‘I think there was love there but it was just tough’, Tony said.
He was describing growing up in a small town in regional Queensland in the 1970s and 80s. His parents worked long hours, and Tony and his siblings ‘ran a bit freer’ than other kids.
Tony believes that unsupervised time made him a target for Barney Hickson, who did maintenance work at the local high school and also coached a community sports team Tony belonged to. Hickson first abused Tony when he was 11. He put his hands down Tony’s pants and fondled his genitals.
‘The first thing that happened to me was the shock – I froze, literally. And that whole day was a surreal type of day … It felt like the world just stopped, for me.’
Over the next four years there were multiple episodes of abuse.
‘I think he preyed on people and manipulated the ones he could get away from their parents’, Tony said. ‘[Paedophiles] are very good at what they do. There’s a lot of planning and thought process goes into it.’
Tony didn’t tell anyone about it at the time. His dad could get pretty heated. He had guns at home, and Tony worried that he might use one on Hickson if he found out what was going on. ‘I shut up to protect my own family.’
As well, he was anxious about how people in the small town would respond. He told the Commissioner about a girl who reported that she’d been raped: ‘It got pretty well dismissed as the girl who cried wolf … Once I saw what happened to her I retreated even more – like there was no way I could come forward from there.’
Hickson did have a reputation as a ‘kiddie fiddler’.
‘Over the years I think the police had their suspicions. But no one ever made a formal complaint.’ Tony wonders now why the police weren’t more proactive. Yes, there are processes that have to be followed, ‘but in a small country town, if you were starting to get little consistencies here and there, you would act. I would act. I’d go and investigate.’
As the abuse continued, Tony’s behaviour deteriorated. He became resentful of male authority and ‘belligerent’, which often got him into trouble at school. ‘I could go off’, he said. And this is something else he wonders about now. Why did none of the teachers ever ask about the change in his behaviour? It could have made a big difference, he believes.
‘People don’t go off for the sake of going off. There’s a trigger. Always something. Could be their dog died, could be their relationships, could be anything.’
Tony left school as early as he could and learned a trade. He worked in the mining industry for many years, around Australia. He self-medicated with alcohol and drugs, and had difficulty maintaining long-term relationships.
He was in his early 40s when he came to the Royal Commission, and had been with his current partner for more than four years. He’d disclosed his abuse to her very early on. ‘It had been eating at me.’ Sharing his story had been good for both of them. ‘It gave me strength. I started to bit by bit talk and talk and talk.’
After thinking it over for several years, he also reported Hickson to police.
‘The timing was right for me to come forward. I knew that I had to do something. I knew he was still active in the community, involved in sporting organisations, I still had links to the town … I thought, well, if I don’t do something here, he’s going to keep doing it till he can’t do it anymore, till he’s too old.’
The police began an investigation and ultimately Hickson was charged with over 50 offences against multiple victims. Tony is certain there are others yet to come forward. Before Hickson could come to trial, he killed himself. As Tony had feared when he heard the news, the case was then closed.
‘When I found out he’d committed suicide, that was one of the first things that entered my mind … I kind of knew the answer so I wasn’t overly shocked, but I was disheartened, because you’d waited so long to speak, and be heard, and for him to be tried in front of his peers, and that is ripped away from you again. And he knew exactly what he was doing. That process would have gone through his head, you know. “I can’t face this in the community, I’m not going to give these boys the satisfaction. I’m 74, I’ve not much else, I’ve got minimal family – see you later.” All over.’
Tony lives in a metropolitan centre and has had assistance from a survivors’ support group. It’s difficult for other victims still living in their home town to access mental health and other services, he told the Commissioner.
‘We need to educate men in general that it’s all right to come forward, that you don’t need to be suppressed anymore and if you’ve got problems going to talk about them can be better … I’m quite lucky. I’ve been to dark places but certain things kept me going, or I could see that I was going to affect so many people by taking the wrong path …
‘The trouble with regional areas is there’s not a lot of psychologists and counsellors like that, you know what I mean? It’s just not that easy …
‘I think sometimes people feel there’s no way out and they take their own lives.’
He would like to see improved services in regional areas, and better vetting of people working with children. ‘You can always do things better, and that’s part of anything – a business, life in general. What can I do better? So, look, I’m sure there’s definitely things we can do to protect better, and regional areas really need support. They need a network, they need people there.’