Rita still feels that she was naive and silly to believe it when Mark, a teacher at her high school, told her she was ‘special’ and that he was in love with her.
By the time she had started at the Melbourne state school in the early 1970s she was a ‘troubled’ teenager. ‘When I was 14 I tried to kill myself. The teachers knew about it … one of them formed a habit of talking to me and asking how I was when we saw each other around the playground, although he wasn’t my teacher. Mark was young, played the guitar, and a lot of the girls thought he was a bit of a dish.’
Over time Rita’s conversations with Mark lengthened. When he offered to help her formulate a study plan, she agreed to meet with him at his home.
‘He said he often had study sessions there and I thought it was a bit unusual, but thought he was a nice fellow. So I went and there were a couple of kids there, but they shot through when he had a word to them.’
After completing the study plan, Mark invited her to join him on the couch.
‘He stretched out and I sat next to him, and he said, “Would you like a hug?” I said “Yeah, alright”, and it was comforting at first then he put his hand on my breast and kissed me, put his tongue in my mouth. I turned away, thought it was yucky and he said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just that a lot of my tension is sexual and I thought yours might be too”. I just wanted the ground to swallow me up.’
A couple of weeks later, Rita recalled, Mark phoned her parents and arranged to have afternoon tea with her family.
‘It was all very clever because he checked my progress against my study plan, made sure he was helpful. I was quite ignorant. Then one day he told me he was in love with me, and said that to him I wasn’t a child, I was a woman – an intelligent, special girl destined for great things, and it became sexual. He said “this is what people do when they love each other”.’
When Mark asked her to keep the meetings secret, she agreed.
‘I didn’t like it and I didn’t want it, but I did it so I could get the emotional support. He’d say “Tell me all your troubles”. I felt responsible for protecting him. He said that by law I was still a child so no one must know, and that he could go to jail.’
The sexual abuse continued for about 18 months until Rita decided not to meet with Mark again.
‘At first it would be a cup of tea and a debrief, but then it was straight to bed and straight to sex. I thought this isn’t what I want. It was an unspoken bargain, I endured it to get my needs met and I wasn’t getting my needs met, so I stopped going to his office to arrange our meetings.’
Rita then saw Mark ‘become close’ to other girls. When she left school at 17, she cleaned Mark’s house to earn money and noticed girls coming and going, but didn’t think anything of it.
‘I never imagined he was doing to them what he’d done with me because he’d done such a good job telling me I was special, and I was the only one. When I look back, I feel a bit stupid, it’s pretty obvious what was happening.’
In the late 1970s a local youth support worker called Rita unexpectedly. ‘She said she’d seen things that had concerned her with Mark, and I told her about my history with him. With her support, I made a police statement. I was at the station for nine hours, and they wanted details about how he touched me and was he circumcised. It was excruciating.’
Mark was charged and police found another former student willing to give evidence, but after enduring the committal hearing, both women felt unable to continue.
‘The court case was traumatic, he was committed to trial, and that means a lot to us. When I found out that meant I had to do it all again, I just broke and said “I can’t”. A couple of weeks later, I tried to kill myself again. I was in hospital for a while, I was very sick. The DPP decided not to continue, but we weren’t given an explanation as to why.’
In the early 2000s Rita learnt that Mark continued to teach at a private school, and had married a former student.
‘I felt a tremendous surge of guilt, there he was all these years later, still teaching. I showered for 45 minutes and howled like an animal thinking I failed so many kids. So I sent anonymous letters to everyone I could think of – the school, politicians, police. By the following March, he’d disappeared from the staff list.’
If she hadn’t been abused, Rita feels her life would have turned out very differently.
‘I’m 55 and have post-traumatic stress disorder. Perpetrators recognised me, it’s as if you’ve got “victim” stamped on your head and only those interested in taking advantage can see it. I had a lot of sex I didn’t want to have. There is some germ of infectious worthlessness inside of you that can fly out at any time and just overwhelm all that good stuff like it counts for nothing, because everything he’d told me was bullshit.’