking to solicitors about a possible review of his settlement with the Christian Brothers. He was receiving support from his partner and his dogs, and helping other survivors.
‘I’ve been contacted by a lot of victims, male and female. And it’s inspired me to do what I can, which probably isn’t much … all I’ve done was answer the phone, listen to somebody’s story of abuse and kept in touch. Trying to give them a lift in spirits occasionally, have a joke. Offer some hope of some sort, whatever I could do that I thought that I would need at the desperate position they were in ... give them enough hope just to get through this, to the next day.
‘I think it’s a psychological thing. You try to help people because you know you’ve got the experience, unfortunately.’