The royal commission and the unpunished teacher
It wasn’t an easy childhood. I was raised in a strict Catholic family, in relative isolation, on a farm in country Victoria. My mother had a chronic illness and my father, who worked long hours sowing or reaping crops and managing livestock, was emotionally and physically unavailable. From a young age my sister and I carried a substantial load that included housework, caring for five younger siblings, and attending school. We also worked the farm.
In 1981 my English teacher, Mr Morton, started paying me the sort of attention that I craved from boys my own age. I was 14. He told me I was beautiful and unique. Unannounced, he began to visit my family, at first on weeknights, apparently on his way to footy practice. Over time he visited at weekends, and we came to expect his presence. For legal reasons, Mr Morton is not his real name.
My parents rarely socialised, so they enjoyed his company. Morton’s education and wit impressed them, and they were flattered by his interest. He gained their confidence and soon they were content for him to spend time alone with me at weekends. But between the ages of 15 and 17 he sexually abused me – and later it became apparent that I wasn’t the only one.
In July 1982 he took a series of photographs of me. He presented these to me in an album, annotated by an ode he’d written; he claimed to have “captured” my “essence”. He asked me to fall in love with the images and words. Though discomforted by this, I felt obliged to be that girl. I still have the poem and the photos and many letters from him.
Morton bought me an electric guitar and taught me how to play. One day he suggested that we rehearse in the farm’s disused dairy. There he kissed me, touched me, and then pulled away. He apologised and ran behind the shed, covering his groin. I didn’t know that he had ejaculated. When he returned he assured me what had happened was a compliment.
Most afternoons, before boarding the school bus, Morton would pass me letters stating that I was the ideal woman, superior to the other girls with whom he flirted.
Where I grew up girls were socialised from a very young age to be subservient to men and the Catholic creed. We were told to wear attractive frocks but not too short, to help our mothers in the kitchen and leave men to men’s work. We were expected to parade ourselves as debutantes, to kneel before the bishop and kiss his ring, and to smile coyly at the guys from the footy club. We understood the sexualised role we were expected to fulfil in life: to be attractive for men, to be responsive, to one day marry and sublimate our expectations. In my mind, Morton had chosen me for this role. I felt ahead of the game.
I believed I loved Morton. Yet I was acutely aware that I had no power or adult status in the relationship. And because it was secretive, I was constantly fearful that he might at any point reject me. I became dependent upon the attention and affection of my teacher, but equally I despised myself for the covertness of my behaviour.
As time went on Morton spread his favour around other girls, and played me off against close friends, in particular Maree, whose name I have also changed. I fell out of favour if he considered me “giggly” and “immature”, or if he suspected I was jealous. There were letters from him declaring complete love or utter disappointment. I swung between extreme mood states, from exuberance to desolation, from hope to self-hatred.
This is an extract from my diary, written three weeks after my 16th birthday:
January 6, 1983
Mr Morton and I went canoeing together and upstream a little way was a naked sandy beach. We lay there in the burning sun and he gently made love to me… We were all alone in the world together with our river and our sandbar.
The following day I wrote:
Maree and I went to the beach again today and it was her turn to go canoeing. I know they enjoyed themselves because Maree had a rash on her face and Mr Morton commented on forgetting to shave this morning … oh diary I am so scared of losing him.
He had groomed us both. I knew about Maree but she didn’t know about me.
Not one adult noticed that I was having a sexual relationship with an entrusted adult in a position of authority. Nor did anyone notice changes that were signifiers of sexual and psychological abuse – severe depression, behavioural problems at school, significant weight loss due to an eating disorder, self-harm. I yearned for someone to recognise what was going on and to take care of me. Nobody did.
Out of the blue, Morton resigned from his teaching position and announced plans to travel overseas. He left in mid-February 1983. For 15 months, Maree and I received psychologically abusive “I love you, I love you not” letters. Beneath the weight of my depression I harnessed a reservoir of defiance.
