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Warner Thomas's story

‘I sing a sad song
Although I did not write the music
I played my part
But seldom did I choose it
I find sad words
Waiting just inside my mind
Call it fate or destiny
By either name it troubles me.’

Since being sexually abused at school in the 1980s, Warner has written a lot of poetry as a form of ‘self-therapy’, often discussing the impacts of this abuse on his life.

‘Memories will remain
Until I die
Drugs and alcohol
I will try
To dull the ache
Of my problems and trouble
That loom up ahead
And threaten to double.’

Growing up, Warner had been a child happy with his own company – preferring time in the library to hanging out with his peers. When he was 11 he received one-on-one tuition from a young teacher called Mr Barton at his private grammar school. Barton sexually abused him over the course of that school year.

Warner didn’t understand at the time that what Barton was doing was a crime. ‘I didn’t even realise it was wrong, just that it made me feel uncomfortable, I guess.’

Barton told Warner he wouldn’t be believed if he disclosed the abuse, and may lose his place at the prestigious school if he complained, and so Warner did not disclose the abuse to anyone.

‘If a teacher said something, you did it. There was no backchat, there was no anything – otherwise you got a backhander ... Certainly if you made an allegation against a teacher and you couldn’t prove that allegation, or the teacher subsequently talked the school out of believing the allegation, you would find yourself in a fair bit of trouble so it just wasn’t the done thing ... Back then you didn’t question whatever a teacher did or said.’

At the end of the year Barton left the school. After the abuse Warner’s grades slipped as he could no longer concentrate on his studies, and he lost interest in other activities he had enjoyed. Finally he asked his parents if he could change to a state school to be with his friends, and they reluctantly agreed. He did poorly in his final exams but later sat them again, and dropped out of uni due to poor concentration and mental health.

Warner first disclosed the abuse to a psychiatrist when he was 16 years old, and to his parents around a decade later. He told the Commissioner Barton had not only ‘stolen the majority of my life’ but ‘he’s stolen my entire family’s life’.

At times he has been on sickness benefits because of his mental health, and he has had difficulty maintaining employment. Now he is self-employed so he can take time off when he needs to.

Being very concerned about his children’s safety, he sends taxis to collect them from school so they do not have to wait around. He takes great measures to avoid having to go near any private schools, even when he is driving, as he finds doing so very triggering, and avoids watching the news because he does not want to hear reports about child sex offenders.

In the early 2000s Warner reported the abuse to the school, and learned that ‘the school had a suspicion that this particular fellow was doing what he was doing, not just to me but to other students as well’.

He asked them, ‘What did you do about it? Did you not think it would be appropriate to ring the police?’ They replied, ‘Oh no, we just moved him on to the next school’. He noted that this ‘seemed to be to be a consistent story amongst all of these schools, rather than notify authorities they basically gave him a glowing reference and sent him into the next school’.

Warner and his parents met with the headmaster, and the school’s lawyers were present. First and foremost he was seeking some kind of compensation in the form of an acknowledgment and apology. He was also seeking financial recompense for the expenses he incurred for psychiatric treatment and medication ‘over the past 30-something years’, and future costs.

‘I will no doubt require that continuing medical care for the rest of my life. I suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar as a result of this and those medications in themselves cost me tens of thousands of dollars a year.’

The school ‘basically clammed up’ when he asked them ‘Why did you let this person stay? Why did you give him a glowing reference? Why didn’t you call the police?’

Warner primarily holds the school responsible for the abuse. ‘If they were aware that he was committing those offences then they’re complicit in that offence.’ He would like to know, too, ‘what policies they’ve implemented to stop or limit these things happening again’.

The school ‘accepted everything’ Warner told them – ‘but no apology and no compensation was the end result’. Rather, he was advised that he could not pursue such a claim because of the statute of limitations, and that if he persisted in making allegations legal action would be taken against him.

A few years after this meeting Warner again approached the school to determine if it was prepared to make some reparation. This time the headmaster ‘in a roundabout way, a very polite way, told me where to go’.

Recently Warner engaged a legal firm to assist him with seeking compensation, and knows they are also representing people abused by other staff members at the school. At the time he met with the Commissioner he was awaiting contact from police regarding making a report.

The memories of the abuse are an ‘indelible image’ in Warner’s mind, and he continues to suffer from intrusive images and flashbacks despite many years of therapy.

‘Even if you get it out it still leaves – it’s like a plasma TV – if you pause it, it leaves a burnt image on the screen. And that image, you could tell about it for the rest of your life with as many professionals as you want to, but yes they can assist you to ease your symptoms, but they’ll never make it go away.’

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