Shel came to the Royal Commission to tell his story after a life of drug use, unemployment and imprisonment. It started when he was 11.
‘I was a fairly good student but various things happened in 69, 70. My life was turned upside down and I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t know how to act or what to do because when I was younger I was molested by an Anglican priest, Derek Freedmen, about six, seven times when I would help around the church grounds.
‘We used to think he was cool and hip because he used to let us smoke and swear. With his long hair and beard, as you picture Jesus, he sort of looked like that. And he had a thing for – in those days there was a rock mass – he had a band.’
Shel said he recognises now that he was being groomed. Freedmen would take him and other boys away for weekends and let them drive his car on country roads. He would also take them to a friend’s house where they would all hang out.
‘I’ve since come to know he was a paedophile. We didn’t know what paedophiles was in them days. We just knew he would take us to his house and there was a few guys sitting around.
‘I kept the molesting a secret from everyone, even family and close friends. When I went on to high school I met other kids and their brothers and so I sort of got to know that what was happening was not on, so I made sure I was never left alone with him again after that.’
Shel understood that what had happened wasn’t normal, but he was also very embarrassed and confused, thinking that something about him was wrong, that maybe he was gay, or that he had given off some kind of signal.
‘It happened in 1970 and by 72 I was using hard drugs. So it shows you how I just bottomed out … My mind was wandering, I found it hard to concentrate and communicate with my fellow students and teachers. I was very quiet and liked being alone. I started using drugs in second year and found they helped me with the pain.’
Two years later he left school and started an apprenticeship but he quit after nine months. Shel said this was a pattern that would continue throughout his life, starting things but never finishing them, self-sabotaging.
He moved around the country doing odd jobs, but drugs already had a firm grip on him and he resorted to breaking and entering to feed his habit. By age 20 he was in jail.
After his release, Shel had an accident which left him with significant injuries. His need to manage the pain turned him back onto drugs. He struggled on with life, getting married and starting a business, but his drug use increased ‘due to the pain, both physically and mentally’.
‘It wasn’t long after that that some young boy killed himself and Derek Freedmen officiated at his funeral. His mother found out that he’d killed himself because Freedmen had molested him.
‘That came out in the paper and I thought “Oh, so he’s done it to other people”. I was pretty angry and I thought “This can’t go …” – because it had been going on for a while – and I thought “I’ve gotta say something now”, because I was old enough and I knew I wasn’t the only one. I didn’t know how many.’
He then disclosed to his wife, which was the first time he’d told anybody about his abuse.
The couple had children and while Shel felt better about himself, he also worried that he would fail as a parent, given his continued drug use, his terrible employment prospects and ongoing stints in jail. As his children grew up, he struggled to relate to them and felt they had every right to be embarrassed by him and his constant arrests.
In the 90s, Shel saw a psychiatrist who specialised in pain management. They got along well and Shel found he was able to tell him about the abuse. He said it was a relief to finally tell someone, but it didn’t solve all his problems. Heroin had become too expensive so he’d moved on to amphetamines, and eventually he was arrested for manufacturing.
‘I lived in a jail which is mainly for sex offenders – out of the 80 prisoners 40 of them probably are paedophiles or sex offenders. So I saw some counsellors in there and I had to learn some exercises to deal with it because I had to deal with them. Like if we went and bashed them we got sent down to their jail. In a way it forced me to deal with it. It made me see these guys are just sick people. I don’t like them but they are sick and I know it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything. It was their fault. They’re bad people.’
Shel’s marriage has now ended, but his ex-wife continues to be part of his journey and came to support him during his private session. A number of people have come forward about Freedmen, and Shel said what upsets him most now is that the Church knew Freedmen was an abuser and moved him around to avoid being caught.
He said all his crimes over the years were never malicious. By taking drugs, he wasn’t trying to kill himself, he was just trying to escape his own mind. However, things have improved. He now sees a counsellor regularly and lives a quiet life.
‘I’m getting old now. I’m smart enough to know what’s going on and I have to deal with it … I don’t feel embarrassed anymore. It’s happened. I can’t do anything about it. I just want to get on with it … It only makes things better to bring it out and talk about it.’