In the Christian Brothers school Sterling attended, one of the Brothers would take the large wooden compass from the blackboard and write on it in chalk, ‘yum, yum’. He’d then hit boys on their backsides with the compass, leaving the chalk-imprinted words on them.
Sterling doesn’t bother to explore the mind of the Christian Brother: he just says succinctly, ‘This was quite different to anything I had experienced before’. Prior to this he had attended several state schools in Adelaide, but when he was 10, his mother fulfilled a long-held ambition to place her son in a Catholic college.
‘The punishments were quite different – there was a lot of spanking.’
From the moment he started at the school, Sterling heard stories about sexual abuse but thought it was ‘just kids talking: if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, you don’t know what to believe’.
But a culture of beating and molestation appeared to be widespread among priests and lay teachers of all ages. ‘That particular Brother was only a young bloke. He lived in the same road as us, and used to visit my mother who was also young … And he made quite a thing of beating boys’ backsides.’
An older Brother was into clothing adjustment. ‘Telling you to tuck in your shirt is one thing, but coming over to do that to you themselves, sticking their hands down your pants, that seems a bit strange …’ Sterling says. ‘I’d never seen anything like it before in my life. But this seemed to be acceptable among most of the boys. They seemed to think this was more or less the done thing.’
Other behaviours were harder to condone. ‘I remember when another class came back from a school camp. There were stories that this lay teacher had waited outside the showers and insisted on drying all the boys personally … The boys knew this wasn’t normal, that it wasn’t right.’
The same lay teacher had another disturbing routine. ‘He would call some boy up to read and as he sat down, he’d put his arm around them. We were a bit afraid as to who was going to get picked … He was targeting particular individuals and caressing them as they came up to the table.
‘Then one day he called me, and he put one arm around me, pinning my arm that was holding the book – and his other hand went down the back of my pants. It was a hell of a shock. It wasn’t just a rumour anymore, he was doing it.
‘Under my breath, I told him not to do it. I threatened him – I said I had a knife and was going to hurt him – it was pretty vicious. And he relaxed his grip, let go of me and I went and sat down.
‘I realised he was probably doing it to other boys he was bringing up to the table. But you couldn’t see it, he was so adept. All you saw was him wiping his hands on his handkerchief after putting them down the boys’ pants.’
Tension with this teacher escalated over the weeks – ‘I’d been quite a good student at first, but after this guy did that, I became quite rebellious’ – and Sterling was eventually sent to the headmaster to be reprimanded.
‘That was bizarre. The Brother started asking me questions – whether I was sexually active, whether I had a girlfriend. He had his hands hidden under the table …
‘Eventually I just got up and left, though he said, “You’ll be in more trouble if you leave here”.’
By year 10, Sterling’s hatred of teacher ‘manhandling’ had poisoned his attitude to the college. ‘I got into more trouble and my grades kept falling; eventually I enrolled at another school, a state school.’
However, the move didn’t put him back on track. ‘I ended up dropping out of school altogether and getting an apprenticeship. Which was not a bad thing in itself – but it didn’t allow me to do the sort of study and work I think I should have been doing.’
He attempted once to talk to his mother about what happened at the college: ‘I tried – but she wouldn’t believe me.’
Other authorities were equally dismissive. ‘Many years later I went to people in the Church, but they wouldn’t discuss it … And when I talked to a police officer in the 1990s about some of the things I’ve told you here, at the Commission, he said, “No, we don’t want to know about it, mate”.’
Sterling believes sexual abuse has been ignored and hidden on many levels. ‘The cover-up goes further than the Christian Brothers, from the state government to the federal government to NGOs … The Ombudsman’s broken down, everybody’s broken down. Health services, complaints commissioner, police complaints – it’s a dysfunctional community.’
He has some limited faith in the Commission’s work. ‘Coming here isn’t going to help me – it’s to support the other boys that were there, so that they’ll be believed.
‘The boys that couldn’t fight off those teachers: it haunts me what I didn’t do to help them.’