‘It was a time where physical punishment was the norm. In actual fact … looking back, I can’t remember a teacher that didn’t have a strap at hand and was quite willing to use it. It was just a thing that happened.’
Rowan grew up in regional Victoria. In the early 1980s, when he was 12, he attended a school run by the Christian Brothers. In those days, ‘you’re taught, from a young age that, you know, you respect your elders and those in authority and especially your teachers in a Catholic school’.
Rowan was in Year 7, ‘and … often the way [the sexual abuse] occurred was my brother would come to me at lunchtime and say that the abuser wanted to see me in his office, which is where my brother had come from. So, I’m assuming by that process, that he had the same experience’.
Rowan has never discussed the sexual abuse with his brother, but told the Commissioner that ’it became a regular occurrence, almost like, for want of a better term, a factory line of process, where … he would pass me a message that I was to go in, like, one in, one out, one in, one out …’
As well as the abuse that occurred in the lay teacher’s office, ‘we did a lot of cross country runs … and there were several incidents that I now remember, that occurred during those runs, where he would meet up with me and molest me’.
Rowan recalled that prior to the abuse, ‘I was always a happy boy, cheerful, cheeky, humorous, and following that, I was very reserved, shy … you couldn’t get “boo” out of me’. Rowan changed schools in Year 8, so he doesn’t know how much his altered personality was due to the new school, and ‘a whole host of potential factors’.
Rowan believes that the sexual abuse has had a number of impacts on his life. ‘I attributed, at least in part, my homosexuality to the abuse, and in turn that’s what robbed me of having children through natural means, which I would have wanted. It’s also socially marginalised me.’
Rowan was married and divorced at a very young age. ‘I’ve had several male partners for short periods since then and a lot of that is to do with mistrust of others … and my own lack of self-worth and self-esteem.’ He now has a long-term partner, who he has been with for more than 15 years.
Rowan performed poorly in high school. ‘I was often in remedial classes through inability to concentrate … I went to uni as a mature-age student, requiring support of the special needs department, through anxiety and depression.’
Although Rowan worked for a while in his late teens, he spent most of his 20s unemployed due to mental health issues. In his 30s he began a career, but has been unable to work for the past two years.
‘I’ve suffered post-traumatic stress, involving flashbacks, nightmares that are linked directly to the abuse, panic attacks, social anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, which still persist. I have been hospitalised on more than one occasion for those.’
Rowan told the Commissioner that, ‘to try and block out flashbacks and nightmares, I’ve experienced alcoholism for the last 15 years’. Rowan’s problem with alcohol has had a severe impact on his physical health.
In his early 20s, Rowan joined a class action against the school for the sexual abuse he experienced. The process took a number of years and, by the end, Rowan ‘felt pressured by solicitors to accept settlement … My impression was that the lawyers didn’t have our best interests at heart and wanted a quick, easy solution for themselves’.
As part of the class action Rowan was required to make a statement to police. When the teacher was charged, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail for the sexual assault of a number of students.
After the class action was finalised, Rowan felt, ‘exhausted, frustrated, unsatisfied, guilty, vulnerable, unheard, angered at myself for agreeing to go through it …’
Rowan was also disappointed with ‘regard to the legal process, the communications with the lawyers and the non-communication with the Church. The lack of response … I didn’t feel like I was part of the process. It felt like everything was happening around me, for me, without me being part of it, or being included in it’.
The Catholic Church made no attempt to apologise to Rowan. ‘What I would have liked to have seen … is something along the lines of what the Salvation Army have done in terms of their restorative justice approach … which isn’t all about receiving money, it is about recognition. It is about acknowledging that this happened and taking a bit of responsibility …
‘They had a duty of care that we were under their care. I like that model’s idea of them holding a meeting with the victims, and offering an apology, an unreserved apology. I think that would go a long way.’
Rowan was accompanied to his private session by his support worker from the In Good Faith Foundation, and also his partner.
He told the Commissioner that he was able to come to the Royal Commission because ‘first and foremost … my resilience and determination, and that’s driven primarily by anger at what’s happened. The second and third [reasons] are sitting either side of me. The support of these guys has been invaluable and I would not be sitting here … if not for these two people beside me’.