When she arrived at a South Australian government school as a 16-year-old in the late 1980s, Sheree was surprised at how informal everything was. Teachers were called by their first names, students were allowed to smoke cigarettes and there was a wide range of creative subjects to choose from. The focus was about making school enjoyable and friendly and not giving students too much pressure.
One of Sheree’s teachers, Paul Stinson, took students on school camps and excursions and often had them to stay in the home he shared with his wife and children. Not long after her arrival, Sheree found Stinson had taken more of an interest in her than he seemed to with other students. He paid extra attention to her schoolwork and over a period of time went from occasional touch to massaging her, stroking her breasts and then digital penetration. Another girl, Lynette, received the same treatment and both girls often stayed overnight in Stinson’s house.
Sheree said Stinson didn’t make threats, but told her that what he was doing was ‘our secret’. Another teacher at the school noticed Stinson’s behaviour and asked Sheree and Lynette what he’d been doing with them. ‘She questioned me under the pepper tree’, Sheree said. ‘Lovely lady.’
The girls denied that Stinson had been acting inappropriately, and then repeated their denials to the principal to whom the teacher had expressed her concern. ‘I did not report the abuse at the time because I felt ashamed, scared, embarrassed and couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing my family’, Sheree said.
Sheree said she was sure Stinson’s wife knew about what he was doing. One night she’d come into the room where Stinson lay with the students. ‘I thought he was caught red-handed’, Sheree said. ‘I thought that was it. But nothing.’ Stinson’s wife walked out and didn’t ever say a word, and the girls’ visits continued.
Sheree told the Commissioner the abuse stopped when she left school in 1990. Stinson didn’t try to contact her and she tried to get on with her life. After an argument with a boyfriend when she was 18, she disclosed to him that her problems with intimacy were because of what had happened with Stinson. The boyfriend became angry, causing further anxiety for Sheree and she didn’t talk about it again for years.
In the late 2000s, Sheree was feeling stronger in herself and after seeing reports on television of others reporting the sexual abuse they’d experienced as children, she sought South Australian legal services’ advice. She had children of her own by then and was concerned that she should try and make the world a safe place for them. She told her partner who was supportive ‘to a certain degree’, his response being that of any person who hadn’t experienced abuse themselves, Sheree thought.
It took nearly a year but with help from a lawyer, Sheree made a report to South Australia Police who ‘were great’. Sheree also told them about Lynette who was tracked down and made a statement of her own that corroborated Sheree’s account.
After prolonged delays brought by Stinson, the case went to trial, however Lynette pulled out at the last minute and the case rested solely on Sheree’s statement and testimony. Sheree felt the system was awry in making her have to prove to a jury that Stinson was a predator and that the events had taken place. The cross-examination was difficult, but she persisted in a court she’d thought was going to be closed but turned out to be open to the public.
The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Though disappointed, Sheree said she’d found the process worthwhile and didn’t regret going through it. She felt like she’d stood up to Stinson and she knew he’d got a shock at being called to account for the abuse more than 20 years after it occurred.
‘I felt strong’, Sheree said. ‘I said, “I’ve faced you. I know you’ve done it. That’s why you’re here. We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t done it”.’
The acquittal meant Sheree wasn’t entitled to criminal injuries compensation but she subsequently spoke to a lawyer about pursuing a civil claim against the South Australian Department for Education and Child Development. Although she had denied the inquiries made by her teacher and principal at the time of the abuse, she wished that they’d persisted with their investigations, or at least put in place protocols that prevented teachers taking students overnight to their homes.
Education was the key, Sheree said, to recognising the signs of child sexual abuse and to creating a safe and healthy society. She recommended that all school curricula include education for children so they would be ‘encouraged and supported to report any and all indecencies that may be forced upon them’.
‘I’m still in the process of recovering today from my experience of being abused’, Sheree said. ‘I do not want to hear of another single child being abused ever again.’