This piece was also published in the Independence Journal

HOW does one recognise a pedophile?

It can be tempting today – in our neat world of exhaustive policies and water tight (or so we think) procedures and police checks – to believe we have ticked the boxes when it comes to protecting our students/children against sexual predators. After living through what is known as Case Study 34 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, I have learned how monsters can masquerade behind an apparently benign façade. Would I recognise a pedophile? It is just one of the many questions that now haunts me.

Case Study 34 investigated historical cases (1980s and early 1990s) at St Paul’s, when two monsters were allowed unfettered access to innocence. The horrendous crimes of the fathers were laid bare. Boys were sent to the counsellor – the man meant to be the most trusted person at the School – for solace, care and support, only to find themselves embraced by the devil himself.

Face to face with suffering

I cannot express what I have been told, what I have seen, what I have felt as countless victims exposed their lives before me. Abuse beyond imagination. Suffering endless. Men telling me of their drug addictions, how their family had tossed them onto the streets. Relationships broken. Lives ruined. Lives taken.

I have heard things I wasn’t prepared to hear. I have seen anger beyond what you can imagine. Decades of pent up pain exploding before my eyes. Drug-fueled emotion seeking revenge and justice.

For the first few days after the public hearings of the Royal Commission, the pain of the survivors affected me physically. Cramps in my stomach were so bad I had difficulty walking. My teeth felt as if they were filled with holes. I lost my appetite. My dreams were filled with the stories I had heard. I’d wake in the early hours of the morning and relive the Royal Commission drama all over again.

Man after man took the stand, tears streaming down their faces as they recounted their boyhood experience of having been drugged and raped. Testimonies so vile that you felt your stomach churning and cramping. So many lives that could have been so different if only the voices of the boys had been heard, if the signs were noticed and the students believed.

One survivor could barely get the words out. Each time he tried to speak the words didn’t come. Everyone sat silently, giving him the respect he had waited so long for. His testimony, only 14 pages long, took nearly two hours to read. His abuser had become like a father to him. The bullying had become so bad at the School that he preferred the arms of a monster.

A mother rang. She called to tell me that she was praying for me because it wasn’t my fault. But she went on to tell me that she had only just met her eight-year-old grandchild. She had been estranged from her son for years. He was drug dependent, an alcoholic. He, too, had closed the door on the relationships that mattered.

Years of abuse have spawned aeons of suffering. It is impossible, as a fellow human, not to respond with outrage, compassion and pity. As a school leader, it is impossible not to feel regret, shame and a burning determination that this should never, ever happen again.

Lessons learned

The experience of the Royal Commission has changed me. It has left deep wounds that will eventually heal. But my wounds are only flesh deep; I will be become a better man, a better leader, for the experience. The wounds of those who survived the horrors of abuse are taking decades to heal; lives irrevocably changed. The experiences of the boy may forever cripple the man.

Pedophiles prey on the most vulnerable. I know now to be vigilant at all times, and to watch most carefully over those young people who come from broken homes, who have an absent father, or whose parents are not able to provide the love and tenderness that they rightly deserve.

Pedophiles are opportunistic. I know now not to underestimate the importance of good policies, procedures and staff training. I know to train staff members to identify grooming behaviours or risk situations and create a safe way for them to report it. Is a student seeing a counsellor too many times or for long periods of time? Are there staff members, under the guise of charity and compassion, accessing a student in one-on-one situations?

If you think it would never happen in your school, think again. Complacency is not an option. Statistically, between five and 10 per cent of girls and up to five per cent of boys are exposed to penetrative sexual abuse. Up to three times this number are exposed to any type of sexual abuse.1 Pedophilia exists in every socio-economic group, and 94 per cent of all abuse occurs in the home. This means, statistically, that several staff at your school might be pedophiles and that many of the children in your school are being abused in their homes.

Pedophiles are those people you might least suspect. We think we are good judges of character, but research has shown we can often get it wrong. We want to believe a colleague. We naturally trust someone we have developed a relationship with.

This particular lesson has been a hard one for me to bear as I am a great believer in the power and importance of trust. Now, I feel that I am fast being drawn into a world of mistrust and suspicion. I have to fight this. I have to get the balance right, but in doing so, I have to constantly remind myself that my first priority is the young people entrusted to my care.

As soon as a human feels threatened, or that they may be trouble, they go into a defensive mode. People rarely, if ever, truly apologise and take responsibility for their actions. Our legal system is designed to discourage repentance, reconciliation and healing. A traumatic event, however, is burned into the memory of the victim, who plays it in their mind over and over again. Victims of sexual abuse will therefore never be fully satisfied with a formal institutional apology that offers anything less than a full and frank admission of guilt, and convincing expressions of shame and remorse.2

The power of listening

Perhaps my most profound learning from the Royal Commission investigation has been to realise the healing power of listening. Our School, and others, found itself in this mess because the prevailing belief at the time the abuse occurred was that the testimony of a troubled boy was not reliable, not to be trusted. Worse still, he was chastised and punished for making up such terrible allegations against a respected adult. No consideration was given as to why the boy was troubled, why his behaviour was poor, what was happening to him to create such unhappiness and defiance. His voice should have been taken seriously. Poor behaviour is almost always a warning sign of something deep beneath the surface.

It is an enormous privilege, and truly humbling experience when people share with you their suffering, pain and isolation. But to truly listen to another person is to put your existing beliefs at risk. What if the other person is right? What if I have to change my mind? What if I have no answer to this, or I have to apologise? For leaders, in particular, it may represent the challenge to fight for what is right, do what is right, no matter the stakes. This course may demand enormous humility and courage.

In Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers3 wrote:

If you really understand another person, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgements, you run the risk of being changed yourself. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us face.

We can learn to recognise the anger, the scars and signs that go with the pain of abuse or bullying, of trust broken and relationships destroyed. We can learn to listen to what isn’t said, and seek to understand the person who desperately wants to be understood.

The experience of the Royal Commission has changed me. No longer am I seeking to be right, but seeking to understand, to see the world through other people’s lives. No longer am I blinded, ignorant to the truth, ignorant to the suffering of others. My role as an educator has changed, too. I seek now not just to teach and protect, but to heal.


1 Ronken C & Johnston H (2014) Child sexual assault: Facts and statistics. Brave Hearts; accessed at

2 Mackay H (2013) The Good Life; Pan Macmillan, Australia

3 Rogers C (1961) Becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy; 1995 edition. Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin; page 333.