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Ernie says boys at his school would rather have been caned than sexually abused

All names and identifying details have been changed.

Participants have given us permission to share their experiences.

Ernie had a learning difficulty that was not diagnosed when he was at school.

He was labelled as a difficult pupil and this made him vulnerable to a predatory teacher.

Ernie grew up in the 1960s, in a large house with his extended family. It was a poor area, where ‘everybody knew everybody’. He attended a Catholic junior boys school with a headteacher, Mr O’Brien, who was a respected member of the community. 

He says he struggled at school but in fact he was very bright but had dyslexia, which was not discovered until years later. 

Ernie was often summoned to Mr O’Brien’s office and punished for ‘bad behaviour’. But this was a smokescreen for sexual abuse. Ernie describes how the headteacher would put his arm around him, then put his hand down his shorts and fondle his genitals.

He says the abuse happened about once a week. He says that at the time, when he was about seven years old, he did not understand that it was sexual abuse. He adds that he knew he was ‘not the only one being dealt with in that manner’. 

Mr O’Brien ran a film club in the school library which he also used as an opportunity to sexually abuse young boys. He would choose one of them to come to the back to ‘help him with the projector’. 

The boys would hide to try and avoid being selected, but he and other vulnerable boys were often singled out for abuse. Ernie says that what Mr O’Brien was doing was ‘an open secret’ among the pupils, but he does not know if any of the teachers knew. He adds that the pupils all preferred being caned to being sexually abused.

Ernie’s mother knew and respected Mr O’Brien, and for this reason he says he didn’t feel he could tell her about the abuse, nor were there any teachers he could have told. 

The abuse continued until Ernie was 11 years old. He describes how it affected his confidence as a teenager. He was in his early 20s when his father died and this triggered ‘huge depression’ for him. ‘I lost the one I could trust’ he says. 

Ernie does not like people getting physically close to him or touching him. He says he has felt angry and frustrated for as long as he can remember, but he feels he has learned ‘to manage myself’. He has suffered with depression and self-loathing but has been helped by therapy. 

Recently, Ernie contacted his old school to ask if they were aware the former head was a child sexual abuser, but he says they refused to engage with him and would not even confirm Mr O’Brien had worked there.

Ernie has huge concerns with trusting authority. In his work, he feels safeguarding is little more than ticking boxes and there is a culture of not taking responsibility. ‘They don’t want to upset the apple cart’ he says.

He believes that in schools there must be someone for children to talk to about their concerns, but this person needs to be separate and independent from the school. 

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