Abuse at Catholic Schools - I hope things have changed

19 May 2015
It's a fairly minor story - an anecdote, really - compared to the horrors being exposed, continuously, at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse; the Catholic school in Ballarat where at one point in the 1970s every teacher was a child sex abuser, the class at that school where 12 of 33 pupils have committed suicide.

And yet I tell this little tale of the attitude of a teacher at a Catholic school in the 1980s towards quite probable child sex abuse, to shine a light on how children were viewed at the time, on how signs of abuse were viewed, on how much "pastoral care" was going on, on just how they were able to get away with the whole thing for so long.

Whilst I never really had a group of friends, in the late 1980s, in my later years of primary school at a Catholic school in Sydney's northern beaches, I briefly joined a group of girls in my year to draw comics. We all loved to sit on the playground and draw and write stories in stacks of exercise books - a stack we left behind one day after lunch, in the rush of the bell ringing and heading to line up before heading back to class. And a teacher found them.

One of the little girls, 9 or 10 years old, had unwitnessed by the rest of us, drawn some very explicit pictures of people engaged in sexual acts.

Okay, I'm a youth worker and halfway through a social work degree, so I've had training on what to do in these situations - but, you know, I'd hope teachers would have some clue on what to do as well. There could be a semi-innocent explanation for a 9 year old girl to be drawing things like that - maybe she'd accessed a copy of Penthouse she wasn't meant to find (although, whilst my memory isn't precise - I only saw the images briefly, which I'll get to - I didn't want to see them - I remember them being a deal more explicit than Penthouse fare, and forget seeing this stuff online, this was an era when many people didn't even have VCRs).

But we must assume the worst, for the child's own protection, where there is any suspicion of child sexual abuse; careful, discreet questioning about where she'd seen people doing these things and why she was drawing them, and a notification to child protective services, where trained staff can properly assess the situation and work out the best course of action for the child.

None of this happened. My class teacher (and acting principal), decided I had drawn the pictures, and shouted at me in front of the class, as tears dripped down my face, telling me I was a dirty, disgusting little girl and that Jesus would be ashamed.

I was bullied about it for weeks.

I didn't know what the pictures were - I was not abused at home or Catholic school, let me be clear, and had almost no idea what sex was at that stage. But they thought I drew them, and no one ever asked me where I had seen such things or why I'd copy them.

So that is why we can see a bit of why child sex abuse was allowed to go on openly for so long; kids disbelieved, doubted, cast as shameful and dirty if any evidence came to light.

I hope things have changed.

But what I really hope most of all is that the little girl who drew those pictures had seen a surreptitious video or something, and was just copying what she saw. I really hope that was all.


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