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For students of the elite Geelong Grammar School, sexual abuse survived within a subculture of hazing born in the ‘Great Public Schools’ of England. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Hiding sexual abuse behind prestige at Geelong Grammar

Geelong Grammar School.
Credit: TWITTER

Founded in 1855, Geelong Grammar School has perfectly mimicked its British antecedents. Such institutions, in the sceptical words of English psychotherapist and former boarder Nick Duffell, are an “industrial power station, churning out stoic, superior leaders for the Empire”.

The school has the highest fees in the country and ranks second in the number of its alumni to receive the Queen’s honours. It has educated prime ministers and the next king of Britain. Its lush lawns and red brick suggest an academic idyll. There are multiple campuses. One, Timbertop, sits secluded at the foot of the Victorian Alps and offers hiking, canoeing and skiing to its students. 

In the last two weeks, however, Geelong Grammar School’s former staff have been compelled to provide testimony on its history of sexual abuse. This list of witnesses includes convicted paedophiles such as Jonathan Harvey, 76, who was employed as the head of mathematics for 34 years despite recurring allegations of impropriety.

Harvey, like other colleagues called to the stand, displayed the signatures of imperial rectitude. There was a three-piece suit and impeccable tie, a solemn deference to the court. A polished English accent, untouched by prison, though now used for stuttering deflections rather than the severe instruction of students. But Harvey’s respect for institutions – either Geelong Grammar, or the commission he now found himself in – wasn’t sufficient to force his candour.

Harvey was convicted in 2007 of multiple counts of indecent assault and sentenced to 32 months’ prison. He served 10. His career with the school began in 1969. Despite the conviction, and the sobering passage of time, he denied the counsel’s suggestion that his massaging of a student with a rugby injury was inappropriate. “Tiger Balm would be a good idea,” he told the student many years ago, and today he still thinks so.

Harvey showed the same deep stubbornness when he implied that homophobia was the cause of the staff’s suspicion of him. His answers on the stand comprised pedantry and forgetfulness, the sum of his testimony a sort of meek defiance – not only of the commission, but also of his own past. 

A former principal of Geelong Grammar, Lister Hannah, gave testimony this week about why the extent of sexual abuse wasn’t fully acted upon during his employment. There was a succession of insipid defences: “not in the mindset … in hindsight … I had many things on my mind … in the context of the times…” When Hannah invoked “the times”, he was suggesting a period that’s somehow forgivably distant. But his tenure as headmaster was 1995 to 2000. 

Ritual abuse

The year Jonathan Harvey began his employment at Geelong Grammar, Robert Llewellyn-Jones was a 13-year-old boarder. He witnessed, or was subjected to, physical, verbal and sexual abuse – most often committed by students on other students. At this young age, he was already internalising the code of secrecy and conformity, and knew not to cry in order to mitigate further abuse. Llewellyn-Jones befriended another outsider, a year older, who was “bullied mercilessly for his sporting ineptitude”. One day, Llewellyn-Jones entered his dorm room to see a gang of boys surrounding his friend. As their victim lay naked on his bed, they chanted “Do it! Do it!” – a giddy exhortation for their leader to smear shoe polish on the boy’s genitals. It was common practice. The boys called it “blackballing”. 

“My friend lay rigid and terrified,” Llewellyn-Jones testified last week. “I desperately wanted to rescue him but, outnumbered, I feared that if I intervened I would also be sexually assaulted. The chanting reached a crescendo as [redacted] forcibly masturbated my friend. My friend was whimpering.” 

Llewellyn-Jones saw much more. There was one boy who would climb uninvited into other boys’ beds, “demanding sex and grabbing at their genitals”. He didn’t respond to their discomfort or admonitions. If he was “unable to coerce his victim into mutual masturbation, he proceeded to ejaculate in the bed adjacent to or over his victim… [My boarding dorm] was a hothouse of violent acts and testosterone. The abuse may have begun as teenage sexual exploration, but it ended in indecent assault.” 

The following year, 1970, Llewellyn-Jones began year 10 at the Timbertop campus. Prince Charles had been schooled there four years earlier. The boys chopped their own wood – the only fuel for their dormitories – and between classes went on hikes into the Alps. In theory, it was Walden meets boot camp, but it was hell for Llewellyn-Jones. On one hike, the boy was forced to his knees by his hiking team. Terrified, he noticed a cowpat encircled by blowflies. “One of them says that they should stick a tree branch up my bum,” Llewellyn-Jones said last week. One boy then forces him to lick the sole of his shoe. “I try to convince myself that it is just mud. I tell myself that I’ve been brought down hard in rugby and got a mouthful of dirt. I think that, if I do as he orders, it will prevent me from worse abuse.”

