Rhett doesn’t want an apology. ‘I just wouldn’t believe it. You know, George Pell would be here if the Vatican was serious.’
Rhett grew up in a Catholic family in the 1960s in Victoria. His parents went to mass less and less but they still sent Rhett to a Christian Brothers boys’ school where his older brother also went.
Rhett describes the culture at the school as ‘authoritarian’ and the staff as ‘omnipotent’ and ‘unchallengeable’. One lay teacher, Gordon Hessmann, was very popular and revered. Hessmann had once started training as a Marist Brother but, for personal reasons, left the seminary. He was Rhett’s teacher and football coach.
When Rhett was almost a teenager, Hessmann started sexually abusing him. He would fondle Rhett’s genitals, and make Rhett touch his penis. Over a three year period, Rhett was abused in various locations: in the classroom, the staff room, the science lab and in Hessmann’s car. ‘I just couldn’t work out, was it wrong? Or was it normal, or was it, what was it?’
During this time, Rhett was ‘promoted’ by Hessmann who moved from the under-13s football team to the under-15s team which Hessmann coached. Rhett said that Hessmann did it to make him ‘nice and close’ to him. Rhett was much smaller than his new team mates and ended up getting injured a lot ‘so the coach [Hessmann], he’d get to look after me.’ Rhett didn’t tell anyone about the abuse.
At around this time, it came out that Ben, a younger friend of Rhett’s, had also been abused by Hessmann. ‘I remember his mum ringing home and asking to speak to me and asking if I’d been interfered with by [Hessmann], which I said I hadn’t. I lied that I hadn’t ‘cause I thought I would get into terrible, terrible trouble. And Ben had shot himself in the foot to get attention to his situation. And, you know, apparently his mum went up to [the school] to complain about [Hessmann] and, you know, the powers that be basically fobbed her off and … didn’t believe her.’
Rhett has wondered whether this incident was the reason that Hessman then stopped abusing him in his mid-teens, or whether Hessmann ‘just focussed his attention on younger kids’.
Rhett was later moved to another school because his parents, based on his older brother’s performance, were unhappy with the academic teaching level at the school. Although Rhett had to travel much further to his new school, he loved it. He was ‘relieved’ to get away from his old school and got to experience ‘what a really good school is all about’.
To this day, Rhett feels extremely guilty about lying to Ben’s mother. ‘Maybe I could have helped.’ The abuse Ben suffered ‘really wrecked his life’.
It took Rhett a long time to tell anyone. ‘I locked it away very successfully ... Just put it behind, move on.’ However, Rhett concedes it does get harder as you get older.
Rhett told the Commissioner that ‘the attitude of the Church and George Pell and how wrong it all was, and how wrong they still are, and how bad his attitude still is … it just disgusted me. And I thought, “No, they really need to be held accountable. They need to sit up and take notice that they are at fault here”. And they can’t just wash their hands of it, say “Well, it’s an era gone by”, because they’re still part of the problem.’
Realising that his story mattered, Rhett contacted the Royal Commission.
In recent years Rhett also contacted lawyers and started civil proceedings against the Christian Brothers. Although their first compensation offer was $15,000, the matter has now been settled for $150,000. An apology was offered but Rhett declined.
Hessmann eventually served a sentence for sexual abuse against children. However, Rhett is also considering reporting his own abuse to the police. ‘I do want him charged. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted.’ Rhett wasn’t sure he wanted to put someone ‘inside’ but he thinks he’s made up his mind about it now. ‘It’s a big step for me.’
He told the Commissioner, ‘I think if I didn’t do something I’d feel – down the track – again, like I should’ve. You know, with Ben’s mum all over again, I should’ve done something’.
Rhett is a school teacher in a non-religious school, and loves his work. When asked by the Commissioner how to make schools safer for children, Rhett recommended creating a phone app so that kids can find out, really easily and quickly, what they can do if they suspect something. He’s confident kids would look at that.