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A shocking tale of child abuse at a NSW school

The shocking past of a regional NSW school comes to the surface as a reign of sexual terror is revealed by Senior Writer Catherine Armitage, who was there.

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When the Herald's editor-in-chief asked me to report on the child sexual abuse royal commission, I accepted it would take me to a land of trauma, grievous wrongs, ruined lives and things I wished I didn't know.

But I didn't foresee it would change my past as well as my future.

Stephen Dolan outside a former Ben Venue public school building.

Stephen Dolan outside a former Ben Venue public school building. Photo: Tim Barnsley

I'd believed my childhood in country NSW was safe, idyllic, even. Then a classmate from primary school contacted me through Twitter after reading some of my royal commission articles.

''Hello Catherine. You know, I suppose, there was systemic child abuse at our school when we were there?''

I hadn't heard from Stephen Dolan in four decades. In my mind's eye he was still a smart, skinny kid with a big personality and the sweetest singing voice in the school, singled out by the principal to be star of the school operetta.

He played a love-sick prince in a pair of pantaloons in our production of The Heartless Troll. I played the moon he sang to, shining in my mother's long, cream nightie.

I called Dolan with a pounding heart. I remembered a teacher at the school who'd grin and grab at the boys' crotches in the classroom so they'd duck and weave to keep their privates out of reach.

If only that was all.

''Remember the school had an intercom system, and people would be called down to the principal's office?'' Dolan asked when we met over coffee.

I did. As a newcomer to the school, I'd been jealous of the favourites who were often called out of class to practise their operetta lines or try on costumes.

In an annual casting ritual, principal Peter Garland would visit each classroom, walk around listening to each of us sing, then tap on the shoulder those who were good enough. For Stephen, that day in 1971 marked the start of three years of sexual assaults by Garland in his office with the door locked, up to two or three times a week.

Garland rubbed Stephen's penis and made Stephen rub his in return until it was highly aroused. This went on until we left the school at the end of sixth grade in 1973. We were aged 10, 11 and 12.

When it started Stephen knew nothing of sex. His first sight of the principal's penis ''completely freaked me out''. He was fearful and uncomfortable, but also conflicted, because he was made to feel special. He told no one. ''I was a very important boy and a very special boy. These were the phrases that we used, and it was our secret.''

It seems likely at least dozens of children, perhaps more, were sexually assaulted at my school, Ben Venue Public in Armidale from the early 1970s until the early 1980s.

Since Dolan first approached me, I have spoken to nine other students, male and female, who also alleged they were abused at the school between 1971 and 1984.

Some alleged they were abused by more than one adult at the school. Two other male teachers as well as Garland are accused. It is also alleged they colluded in their abuse. One woman described being assaulted by two men at once. Some of those abused learnt only recently their siblings were abused at the school, too.

Vanessa Moloney played the wizard when I was the moon. We took our bows together. She said Garland ''often hugged me, rubbing his penis into me. He often touched my breasts both over my clothing and under my clothing''.

She alleged another teacher also frequently assaulted her, and she often saw him, as well as Garland, assault others.

It was common for children to be in a staff member's office in only their underpants and sometimes naked. ''They stalked us,'' Moloney said. ''You never knew when it was going to happen next. We were sitting ducks.

''I was a frightened little girl. I just wanted someone to come in and make it stop, but they never did.''

A woman I'll call Elaine, who asked that her real name not be used, was subjected to a campaign of terror as Garland tried to recruit her for his pleasure. She recalled he caught her and other girls out by spinning them around when they were half-dressed with their breasts exposed. He would trace his finger around their nipples, saying: ''This part of your breast here, once that starts to firm up you are getting mature.''

She remembered being locked in his office with him drawing a cross with his finger on her lips and pressing his lips hard on hers. She recalled him lunging at her as she struggled to get away, and him being angry and red-faced and saying: ''It is OK, it is our secret.'' He told her he would make her school captain if she was a ''good girl''.

Mel Couper was school captain years later, in 1984. Now 41, she counted herself among a ''fairly large group'' at the school affected by Garland's behaviour at the time. They called him ''the feeler''.

''You would try very hard to manage your situations and not get yourself into a position where Mr Garland had you in a corner,'' she said.

My primary school was a dangerous place for children. Lives were damaged; some were ruined.

Some of those abused at the school have told their stories in private hearings to the royal commission. It is understood to have referred them to the police.

At least four families reported the abuse to the police, but no charges were ever laid.

Geraldine Robertson, mother of Couper, said she went to the police about Garland. She recalled being told she was being unfair and he was a respected member of the community. But a policewoman pulled her aside and asked if she could interview her daughter, which she did, later, at their home.

The family did not pursue a case partly because they were concerned to protect their daughter's privacy. From then on Robertson volunteered at the school on almost a full-time basis so she could keep an eye on her four children.

The mother of one boy who was allegedly abused by Garland said she and her husband complained to police and the Education Department, but were fobbed off. ''They said unless the action was witnessed, the child's word would not be believed against an adult.''

Rob Fitzgerald, a classmate and now professor of education at the University of Canberra, said a culture of silence such as prevailed at our school can occur when an individual is allowed to wield unfettered power without a framework for open dialogue, and the people involved each have only a partial picture of what is going on. ''There are lessons to be learned here about how schools communicate, to children and parents, the absolute right of children to be safe.''

Why didn't more children tell their parents? ''We didn't have the language to discuss it with our parents, and parents didn't have the knowledge or the support to know what to do with the information,'' Moloney said. The fear of being a target for gossip in the town was then, and is still, a powerful silencing force.

Roy David (Peter) Garland was forced to retire early because of a back injury in 1986, according to his 2010 obituary in The Armidale Express.

He threw himself into lawn bowls and Rotary, and was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia ''for services to the community of Armidale and to lawn bowls''.

Stephen Dolan built a good life with a successful career in the publishing industry, drawing on the love and support of his partner of 30 years, Alan, a strong and close family and a loyal circle of friends. But the personal cost of the abuse was high.

He feels betrayed and let down by the adults who, he believes, should have known what was happening. But most of all, he says, abuse robs you of the person you would have been without it.

''Definitely my innocence was stolen, but also my clean potential to respond as a kid, to react to any situation without the negative inputs of that experience.''

Those who told their stories for this article did so to encourage others to come forward. They wanted anyone who was abused at the school to know they are not alone so, as Dolan said, they could ''start a conversation with a loved one or counsellor or police or whoever and find a path forward to heal''.

Do you know more? carmitage@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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