Ten-year-old Vanessa though it was odd when the principal offered to give her and a classmate a ride back from the school excursion in his ute. But she was tired so she didn’t give the matter too much thought.
It was the early 1960s and Vanessa and her class had driven a long way from their small, Western Australia town to visit sites in Perth. On the drive back the bus carrying the rest of the class pulled over and stopped for tea. The principal pulled over in his ute and stopped too. When tea was done, the principal told Vanessa’s classmate to get on the bus with the other girls.
Vanessa found herself alone in the ute with the principal. He told her that if she was tired she could put her head on his knee and go to sleep. She did.
Vanessa woke to feel the car stopping. Looking around she saw that everything was dark. The principal had pulled off the highway onto a side road. Vanessa’s memory of what happened next has never left her. The principal kissed and touched her, and forced her to touch him.
‘I was trying to resist at this stage’, Vanessa said. ‘I felt myself go very limp and I felt just quite blank about things. I couldn’t sort of respond very much in any way at all.’
The incident ended abruptly when a passing car shone its headlights through the windscreen and startled the principal. He released Vanessa and drove on.
‘I remember him saying to me, “You won’t tell anybody will you? You won’t tell anybody”. And I said, “No I won’t. I won’t tell anybody”.’
The next morning Vanessa told her mum what had happened. Her mum, Nicole, attended the Royal Commission session with her. Nicole explained how, as soon as she heard the story, she comforted Vanessa and assured her that she would take the matter up with the school.
Nicole then discussed the matter with her husband Rob. He was furious too. At their first opportunity, the two of them went down to the school and confronted the principal.
The principal immediately admitted what he’d done. He even attempted to ‘weasel out of it’ and ingratiate himself to Vanessa’s parents by telling them how proud they should be of their daughter for coming forward and reporting him. Nicole said:
‘Rob was so angry with him, as I was. And he [Rob] said firmly, “If I hear of anything of this ever happening again there’s no second chances”.’
And that was where the matter rested. Looking back now, Nicole regrets not going to the police and wonders if she could have done more to protect Vanessa and other children. But she believes that there were good reasons to keep the matter quiet at the time.
‘Living in a small country district in those times, my husband and I were both most of all intent on preserving Vanessa’s anonymity to something like that happening, because there’s no doubt … there would be discussion, there would be innuendo. So our silence was definitely designed to protect our child.’
Vanessa understands. ‘I know Mum and Dad both did for me what they felt was the best at the time’, she said. Vanessa has her own regrets, mostly that she didn’t report the abuse earlier. The first time she came forward was in the late 2000s, at the counter of her local police station.
‘He asked me did I want to proceed with anything formal, and I said I don’t quite know what you mean. I said the reason I’m reporting it is in case anything else has been recorded against this person and my story would add to the picture. That was my reasoning for coming to tell you, not so much because I wanted to have it followed up with a court process or anything.
‘And he said to me, “Because you left it a bit late”. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “He would only have to say that he doesn’t remember anything. It’s your word against his”. And I wasn’t going to stop and have a big conversation about it at that time so I accepted his word for what he was telling me and then that was it.’
Since then, Vanessa has strived to put the past behind her and get on with her life.
‘I know I didn’t do anything wrong. I know all of that. … I try to reconcile myself to the fact that children go through a lot worse and I try to not let it spoil my life, because I don’t want it to.’