‘This Royal Commission … [seeing] the media … [means] I’m not going to be some silly lady that makes up a story. I’m hoping that this part will help me close it … and [I] get the next fifty years … I really appreciate being able to [tell my story].’
It wasn’t until the late 1990s when Shirley was 35 years old that she remembered her sexual abuse. Shirley’s daughter was just starting school and Shirley was flooded with memories of herself at the same age.
‘I took her through the gates and [she was] such a collected, confident little girl … she went in and I went home and it was like a movie opened up. It was horrible.’
With the help of a psychologist, Shirley worked through her flashbacks and nightmares. She had been abused by a teacher at her regional Victorian primary school, from the age of five until she was about nine or ten years old. The teacher groomed Shirley by treating her as his favourite. He then began taking her to a storeroom where he would sexually abuse her, including stripping her naked and making her perform sexual acts on him.
Shirley’s father had left her mother when she was four years old and the teacher threatened her as a way of keeping her silent about the abuse.
‘Because I was in a single [parent family] he said that, “No one will believe you”, and I remember him saying, “They will take your mother away”.
‘For years I believed what he told me: that nobody would believe me and that they would take my family away.’
When Shirley was about nine years old she did speak to another teacher about being unhappy at school.
‘I think he suspected, because I remember him coming up and saying … “What is wrong with you?” And I said, “I need to talk to you about something”, but I never got to say it.’
The teacher died before the conversation could take place. Shirley blocked the memories for almost 30 years.
‘It was a shock having the flashbacks … I couldn’t put the pieces together to what was happening … then I just shoved it all in the too-hard basket [again].’
Her marriage grew rocky though, and she sought further professional help for her behaviour.
‘I had shocking behaviour patterns. Always worried, always drama after drama. I feel like I’ve been constantly running from the trauma. I’ve moved [many] times and am always on the verge to run and not settle. It’s been unsettling for our kids and my husband, and disruptive to our family life.
‘I kept people and life at a distance that wouldn’t mean I would form close relationships. I don’t want people to know me because I feel pretty worthless.’
Shirley made a police statement about the teacher but found the first officer became too emotionally involved in her story.
‘I think it was her early days of doing it. She asked me so many questions and I told her but she just didn’t handle it very well … I would have said more but I kept worrying that she couldn’t cope.’
The second officer was very ‘official … that’s what I wanted’.
The police interviewed the teacher but because it would just be Shirley’s word against his, they felt that, ‘It wouldn’t get past the DPP [Department of Public Prosecutions]’.
Her first psychologist suggested that it might be helpful for Shirley to meet with her abuser. This was arranged through the pastor of her church and the pastor of his church.
‘He was very calm … I was hoping he’d admit [to the abuse] in the room.’
The man didn’t and Shirley was told by the clergy to ‘move on and forgive … go home and deal with it’. She is now unsure what the counsellor thought would be achieved by this meeting.
Shirley has received assistance from knowmore and has successfully gained financial support for her psychological counselling from the Victorian government’s Victims of Crime unit. She is considering taking action against the Department of Education.
‘The abuse has affected every part of me. It impacted my marriage and my kids … I just want to stop living in a fog and enjoy life.’