The next year, Llewellyn-Jones began visiting the school’s chaplain, John Davison. Bright, bullied and confused, Llewellyn-Jones confessed his lapses of faith and a desire for intellectual and spiritual certitude. Davison replied that he was aware of the bullying, and warmly accepted his religious doubt. “Over time, I formed a trusting relationship with Reverend Davison,” Llewellyn-Jones remembered, “which felt like a father/son relationship.”

In reality, Llewellyn-Jones was being groomed. The chaplain was targeting the boy’s most tender confusions in order to molest him. “One day, Reverend Davison asked to meet me alone in his study… He then said I would find it easier if I relaxed, and drew a watch from his trouser pocket and started to swing it gently in front of me at eye level. He told me to follow the motion of the watch with my eyes and spoke to me about relaxing… He told me that he could teach me about sex and that I could do it with him so that I would get very good at it. He told me that he only wanted to help me and that I could trust him.”

Davison began stroking the boy’s thigh, before his wife called out from the hallway and Llewellyn-Jones made his escape. 

Ugly culture

The schoolmasters did little. For many, many years, these elite schools operated with intense insularity. The ugly culture of Geelong Grammar was encouraged and perpetuated by secrecy, corporal punishment, a military-like hierarchy, the boarders’ great distance from home, and the pupils’ knowledge that speaking about their abuse would result in more of it. 

Language was a subtler tool of repression. Euphemism dulled the recognition of barbarism, transforming its appearance into harmless japes or benign folly. For years, Robert’s name was replaced by his peers with “poofter”, “cunt-face” and “spastic”, though the school’s masters didn’t recognise it as abuse. Their term was “mocking”. This euphemistic elision not only helped normalise the behaviour it described, but likely added to the trauma of its subjects – why was the pain so incongruous with the implied innocence of its label? To which the afflicted student might respond: because of my weakness. 

Last week, Llewellyn-Jones reflected: “The abuse that I have described was rooted in a subculture of bastardisation that dates back to the culture of the ‘Great Public Schools’ of the 19th- and early-to-mid-20th century in Britain and Australia.” In this long British tradition, elite boarding schools considered themselves a noble crucible, and the familial estrangement of its students was just one part of their torturous test. These schools were conceived with contempt for children and a profound ignorance of their fragility. It is only very recently that our culture and legislation respects as much, and has sought to protect their innocence and vulnerability. 

‘A complex matter’

When I spoke with Llewellyn-Jones this week, I asked about his reference to elite schools’ history. Did he think the cruelty of Geelong Grammar was designed? A perverse obstacle course built to produce the leaders of the Empire? Or was it a banal accident, continued by cynicism? He didn’t know. And the question presupposes the two are distinct, and not working in awful harmony. “Was this culture allowed to proceed because it was considered beneficial,” Llewellyn-Jones asked, “or because it just became tolerated over time?” 

He is certain, though, that the culture of bastardisation, intimidation and bullying was inseparable from the sexual abuse. “Institutions that tolerate adults or children bullying others via isolation, exclusion, disproportionate punishment or verbal or physical abuse provide fertile ground for sexual abuse,” he said. “Cultural rationalisations such as ‘boys will be boys’ or that certain abusive experiences are ‘good for the soul’ or ‘toughen you up’ are often at the base of these abusive subcultures and must be challenged and eliminated.

“Sexual abuse in institutions is a complex matter. Stereotyped explanations must be avoided. It is possible for a perpetrator to commit sexual abuse but act ethically in other areas of life. A perpetrator may treat the majority of the children in their care well and only abuse one or two children. The perpetrators of my abuse largely restricted their abusive acts to situations when they were unlikely to be observed, so the abuse continued.”

Llewellyn-Jones speaks with authority, not only as a victim of institutional abuse but also as a psychiatrist who has long treated child abuse survivors. When I talk with him, he demonstrates the same modesty I’ve seen in all others – a reluctance to discuss himself for fear of appearing grandiose. “I haven’t come forward to grandstand,” he told me. “I don’t want a huge focus on me and my experience. I speak as someone who treats survivors, someone with clinical experience.

“The commission has been exemplary in dealing with victims. They have shown great respect and understanding. It’s a cliché, but the royal commission is a beacon of hope for survivors of child abuse. And it means we are beginning to discuss this very important issue. Very important – the level of child abuse in our society is extensive. Up to 20 per cent of Australian children experience sexual abuse. Many of these children will experience mental and physical health problems in adulthood as a result.” 

Llewellyn-Jones tells me that he’s put the abuse behind him. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for all of Geelong’s victims, prey in a culture of concealment. It appears as if the maintenance of the school’s prestige trumped all other considerations. It’s a common theme in these hearings. “Recent Australian history tells us,” Llewellyn-Jones said last week, “that there are many examples where institutional response to sexual abuse has primarily been about limiting damage to the institution, its reputation and its employees rather than a genuine concern for the victim of abuse.”

Contact for Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 1800 099 340

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2015 as "Hiding abuse behind prestige". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.