‘I’ve waited about 45 years for today. I never thought a day like this would happen.’
Sinclair came to the Royal Commission to talk about his time as a boarding student at an Anglican high school in Victoria in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He began by reading from a prepared statement.
‘I was bullied and harassed at the school almost from the day that I arrived to the day that I left … When I was 13 and 14 I witnessed my peers being indecently assaulted … When I was 14 three peers, in an incident that can only be described as torture, physically and psychologically abused me … Reverend Trevor Kern indecently assaulted me at [the school] when I was 15.’
Reverend Kern began by inviting Sinclair to his study, under the guise of giving him spiritual guidance. ‘Over time I formed a trusting relationship with Reverend Kern, which felt like a father/son relationship. He listened to my troubles, discussed my doubts about my Christian faith and was kind and supportive.’
One day, Kern offered to help Sinclair relax by using hypnosis. As Sinclair became drowsy, the reverend started talking about sex. It was only when he put his hand on the boy’s thigh that Sinclair was able to break the spell. He recalled thinking, ‘I see now that his “support” over recent months was all designed to lead to this’.
Kern then threatened to tell the headmaster that Sinclair tried to seduce him. When that didn’t work he tried ‘pleading’, talking about the pain that it would cause his family. ‘If you don’t say anything then I won’t say anything and I can still be on your side. You don’t have many friends, you know. You could use a friend like me. Think about it VERY CAREFULLY.’
Sinclair wrote, ‘He is right. There is no winning here. I have experienced too much of the school’s injustice to know that if I report him I will not be believed … The thugs will have a field day. The victim will be victimised. The best I can achieve is to get out and to try to forget this ever happened’.
He said, ‘Who could I go to? The guy that abused me was pretty senior, the senior churchman at the school … as well as the head of the school, of the senior school, being extremely intimidating so I couldn’t go to him. Could I have gone to the police? I could’ve, but I’d have copped it, for damaging the school’s reputation. And I don’t know whether the local police … would’ve kind of understood.
‘I don’t see the teachers or the masters as being malicious necessarily. But the culture in which they were working encouraged them to just turn a blind eye. Because an abusive culture had been so entrenched that it kind of became just what you expected, you know, this is just the way it is. “Go to the police? Why would I go to the police? This is what happens here.” It’s almost as if you normalise abuse.’
But while Kern never came near him again, the ongoing physical and psychological abuse had a ‘profound adverse impact’ on Sinclair’s mental health. ‘If a person is told often enough that they are “rotten to their core” and also subjected to torture, denigration and sexual abuse they will begin to believe that they are deeply contaminated, worthless and fundamentally deficient.’
When he went on to university, the impacts worsened. Sinclair wrote of feelings of intense anger and fear, panic attacks, nightmares, obsessive cleaning behaviour, and low self-confidence and self-worth. ‘My PTSD has been severe, at times almost intolerable, and I have experienced suicidal thoughts on several occasions during my life.’
He also wrote of ‘visceral memories’ being triggered by situations and events. ‘At these times it has felt as if the abuse is “happening all over again” and I have experienced distressing flashbacks and intrusive memories … Although I know how to manage such triggered states, it is distressing that traumas that I experienced more than 40 years ago can be re-awakened today.’
In the late 1970s, ‘seeking answers for my troubling memories’, he went back to the school to see his old housemaster, Norman Talley.
‘On that visit Mr Talley confided that the bullying that I experienced was “among the worst that he had seen in his years as a housemaster”. He told me he hoped that I “had not been too damaged by the bullying that I experienced at the school”.’
Sinclair wrote, ‘For most of my life I have held an irrational belief that I was in some way to blame for the physical, psychological and sexual abuse that I experienced at [the school]. I felt deeply ashamed about my PTSD and my anxiety symptoms, and viewed them as confirmation that fundamentally I was broken and permanently diminished by the abuse.
‘I now realise that this is not the case. I did not survive severe childhood abuse unscathed. But I am not frail. I am not broken. Rather, like a tree that has weathered many storms I bear the scars of the abuse … but it has not defeated me’.
Sinclair also came to the Commission with a number of recommendations. He said there must be harsh penalties under the law for institutions that protect perpetrators and put their own reputations before the needs of survivors.
All statutes of limitations on prosecuting child sexual abuse should be removed, and failure to report such crimes should be a punishable offence, too.
‘There’s also a great need, a massive need, for public education about the short and long-term adverse impacts of child sexual abuse … An incident of childhood sexual abuse may be over in minutes. But its impact can last a lifetime.
‘Appropriate education about child sexual abuse should be included in the school curriculum of all schools … Educators and childcare workers should receive mandatory education about early indicators that a child may be bullied or abused …
‘It should be a legal requirement that every institution should have a publicly available child abuse policy. Education about mental health should be part of the school curriculum at all levels of all schools. Students experiencing mental health problems should have ready access to confidential specialist mental health care.’
Sinclair also spoke of establishing what he calls ‘Care of Children Complaints Commissions’ in every state and territory, so ‘kids and adult survivors can go somewhere where there are people who’ve been trained … It’s an independent body, so that you’re not having an internal inquiry … it’s got to be fair, it’s got to be humane, it’s got to be transparent.
‘Such a commission would allow survivors to have advocates and people that know how you can perhaps get some form of redress and reparation, because that’s what we’re talking about here.
‘The offending institution and society must offer greater public acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past, as well as meaningful forms of redress and compensation to make it clear that every one, every one of those abused individuals, is valued and will be provided with assistance to heal, so that they can finally feel that they are worthy members of society and do not feel like pariahs for having experienced things that no child should ever be expected to endure.
‘The key question that we need to ask is not “Why have so many institutions allowed child sexual abuse to occur?”, although this question must be answered. The key question we must ask is “How can we do better?” Society and its institutions will not be changed by laws or edicts or recommendations alone. These may help, but lasting change will only occur when the hearts and minds of our citizens are opened to a deeper understanding of child abuse … It is so tempting to look the other way …
‘If there is a single lesson that I take away from the abuse that I endured it is this: culture is fundamental, fundamental, in determining whether humans engage in abusive behaviour.’
Sinclair finished his statement with these words:
‘I am walking the long and difficult road to compassion, because my hatred towards my abusers has imprisoned me and I want to be free. Nelson Mandela famously said, “As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead me to my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave behind my bitterness and hatred, I’d still be in prison”.
‘I’m walking towards that gate. One day I’m going to be free’.