Tom Stephen's story

Tom joined the local Church of England Boys Society (CEBS) when he was about 10, in the early 1970s. His best friend Douggie joined at the same time. Other kids in the area also belonged. It had nothing to do with religion – Tom’s family was ‘not really religious’ – and everything to do with hanging out with friends and finding things to do in the semi-rural outer suburb of Melbourne where they lived.

The ‘bloke who ran the show’ was Rex Smithers. ‘I always thought he was really old. But when I look back now – he would have probably been in his 30s or something, early 30s maybe.’ He lived not far from Tom’s home. One day when Tom and Douggie were returning to Tom’s place it began to rain heavily. As they walked past Smithers’ house he came out and called them inside.

‘‘Cause we were wet he insisted we take our clothes off and get dry’, Tom recalled. The boys stripped off their wet things and Smithers got towels and rubbed them dry, including round their genitals.

Tom didn’t go to Smithers’ house again. But at CEBS camps over the next few years similar incidents occurred. Smithers would adjust the boys’ clothing and tuck in their shirts, taking the opportunity to fondle their genitals. At bath time he made the boys strip and line up. Then ‘he’d pat you on the backside, and round the genital area’.

Punishments often involved making boys taking their trousers off. Tom remembered he and some others getting into trouble, and Smithers ordering them to pull their trousers down to their ankles and run in a circle around him. Another time when Tom was part of a group mucking around in a cabin, Smithers dragged them all outside and made them drop their trousers so he could strike their naked backsides. No one ever resisted.

‘We just sort of did what we were told’, Tom said. ‘He was sort of an authority figure – he had the socks pulled up, he had the uniform on, a booming voice, a whistle.’ But the kids knew Smithers’ behaviour was wrong and acknowledged that between themselves, giving him nicknames that alluded to his sexualised behaviours towards them.

Tom left CEBS when he started high school, when he was about 13. His and Smithers’ paths didn’t really cross after that. ‘As we got older he sort of avoided us. We avoided him.’ He didn’t disclose Smithers’ molestation to anyone, but in the years that followed it affected him deeply.

‘Through school I become a target, I think, maybe because I was being quiet and reserved – I’d end up being a target for bullies, and that’s what my day consisted of at school, through primary and high school. And I think my grades reflected that.’ After school Tom lost his way for a while, drinking too much and smoking too much marijuana. Later, he found ongoing employment, married and had children. He still didn’t disclose his experiences with Smithers. He didn’t do that till he was nearly 50, in the early 2010s, when he was contacted by a detective from the Victorian police force who was investigating complaints of sexual abuse made about Smithers.

For months Tom didn’t answer calls from the detective, or respond to her messages. She rang often, he said. ‘She never gave up.’ Finally he spoke to her and agreed to give a statement, later used in court along with statements from more than 10 other victims. Smithers, in his 70s by then, pleaded guilty and was jailed.

Painful as it was to revisit the abuse, Tom found the court process positive in some respects. Among these was listening to the victim statements that were read aloud in court, and realising that others felt just as he did about what had happened to them.

‘I just thought – jeez, that’s so similar. The feelings and what they’re going through. You always feel as if you only feel that way yourself, but when I heard those it was just a – reality hit home’, he told the Commissioner.

‘In a way with these court processes and stuff … it’s sort of like a weight coming off your shoulders, because you were with these guys who went through the same thing, the same place, the same time. And they were all there with similar feelings. We had to sit for hours sometimes outside the court and just everyone just talking in amongst each other and stuff.’

The court case was followed by a civil action. Tom and the others successfully sued Smithers, and were awarded substantial payouts. They later also received payouts from the Church of England. This civil action caused Tom considerable anxiety, and at one point he contemplated withdrawing from it. ‘I rang up the legal firm and said “I don’t want to go to court. I can’t face it, I find it really difficult”. And then I sort of thought about it and I rang back and said “I’ll go”.’

Even after the success of the action, he felt ambivalent about the role of the law firm that represented him and the other claimants.

‘It was like a big money grab. I think they took $25,000 off each of us in legal fees. They kind of approached us because they knew they were going to get money out of it, and we had no idea. We just thought this is part of the process, this is what you do. We had no idea.’

Tom has never had counselling and doesn’t plan to. He had a psychiatric assessment during the civil claim which found he had depression that he was ‘half managing’ – a diagnosis he tends to agree with, he said. He is worried about how he will feel when Smithers is released on parole, especially because Smithers still has his home near Tom’s parents.

Tom is yet to spend any of the money he received as compensation. ‘We’ve got it sitting in the bank’, he said. ‘My wife goes why don’t you buy a new car or something, or do something with it – I can’t. I can’t do it … It feels like it’s dirty money. I don’t want to touch it.’

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