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Media

Dr Vivian Waller is a solicitor and the principal of Waller Legal, a legal practice dedicated to looking after victims of crime and those who have endured sexual assault or child abuse. She was admitted to legal practice in 1995 and has represented victim/survivors of sexual assault for nearly 20 years.
Scotch College sex abuse victim breaks silence over cover-up of 'hero' molester
Scotch College in Hawthorn: the school has apologised and paid compensation to Mr Stuart and urged other victims to come forward. Photo:Gary Medlicott GAM
2015-06-08
by Steve Lillebuen - The Age

A former Scotch College student who was sexually abused by a teacher has taken his case to the royal commission, saying the elite school community helped cover up abuse and glorify his molester for decades.

In breaking his silence after 36 years, abuse survivor Matthew Stuart says the top Melbourne school presided over a painful history of denial and omissions, including naming an award after the perpetrator, before finally apologising for what happened two years ago.

"It was outrageous what they did," he said. "I guess this is the way these kinds of schools and institutions think they can behave. They hide behind their prestige and do stuff that is absolutely disgraceful."

Mr Stuart decided to speak out after The Age revealed how the school acknowledged, for the first time, that students had been abused on school grounds.

The 51-year-old, one of five abuse survivors to reach a settlement with the school, is now urging others to come forward, hoping his story gives them the courage to seek help.

"I was an innocent kid. I've got nothing to be embarrassed about," he said.

Mr Stuart's abuse occurred in June 1979, less than six months after he moved from his family's NSW farm to begin his studies at the Presbyterian-run boys' school.

He was 15 years old and staying at one of the secondary college's boarding houses when he woke up to find Michael Achurch, his house master and a respected geography teacher, standing beside his bed.

His teacher was indecently assaulting him.

In the morning, Mr Stuart reported the sexual abuse to then principal Philip Roff, who removed Mr Achurch as house master, despite opposition from senior members of the school community.

But Mr Achurch remained teaching, meaning Mr Stuart had to see his abuser on a daily basis. He wasn't offered counselling over what happened either.

Police were called and a second student then came forward, saying Mr Achurch had done the same thing to him.

But the credibility of Mr Stuart has been repeatedly questioned for decades, which still makes him angry.

There were threats, too. Shortly after the incident, four men arrived at his parent's farm with a warning for his mother.

"They had told her that if my parents took any further action on the Achurch matter they would lose the farm," Mr Stuart said in written submissions to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Police spent five months investigating Mr Achurch before notifying his lawyer on November 9, 1979, that his client was going to be prosecuted. Hours later, Mr Achurch crashed his car into a pole and died.

One of investigators on the case, now a retired detective, said Mr Achurch was going to be charged with offences involving multiple victims.

Police had no doubt he took his own life to avoid a trial, he said. A coronial inquest, however, ruled it a death by misadventure.

Mr Stuart has never been the same again. Haunted by the abuse and his teacher's death, he has suffered from severe depression and anxiety, requiring counselling and therapy for most of his life. "I felt like I had died and that this empty person had no control over who they were," he said.

His popular teacher's sudden death, however, propelled him into a revered status.

Death notices in The Age described him as "a true gentleman" while one of the school's magazines ran a glowing three-page tribute. In 1980, the school's rowing club named one of its boats after him.

There was even an award. More than 25 years later, the Michael Achurch Award was still being given out to boys who competed in Scotch College's 24 Hour Hike. Recipients were never told of the sexual abuse cases.

"He was basically made into a hero," Mr Stuart said. "It's this fantasy thing. And I guess this incident didn't fit with their fantasy – they just didn't want it to be true."

Mr Stuart said the school's 2001 history book, A Deepening Roar, then downplayed the abuse and questioned, again, if he was lying about it. The discovery plunged him into a deep depression.

In 2012, he contacted lawyer Vivian Waller, whose firm acts on behalf of more than 600 survivors of child sexual abuse.

Dr Waller said the number of abuse claims, most dealing with Catholic clergy, is expected to grow due to public awareness. "We can expect many more adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to come forward," she said.

In Mr Stuart's case, Scotch College apologised and paid out compensation in April 2013. The school no longer disputes that Mr Achurch was a child molester. It has cancelled the award and decommissioned the boat bearing his name.

Mr Stuart said the apology was genuine, with the school writing that it helped perpetuate a lie about the teacher's activities. "It's been incredibly healing," he said.

A school spokesman said it has been continually building a school culture that prevents abuse of any kind, with regular reviews of training and procedures, while settling historical abuse cases in the best interests of victims.

"It is not possible to imagine the suffering caused by those who betrayed the position of trust granted to them through the privilege of working with young people," he said.

Mr Stuart said Scotch College should be commended for this work. He's hopeful principal Tom Batty, who joined the school in 2008, will do even more.

He said the whole experience, however, reveals the disturbing truth of institutional responses to abuse: while there are those who do the right thing, they can be easily overpowered by others who perpetuate a culture of silence and denial.

That's why he's gone to the royal commission and given evidence in private hearings, he said. He hopes it shows everyone that abuse can happen anywhere.

"Institutions don't have feelings, but institutions can really hurt people," he said.

"But within these institutions there are good people. And I don't want to stop the good work that they're trying to do."

 

For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Adults Surviving Child Abuse on 1300 657 380.

Do you know more? Contact this reporter in confidence at steve.lillebuen@fairfaxmedia.com.au.

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