‘When I was in high school … I was walking up to the train and … this girl said to me, “He used to do it to you too, didn’t he?” I was horrified. I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “The headmaster … He used to do it to you, too” and I denied it … She said, “He did. He did it to me. He did it to you”. I was really shocked. I think I ran.’
When Sandi attended a small rural school in New South Wales in the 1960s, she was groomed with gifts, and sexually abused by the headmaster, Mr Winter, from the age of eight to 10.
Mr Winter ‘would always pick me to go into the reading program to do one-to-one reading, [in his] office … so there was nobody else around … I got to the stage where I was terrified of making eye contact … It really affected my schooling quite a bit …
‘My whole life from then really went downhill. I didn’t cope very well … He would bring me in very close, ‘cause you would share the book … then he would start with the hands … down the back of your pants, and remove your pants.’
Sandi recalled an occasion when her current husband removed her pants in the same manner. ‘I totally lost it. He was quite horrified … It was enough to just trigger … It really frightened me to see my response to [my husband], because he’s such a lovely man … He wanted to come today, but I couldn’t bring him … ’
Sandi told her brother and sister about the abuse in the early 2000s. In conversation, her sister mentioned that there was something strange about the way Mr Winter used to take girls into his office for a range of reasons, such as reading or checking for head lice. Sandi told her that she had been one of those girls, and then revealed the sexual abuse.
In the early 2000s, Sandi’s older brother told her that he’d been in touch with friends from school and had discovered that Mr Winter used to take girls into the sports shed at the school and sexually abuse them there.
Her brother also told her, ‘“That man was removed from another school because of his behaviour and the education department was quite aware … and moved him to [our school]”. So there was a cover-up. I think that really hit home to me … “Oh my God … this is what they did”’.
Sandi decided that she needed to do something, because of the effect that the sexual abuse had on, ‘my identity, my education, who I am … I ended up in the bottom of my class. I just couldn’t cope. I was terrified. I just sat the whole time, not even in the room. I just kept my eyes down, terrified of making contact …
‘It was only when I got to high school … I started from the bottom classes and ended in the A classes towards the end, and [a] teacher said to me, “You have got a really high IQ. What happened?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know”.’
As a result of the sexual abuse, Sandi has had low self-esteem, a first marriage to ‘a terrible creep’, and overpowering flashbacks triggered by sight, sounds and smells. She also has difficulties with intimacy with her new husband, and terrible nightmares. She will sometimes wake up screaming, and can’t stop.
After she told her siblings about the sexual abuse, Sandi contacted a local sexual assault service and they encouraged her to report it to the education department. When she did, she was told that Mr Winter was no longer a teacher, that he was elderly, and that he was no longer a threat to anyone.
‘That’s the answer I got back. I was just horrified … These people just don’t care … I felt really let down again by the system. The system had failed me many years before. It made my whole schooling just very difficult. I struggled right through.’
Sandi told the Commissioner, ‘Looking back now … I’m quite a strong person and I advocate quite strongly for children and the needy … I suppose in all the negatives … it’s made me such a strong-willed person, and once I realised that I was an intelligent person … that I had something to give to society, that was positive …
‘Even though it was a bit negative, and it will haunt me to the day I die, I have done [a lot] … and maybe I wouldn’t be there if … Not saying that’s good, [but] …’
One thing that really disturbs Sandi is the cover-up by the education department. ‘And this was only one case. How many more … I have no doubt in my mind now that the education department knew about this man and his behaviour, and he was just moved on, to do it again.’
Sandi has never had counselling about the sexual abuse, because ‘I am a little bit frightened how much it’ll bring up … I wonder what else is there and I really don’t know if I can cope if I did start really remembering’.
Sandi came to the Royal Commission because, ‘If you’re going to do a Royal Commission … you need the evidence … You can’t do anything unless you’re aware and people are willing to talk about it …
‘Once that happens, I think people need to be made aware that you know, it’s not their fault … that these people are evil in a way … I didn’t know where to go. Only when the Commission started to look at cases and that, I thought, “I can do this. As an individual, I can speak out here”.’
Sandi believes that now child sexual abuse is being talked about, it has put perpetrators on notice, telling them that it’s not okay and they will get caught, because ‘people can speak out. I couldn’t speak out as a child … but now, we can speak out. It’s not our fault. I thought it was my fault …
‘Doing this … is empowering me just a little bit more … I just hope we can, in the future … do something about this. “It’s not okay”, and “Institutions don’t do that”.’