‘Bizarrely, he was a really good teacher. This is the kind of horrible conflict, that he was actually a really you know, engaging and entertaining and good teacher. But at the same time the thing that’s really shocking and the reason in the end I rang the Royal Commission … I saw names of boys that I knew and then I realised that a child I was friends with in sixth grade had killed himself.’
From the mid-2010s, Reuben became aware that numerous boys at his Sydney Uniting Church school had been sexually abused. ‘I heard some poor guy on the radio describing what had happened to him and I realised that was exactly what had happened to me. And you know, I think the impact on him had been completely devastating, whereas I somehow seem to have more or less got through you know, in different ways I suppose.’
Reuben told the Commissioner that until then he’d assumed he was the only one who’d been sexually abused by his Grade 6 teacher, Norman Hunter. Reuben had ‘always just sort of ignored it really’, but hearing others’ accounts of abuse by numerous teachers and that one of his childhood friends had killed himself made Reuben want to tell his story.
Throughout that year in the late 1970s, Hunter sometimes drove Reuben home from school. In the car, the teacher would fondle Reuben’s genitals until he got an erection. ‘He’d tell you, I clearly remember: “You love it, don’t you? You love it”. I used to sit there, and he’d do the same thing on the rugby field, have his hands down my trousers.’
Reuben said he ‘didn’t have a context’ to understand that the behaviour he thought of as ‘strange’ was abuse, and he didn’t tell his parents or anyone in the school about it. The longer he was at the school, the more he became aware that it was a ‘violent and abusive and destructive place’.
‘If you didn’t fit, you were actively crushed’, he said. ‘And if you actively bucked, they set out to destroy you. Not all the staff by any means – there were certainly good teachers there – but the overall culture was one where it was deeply conformist and if you didn’t fit or if you complained or if you were weak – especially if you were weak – the culture that was there, which was also the students, there was never any guidance about this, people just got destroyed.’
After completing his final year, Reuben took active measures to avoid contact with anyone who’d been a pupil or in any way associated with the school. He went on to study and start a professional career but realised in his late 20s that he ‘couldn’t form relationships’. At that point he sought counselling and after several unsuccessful attempts found a therapist with a background in psychodrama and other modalities, who he got on with.
Reuben disclosed the abuse to the therapist and later when he married, told his wife. By then they had sons of their own, and Reuben described his wife’s reaction to his disclosure as ‘pretty bad’.
‘In her mind it created – and I think this is one of the worst impacts – it created for her a huge question about the potential for me to be an abuser, and that’s a strong disincentive to say anything. And I think that was partly her fear, paranoia, which we’re past that point now, but where there were times of tension in our relationship … when she was feeling vulnerable that would be an insult she could use.’ It wasn’t a response Reuben had expected. ‘The worst thing about that is it had this horrible effect of then making me doubt myself as well, you know, and then you can unravel at that point.’
Reuben had had conversations with his children about protective behaviours and hoped they would tell him if they didn’t feel comfortable with an adult’s behaviour. At the same time he wanted them to be able to ‘enjoy a childhood where they don’t have to worry about this stuff’.
He hasn’t reported the abuse by Hunter to New South Wales Police and doesn’t whether he will. Nor has he approached the school for acknowledgement of or an apology for the abuse. He thinks those who have been sexually abused at the school deserve to be honoured in the same way service people are on Anzac Day. ‘Those poor boys were sent off to some horrible war, and they just want to bury and forget all these other kids that they’ve actively destroyed. I think that they shouldn’t be allowed to do that.’
Reuben hasn’t sought compensation from the school but knows many others have.
‘To be completely frank, I would like to see them ruined. I would actually be quite happy if the school was completely bankrupted by a weight of financial claims against them. I’m sure they wouldn’t be but there would actually be a certain amount of schadenfreude for me if they did.’