Susan’s early teenage years were filled with grief. She lost four family members within five years and never received the compassion or support she needed to process her feelings. By age 15 she was lost, depressed and longing for comfort.
It was the late 1980s and Susan was a student at a Catholic high school in regional New South Wales. During term the school organised a religious retreat for the students. Several of the staff went along too, including a lay teacher named Ben Braddon.
One night everyone gathered around a bonfire. As the evening wore on, staff and students slipped away to bed until the only ones left were Susan and Braddon. They started to talk. It turned out that Braddon knew all about the losses that Susan had suffered over the past few years. He had recently suffered a similar loss.
‘We started talking about grief’, Susan said, ‘until the bonfire had died down’. It got colder, and Braddon called Susan over to him and put his arm around her. ‘And the feeling of just being held was … I can still remember it to this day. And it was total acceptance and trust and it was comfort – I felt good. I felt loved and valued.’
They continued talking, and then ‘something changed’ and Braddon kissed Susan. ‘At that point it was shock, it was disbelief – but also a feeling of being chosen, being special.’ Adding further complexity was Susan’s feeling that because Braddon was a teacher she didn’t have the right to challenge his behaviour.
Braddon then suggested that Susan contact him back at school to arrange some regular counselling sessions. Despite the weirdness of the kissing incident, Susan was grateful for Braddon’s offer and eager to take him up on it.
The next day, however, he pointedly ignored her and made a show of laughing with some of the other children nearby. Susan felt she was being punished. She assumed that Braddon’s offer was off the table. So it was even more confusing a few days later when he took her aside, arranged an appointment in his office and wrote her a note to get out of class.
When the day of the appointment came, Susan arrived at Braddon’s office hoping to talk. After a few minutes he started complimenting her on her breasts. From that moment, Susan said, she knew she wasn’t going to get any counselling from him.
In fact she wasn’t able to get counselling from anyone. Braddon said it would look strange if she met with him as well as the school counsellor. He continued to make appointments for her to see him and soon began having sex with her.
Susan kept the situation mostly to herself. She told a friend that she was having a relationship with a teacher but didn’t mention his name. Looking back, she’s sure that at least one of the teachers knew that something was going on. That teacher never intervened.
Braddon continued to abuse Susan throughout the last two years of her schooling and into the following year. ‘It ended when I stopped making contact … I just stopped calling him.’
The abuse has had a life-long impact on Susan, particularly in her relationship with her husband. ‘I haven’t been able to have sex with my husband in 10 years. And part of that’s [because] every time I do, I see Ben Braddon.’
Other impacts have been more confusing and contradictory.
‘If I can say that I was in love with him, I was. It was the first adult relationship that I was in. And it has never ended and I’ve always felt that there was something to finish, whatever that is. I feel cheated on that aspect. I feel cheated that he chose that way to “help” me, in inverted commas. He could have helped me with my English; I was an appalling student.
‘I only went to school because that was my relationship at the time. And if I didn’t have that relationship with Ben Braddon, I don’t think I’d be alive today; I think I would have taken my own life, or tried to. So I’m very confused about whether that relationship was a good one or a bad one.
'Moving forward it has made me very distrustful, but I think it has also taught me a lot about having to look at why people do things. So while it may have been a bad thing, I think lots of good things have come out of it.’
In the early 2010s Susan reported Braddon to police. It took four years for the investigation to begin in earnest. At the time of Susan’s session with the Royal Commission it was still ongoing.
As the latest step, Susan made a ‘pretext call’ to Braddon, which the police recorded. Prior to the call Susan still had some doubts about whether it was fair to bring Braddon before the courts. Though Braddon did not admit to the abuse during the call, he made some comments that have helped Susan to overcome her doubts.
‘He’s still a teacher and there was a couple of things that he mentioned in the phone call that made me uneasy. That he had to think about who I was because he was confusing me with some children that he was counselling currently or had counselled. And that’s always been my thing: whether it was fair to move forward if I was the only one?
'It’s always been in the back of my mind: what if I wasn’t the only one?’