From my diary:
June 29, 1983
I am so confused and tired and torn by life… I just can’t stand what he has done to me… I love him but I hate his actions. I want to tell Maree everything he has done to me and make her understand and hate him. He told me so many lies when he was here. The first one was that he loved me. He used me and made me go along with him even more, and love him with more intensity, then he told me how precious I was to him, that I was the most important person and that to lose me would crumble and kill him… He wrote to Maree and told her I was the least intrinsic… He killed me…
A short time later, he wrote:
Dearest precious… I love you both very much. In fact I love you more (possibly) than I do the others because I know you better than I do [them] e.g. … [here he mentioned the names of other girls at my school] … It will make a big difference when I get home because I shall feel closer to and more comfortable with you because I have known you more constantly…
He returned mid-1984. I had grown to understand the extent of his callous manipulations, and I told him it was over. But with brave-faced 17-year-old “maturity” I thought we could be friends. Maree had come to the same resolution. He suggested a catch-up weekend with Maree. In my sleeping bag, downstairs at Maree’s house in Melbourne, he sexually assaulted me. The rest of the year passed in a fog of shame and self-loathing.
I was severely depressed during my early adult years. I didn’t know how to care for myself or think about the future. When I was 19 I fell pregnant, and my baby gave me reason to live.
I received the occasional letter from Morton. In one he told me about a new girlfriend, a 15-year-old at a rural state high school. I couldn’t understand why. Time passed, he changed schools and there was a new girlfriend.
Years later I learnt from peers that rumours had been rife at my school. Apparently he hadn’t resigned. The principal had suspected inappropriate behaviour and called for his resignation. Recently, I discovered that he’d had sexual relationships with at least four girls in the two years he had taught there.
When I was 26, our paths crossed. We were living in the same regional city. He was engaged, and strangely he invited my then-husband and me to his wedding. Bemused and curious, we attended.
The father of the bride waggishly offered a tale of how the romance had kindled. He thought it a strange but happy coincidence that a teacher from his daughter’s school would jog past the farm as part of his footy training regime, and pop in for a coffee. As he spoke my ears filled with white noise. His account was analogous to my experience; the encounters used 12 years earlier to gain the trust of my family, my friendship group and their families. I wondered how many girls had been baited by the same cunning ritual.
Testifying to the commission
Two years ago, I testified at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I confided my experience to Commissioner Bob Atkinson in a private session, an enormously difficult step. What I thought would be a one-off event was protracted into two further inquiries, the first instigated by Victoria Police and the second involving the Victorian Department of Education.
The police investigation yielded substantive corroborating evidence from a number of witnesses, including my diary and letters that I provided. This formed a convincing case that the man they were dealing with was a sex abuser. However, the laws of today did not exist in the 1980s: it was dubiously lawful then for a teacher to have so-called “consensual” sexual relations with students over the age of 16, and although the abuse began when I was 15, I had no written evidence of this. Regarding other potential criminal charges, there was insufficient evidence for prosecution. After eight months, the case was closed.
That this man continued to teach weighed heavily upon me.
The police investigators were apologetic and equally worried about Morton’s status. They encouraged me to alert the Victorian education department about my concerns, which I did. The department’s ethics and conduct branch agreed to proceed with an investigation.
Throughout a 10-month period, despite assurances from the branch manager and my persistent inquiry, I was told nothing about progress or process. I forwarded my highly sensitive and confidential police statement with no acknowledgement of receipt, until I inquired. This was an apparent oversight. Weeks passed and I called again. The manager vacillated, telling me that the branch didn’t investigate teachers who hadn’t been convicted of a crime. I said: “That’s odd, wouldn’t ethical matters be the primary concern of the conduct and ethics branch, and criminal matters be the domain of the police?” I pushed back against her indifference, repeating my tale of past abuses, with diminished hope.
