‘They thought he was amazing, some superstar sports hero’, Sherrin said. She was reporting her parents’ view of Barney Ward, a well-known Victorian swimming coach who lived across the road from them in an outer suburb of Melbourne. ‘They just wanted me to learn to swim.’
So when Ward offered nine-year-old Sherrin lessons at his swim school in the city, they were delighted. And even more so when he offered to drive her there and back. But the arrangement became an opportunity for Ward to abuse Sherrin – an experience that left her with a fear of water and a resistance to swimming, even now, some 40 years later.
The abuse took place at the pool, on the drive there and back and in Ward’s garage. It involved kissing, fondling and oral sex. Sherrin isn’t sure how long it went on for. ‘It feels like it was forever’, she said. She didn’t tell anyone at the time. ‘He would make threats to me. He would give me a lolly or he would give me 50 cents or 20 cents, and he would say “If you tell anybody it will be your fault”.’
The abuse made her feel ‘yucky’, but she had no understanding that it was a crime. Instead, she blamed herself.
‘What is it about me – why am I being punished? What is it about me and nobody else? Because I thought I was the only person … [though] common sense tells me there are so many people out there that probably he did this to.’
It came to an end when despite arguments with her mother, she refused to carry on with lessons.
‘I told them I didn’t want to swim. Mum and I used to fight – she’d insist that I would go to swimming and I wouldn’t want to tell her why I didn’t want to. And then she sent me to another place, a different swimming school, and I used to scream and carry on and the swimming teacher would say “Get in the water!” … I guess Mum probably just thought I was being a really naughty child.’
Several years later – Sherrin was about 11 – she told her parents what Ward had done to her. She can’t remember exactly what triggered the disclosure; perhaps something she heard on TV. ‘I just started crying, and I ran off to my bedroom.’
Sherrin’s parents took her to the local police station. They wanted to file a complaint but were talked out of it. ‘I can remember them saying words along the lines of –“It’s your word against his. We can go and talk to him but there’s really not much else we can do”.’ Her mother, she said, recalls the police officer saying, ‘We can talk to him and you can make a statement, but do you really want your daughter dragged into all of this?’
Sherrin’s parents agreed, because they didn’t want to make Sherrin relive her experience of abuse. Not long afterwards, Ward died suddenly. Looking back, Sherrin regrets the lack of follow-up. ‘In hindsight I wish he was still alive. I would have told my story a lot earlier if he was still alive.’
She is confident that today police would respond differently. ‘I think that what does need to change is the awareness of parents, that their children aren’t safe. I’m not talking about wrapping them in cotton wool, but ...’ She herself has three children and describes her parenting as ‘very cautious’.
‘Parents need to not trust so many people’, she said.
‘It’s not always strangers. Stranger danger’s one thing, but – it’s your uncle. It’s your dad’s best friend. It’s your best friend. Obviously the authorities need to believe what’s being said … The authorities need to listen. But it’s not going to get to the authorities if the parents don’t see what the warning signs are.’
Sherrin has felt the impacts of Ward’s abuse playing out in various issues in her life, beginning when she was a teenager. ‘I made some really bad choices in relation to being young, being promiscuous, sleeping with anybody who would give me attention, that sort of thing’, she said.
‘There’s so many things to deal with – the mistakes I’ve made because of all the fall-out … I certainly attribute a lot of things back to him.’
She had counselling during her marriage break-up but hasn’t sought it out again. ‘I felt like it was going to open this can of emotional worms that I just didn’t want to let out. So that’s the reason why I haven’t. I feel as if I go down that road I’m going to be crying and I’m not going to be in control.’
She is completing a university degree now and after years interstate has recently moved back to Melbourne. But she is not ready to call herself a survivor.
‘I think I would think of myself more as a survivor if I was like “it doesn’t worry me”. But yeah, it does. I still have dreams,’ she said.