‘I’d like to say I’m blessed with a good memory. It’s an asset … but it’s also a double-edged sword; there are very many things I would rather forget and can’t.’
In the early 1960s Willem was looking forward to returning to his Catholic primary school in Victoria after school holidays, but it wasn’t long before he was feigning illness and doing all he could not to go. Brother Conrad had become his teacher, and a sexual abuser of all the boys in the class.
Looking at his school photos, Willem noted there wasn’t a boy who escaped Conrad’s fondling and groping. The Christian Brother put himself in charge of all sports and took every opportunity to patrol the showers and change rooms, insisting that boys allow him to undress them and towel them down.
Willem’s first memory of abuse was when he was called to the Brother’s desk to have his homework corrected. It was winter and there was no general heating in the school, but Conrad had a small radiator next to his desk. ‘We were lured to it like moths to a lamp.’ Willem felt Conrad running his hand up and down his leg then reaching down his shorts and fondling his genitals. He didn’t know how to get out of the situation.
The abuse continued on a regular basis for two years. It was unthinkable, Willem said, to strike Conrad’s hand or take any action against him.
The Christian Brothers use of physical violence was severe and routine. There was no one Willem could complain to about the beatings, let alone the sexual abuse. His parents had only recently arrived in Australia and were trying their best to settle into an unfamiliar society and culture. After his younger brother started at the school and was also abused by Conrad, Willem told his parents a little of what was going on.
His father responded that he thought Conrad was ‘going homo in his old age’, but neither parent took the matter further. ‘They were imbued with a great reverence for members of religious orders and refused to believe the worst.’
Conrad’s abuses extended to him putting red lipstick on boys for ‘performances’. He’d also blacken the classroom windows, switch on a lamp and start drawing graphic pictures while quizzing boys on their knowledge of penile erections and ejaculation. Willem suspected he was masturbating under his robes.
One day, a boy disclosed some of Conrad’s behaviour to a female teacher, who was horrified and went to the principal. Willem wasn’t sure what happened next but a short time later both Conrad and the teacher were gone from the school.
For decades after the abuse, Willem couldn’t bear anyone touching him. On one occasion his father gave him a paternal caress on the back and was taken aback at the way Willem recoiled. ‘I can remember the touch of other people almost being like an electric shock.’
The thought of Conrad still sickens him. ‘He has woken me many times in the middle of the night over the past 50 years, including last night.’
While Willem acknowledged many Christian Brothers had been good teachers, he thought those that physically abused boys were complicit in an environment that allowed sexual abuse to occur. ‘I do believe that corporal punishment was an enormously powerful, potent, coercive tool for paedophiles.’
Willem said that although corporal punishment has largely disappeared from schools, Australia still didn’t have the kind of comprehensive, protective legislation for children that had existed in Sweden since 1979. He was concerned at recent comments by a senior national education figure who said that if the community wanted corporal punishment and ‘it was properly delivered’ he had ‘no problem’ with it.
‘The fact that the State allowed religious schools to use violence against children, and repeatedly inspected and certified them, means that they must also share culpability for what happened in them.’