I continued phoning and emailing. My second-last email was on February 13 this year, stating, “In my last email I asked if you could please inform me as to the procedure for approaching this inquiry, what its current status is, and what the next steps are?” I received no response.
I emailed five months later, and received a reply the very next day, saying that the investigation had long concluded. It was a “simple oversight” that I had not been informed.
A swift email from the department’s executive director of human resources, Tony Bugden, explained the resolution to not take disciplinary action against Morton.
He wrote, “The alleged conduct you raised is extremely serious and was treated as such … the matter was followed up with [Morton]”. Morton acknowledged that he had conducted past relationships with students that were “arguably outside of professional behaviours”.
In summary, Bugden stated:
“A number of factors were taken into account in reaching this decision, including the lapse of time since the alleged conduct and the absence of any current concerns regarding how he undertakes his role as a teacher and in particular the nature of his relationships with students.”
When I was a student, no one saw Morton sneaking off with girls. There were no concerns about the nature of his relationships. Through the passing of time these two facts remain his defence.
The department stonewalled me throughout the investigation and the result was a whitewash. Did the department ask Morton what he did that was “arguably outside of professional behaviours”? The answer to this question should be on the public record.
Morton was invited to speak in his defence, but no one was invited to represent his victims. He characterised himself as a good bloke who might have, on occasions, slipped up.
The Department of Education disregarded the gravity of the police evidence. And they made a perilous decision. A sexual abuser is still teaching in a Victorian departmental school.
In 1983, aged 16, I wrote in my diary:
I want to get back at Mr Morton, or somebody for what has happened. I want my secret to be known for my sake and for other people (other mes) who have suffered as I have. But I don’t know how. If I could I would write a book about my experience, but I doubt I am capable of it. I really don’t know what I can likely do. Maybe nothing... Please God help me to clear my brain and to find a solution.
The royal commission hearing, the police investigation and the departmental inquiry triggered painful emotions from long ago. Most of last year is lost to me. In an effort to make sense of the experience, I scrawled notes to myself:
“I’m inhabited by a child’s mind/body reactions. Memories of experiences appear uninvited in my mind’s eye and I am caught and held by them. The mental anguish and psychological confusion intrudes… interrupting focus… and some days it freeze-frames me in the past… hours of depersonalisation; my mind is numb, my body feels unreal and time is unaccounted for.
“In remembering, I’m not only present as a child. I have duality as an educated and furious adult, and I have formed new understandings of what was going on.”
I’m alive and I have a good life. I have two grown daughters, a loving husband, a meaningful career. This is what is visible of me. But due to cunning and obfuscation the impact of under-the-surface crimes endures.
The objective of the royal commission is honourable. The investigating police treated me with care and respect. Times are assumed to be changing. And I’m sitting with a despairing paradox. When abusers hold positions of power and are valued for serving and building community, they have insidious and widespread access to children. Often, they are the “glue” in communities. And if it becomes apparent that one of them is an abuser, what might then happen to the infrastructure if the glue is removed?
It’s hard to hold hope that victims’ voices can influence systems and cultures that hold impenetrable power and have a preference for the status quo.
Morton is a senior teacher at a Victorian country school. The principal knows this man’s history, but the students’ parents do not.
Young minds and bodies are splendid, malleable and vulnerable to manipulation. Abuse scores a traumatic imprint on young people that can last a lifetime. Morton whittled away my self-esteem, warped how I see myself, and he haunts me in nightmares. He infected my psyche and awarded me a lifetime of mental torment. That he hurt other young women, and may still be doing so, infuriates me. Feeling impotent and unheard keeps a part of me stuck in that awful time. I crave safety for the girls at the school where he teaches. And I long for justice.
Therase Lawless is a pseudonym. Defamation law is such that she cannot tell this story under her own name. The system that protected her abuser continues to protect him.
Royal commission: 1800 099 340
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2015 as "The unpunished teacher". Subscribe here.