When he was nine years old, Stewart was a ‘fairly scrawny kid’, which was why his parents suggested it would be good for him to join the YMCA.
‘My father said it was a good idea to provide a range of activities and develop spiritual, physical and education, which I believe it was. And I still believe basically it’s a good organisation.’
Stewart went away on his first YMCA camp in the mid-1950s when he was about 10 or 11. He said it was a rustic affair, with tents, a few toilet blocks and an open-air communal shower.
As a small, naive boy, Stewart believes he was seen as ‘an easy target’, and shortly after he arrived he was, ‘subjected to a custom or culture called “initiation”, or “bastardisation” I think they call it in the military … You got held down by a group of the bigger or older boys, shorts and underwear was removed or lowered and I was forcibly held down and shoe polish or toothpaste or something else was rubbed into my genitals. It was futile to resist’.
Other boys looked on, shouting encouragement or abuse. When the job was done they ran off, leaving Stewart ‘to the indignity of sorting myself out … This seemed to happen a number of times. I don’t know how many in the period of a week or so, but enough times to be kind of scary. They kept picking on me’.
He was aware that it was happening to other boys as well. Though the staff never participated, Stewart thinks that with all the cheering and noise they must have known that something was going on.
On top of this, there were a few older boys who ‘took advantage’ of Stewart’s vulnerability by randomly grabbing and pulling at his genitals. He said, ‘It was quite vigorous and actually painful’.
Stewart never reported the abuse to his parents or anyone at the camp. ‘It wasn’t kind of what you did. You know, you’d just grin and bear it.’
He continued to attend the camps, and after a few years he ‘got a bit bigger and a bit smarter’ and the bastardisation stopped happening. This was also partly because Stewart’s talent for music gave him a privileged position in the camp.
Stewart enjoyed playing music round the campfire. It’s a memory that he still treasures to this day. That memory, however, is complicated by the figure of Ray Chapman.
Ray was one of the adult staff who ran the camps. He was a musician himself and played alongside Stewart in the band. Stewart said, ‘Musically I got on very well with Ray. Just somehow music clicks like that’.
Then when Stewart was about 13, Ray started to pay him special attention, ‘and this soon developed into regular sexual encounters at the camp’.
Ray was opportunistic in his behaviour. If Stewart went off to have a shower, ‘He would always follow me down and suddenly decide to have a shower as well’.
The abuse continued for some time until Ray got a new job and stopped attending the camps. Then there was one more incident when Stewart was about 16 or 17. By that stage, Ray was working at a community centre in a nearby town. Stewart and his parents dropped round for a visit. While Stewart’s parents chatted to some other staff members, Ray took Stewart on a tour of the place.
‘They had a stage with a curtain, and guess what happened behind the curtain. That was a surprise. Oh well, you kind of shrug it off.’
After that, Stewart and Ray went their separate ways. Years later, Stewart learned that Ray’s marriage had fallen apart and he died ‘an alcoholic, very lonely man’.
Meanwhile, Stewart led a ‘pretty successful life’, though to this day he still suffers some ongoing effects of the abuse.
‘I have difficulty forming relationships and maintaining them. I have had a long, very long same-sex relationship, which has been difficult for a long, long time. There is potential for a new one developing, but I think I have – it’s been put to me that I sort of have a fear of trust and of getting too close, not wanting to be hurt.’
Stewart has also experienced many health problems over the years. He said, ‘whether it was a result of the other activities, I don’t know’.
As for seeking redress against the YMCA, he said he’s never really thought about it.
‘I never reported the YMCA or any other organisation. Never occurred to me that there should be any compensation or whatever. Don’t know, maybe there should have been grounds for that. I’ve got no idea about this.’
Despite everything, Stewart still has good memories of his time with the YMCA. He thinks more should be done to protect kids, but he’s also aware of the dangers of over regulation.
‘I’m very critical of the “big brother”. We’re probably one of the most controlled countries in the world now. You need a licence or a regulation or whatever for every damn thing, which I’m kind of critical of. But, I think there are people in this community or society who deserve and ought to be protected.’