HALF a century ago first a stranger then a trusted church volunteer sexually assaulted the son of a Methodist minister.
The stranger’s assault was reported to police but was so poorly handled the boy retreated into silence, a silence that continued to hide the three years of abuse by the church volunteer.
This week the son, Reverend Wes Hartley – the new leader of the Uniting Church in the Hunter and a former mayor in Western Australia – spoke of the abuse in public for the first time.
As Australia prepares for two inquiries into child sexual abuse, Reverend Hartley hopes it will encourage others to speak out.
‘‘I’m hoping it will help others who are carrying inappropriate guilt because they were sexually abused as children,’’ he said, only hours before he was inducted as the Hunter’s new church leader.
He was 12 and selling papers as a paperboy when a stranger sexually assaulted him in a Melbourne park.
‘‘I came home crying and in pain and told mum. She was beside herself,’’ he said.
Police were called and he was taken to hospital where swabs were taken.
A burly male police officer’s comment that ‘‘I haven’t got time for this shit’’ when the sexually innocent boy tried to explain what had happened was ‘‘so traumatic that I closed down from that point’’.
‘‘I can understand for a lot of women how the idea of reporting rape is almost impossible. The fear of more trauma silences you.’’
A trusted church volunteer, who is believed to have sexually assaulted many children within the Methodist church at that time repeatedly abused the young Wes Hartley for three years.
The trauma of the first experience silenced him until 25 years ago when he told his mother.
It has been only in recent years, after other victims of child sexual abuse, particularly from the Hunter, have spoken, that he has discussed his experiences with other family members.
He has cried while watching and listening to other victims of abuse.
‘‘Has it destroyed my life? No. Am I traumatised by it? Yes,’’ Reverend Hartley said this week.
‘‘I still go back to my past every time there’s one of these stories. It’s as if it’s me.
‘‘I’m a very strong personality, urbane, but these emotional buttons are pressed.’’
Reverend Hartley hopes to broaden public discussion about the cultural attitudes that allowed systemic abuse of children to continue for so long.
‘‘If we were to seriously analyse the national culture of the 1940s, 1950s and later, we’d recognise that all of the institutions such as police, schools and churches were given a degree of licence to do what they wished, and we all went along with it,’’ he said.
‘‘We’ve come from a culture that was accepting of what was perceived to be legitimate violence involving children, and it’s within that context that children were powerless and voiceless.
‘‘People have no idea of what’s to come,’’ he said of the kind of revelations that would come from the federal and state inquiries.
‘‘People who have been lied to, cheated, betrayed and ignored are suddenly feeling it’s right and appropriate to tell their stories.
‘‘Ordinary people have been given the power because of these royal commissions.’’
Churches would not be alone in being found to have failed children, he said.
But for churches, the inquiries would be ‘‘a reality check, that we’re being called back to who we are, and whose we are’’.