In the early 1960s seven-year-old Tessa was sexually abused by her teacher, Tom Shaw, who was also the headmaster at her New South Wales state school. Although she can’t recall all the details of what had happened, ‘snippets’ have come into her mind at various times throughout her adult life.
Shaw had an office next to the classroom and would call children in there to correct their school work.
‘I remember the office’, Tessa told the Commissioner. ‘I remember the desk, and he would make us stand next to him, and things about him I remember. His hands – they were very scabby and scaly. I remember my dress coming up and underwear coming down, and I have tried and tried to remember what else happened, but I can’t. My brain, it just won’t go there.’
Shaw’s popularity in the school community, and the esteem in which he was held by Tessa’s parents, were some of the reasons she didn’t disclose the abuse. He had also told Tessa she was his ‘favourite’, and didn’t think she’d be believed if she spoke up.
Tessa blocked out what Shaw had done until memories started to resurface when she was in her 30s.
‘When my daughter reached the age of seven, eight at school, I became very obsessed with her safety and strangers and making sure she was all right at school, and I remember the day, I don’t know why it suddenly came to a head. I was just making the bed at home and suddenly I started to remember these things, and I remembered the teacher and touching and I just was anxious. I just went crazy. This went on for weeks.’
Tessa’s first disclosure was when she saw a naturopath to help with her anxiety. He remarked that something must be troubling her and she told him about her childhood experiences.
She then disclosed to her husband, who told her to ‘forget about it’ and ‘put it away’. This she did, however problems in her marriage, particularly around issues of intimacy, continued to surface and the relationship broke down.
After divorcing and remarrying, Tessa had difficulties with her second marriage because there were things she ‘couldn’t deal with’, again often around physical intimacy.
‘I always thought – and he said – there was something wrong with me.’
At one stage, Tessa was referred by her GP to a psychologist who suggested hypnosis ‘to forgive the child’.
‘I said, “I don’t want to remember everything. Please don’t make me remember what happened”. And she put me under hypnosis and I went back to forgive me as a child for not telling someone, for not acting upon what happened, because at that time it was just me and who was going to believe me?’
After experiencing health problems in her 30s, Tessa told her mother about the abuse. Her mother told her that though she’d been alert to sexual abuse within the extended family, she had ‘never thought to look outside the home’. Her mother also said that Shaw was probably dead.
In 2015, Tessa reconnected with other ex-students of her primary school, and in private conversations found out that several other girls had been sexually abused by Shaw. Unlike her, many had clear memories of what he’d done. It hadn’t occurred to her that classmates might have experienced what she had. This knowledge, though ‘in a strange way it’s been a bit of support’, made her feel guilty.
Tessa thought of going to police but wasn’t sure it would be useful now that Shaw was dead and her memories still remained unclear. ‘I think once I realised it had happened, there wasn’t a lot that I remembered exactly happening, so what was I going to report?’
She is seeking legal advice about taking action against the Department of Education, because it transpired that Shaw had been moved to her school after allegations and charges of child sexual abuse had arisen in his previous position at another school.
‘My reasons for doing that too is my anger now – that we didn’t have to go through that. He had priors; they knew. He was moved on to that school. Don’t know where he went afterwards but it was for me it was kind of like, well here were the warning bells, why didn’t someone protect us? Why move this person on to us? And my anger is also for the trust that my parents had in him. And my dad trusted him and how dare he betray that.’
She has always had issues knowing who to trust herself. ‘I trust people until they do something, do you know what I mean? I’m not a suspicious person at first, I take people at face value, and I probably get hurt more than anything but that’s just, I think I don’t have trust in my own judgement.’
Tessa thinks children now are better able to talk about things and would disclose abuse if it occurred. ‘I just feel the education that the children are getting these days, and they’re more outspoken. I don’t mean that in a negative way but they will say how they feel … It’s good the way I think children – there’s more awareness.’
She felt that now she had ‘got a voice’ and she was speaking for others who’d been abused by Shaw but were unable to tell their stories to the Royal Commission. ‘I feel like I’m representing [them]. It feels like we’re achieving something against him – that we’re getting some power back.’