No escape from abuse
Steve Kilgallon reports.
Robbie's is a life in ruins. He lives in a hostel. He owns nothing, earns nothing. He has to hand over his benefit to his providers, and he is $80 overdrawn, because he owes money to Work and Income New Zealand.
His thin, sallow body and patchwork of tattoos records a life of drugs, alcohol and petty crime. Five months clean of all that, he's depressed. He says he can't even afford a razor or a packet of tobacco and he's sick of the noise of the hostel.
All Robbie really wants is a place of his own; somewhere quiet, perhaps with a dog, maybe a garage where he can tinker with old bikes. He wouldn't mind a few shifts of kitchen work. These are modest aspirations, but seem far from his grasp.
To explain Robbie, you have to reach back 34 years to Douglas Richard Peters.
Peters, who was then aged 34, lived in West Auckland, worked as a car valet and was heavily involved in amateur sport. He was an old schoolfriend of Robbie's father. He would offer Robbie rides on the speedway bike he owned. And for five years, Peters sexually abused Robbie.
Robbie never told anyone. "What you going to do, man?" he asks. What are you going to do?" If he had told his father, "he woulda beaten the f... out of me - well, he did anyway".
Robbie's abuse ended when he was turning 15, around the time he left home, chiefly to get away from the father he loathed but also to escape Peters. He had been a good student and a reasonable rugby player, he says. But he moved into a caravan behind a friend's house and began to party, having been given an early introduction to drink and drugs by Peters.
Now he added petty crime to the mix - housebreaking, stealing benefit cheques. He returned home at 21 to confront his father. He says he stabbed him and "kicked the shit out of him". And still, through a shattered life of frequent prison time, deep personal tragedies, including the death of his 10-year-old son, and uncertain employment as a carpet fitter, house painter, factory worker and chef, he never told anyone of the abuse. Not until nine years ago, when he told a drug counsellor, and made his first, fruitless police complaint.
Stories like Robbie's are sadly familiar to Grainne Scott, a cheerful, English-raised detective with the Waitemata police who specialises in these historic sexual abuse claims.
One man, she says, told her of abuse that had happened to him over 40 years earlier; it was the first time he'd ever talked of it to anybody.
She first heard about Doug Peters last April, from another of the five victims who eventually laid complaints against Peters. "People come forward whenever they are ready," she says.
Often the police interview is the first time they've really told their stories. "A lot of people haven't told anyone as much detail as they tell us, so it is quite cathartic. Everyone I speak to after the interview feels like a weight has lifted off their shoulders, regardless of whether they go to court or not."
And even if the offender has died, Scott says the police want to hear victims' stories. The focus has changed from securing prison time to doing what is best for the victims, which isn't always going to trial, and she says police can connect them to support services and counselling.
"A sentence can't give them back what they have lost but, in our experience, [talking to us] helps them deal with it all."
Scott is about to conclude a two-year spell on her specialist nine-strong team, leaving to give birth to her second child. Despite the harrowing nature of her work, she will be sad to leave. She has to become close to the victims to gain their trust and unveil their stories; they are, she says, "fantastic guys".
She's been trying to get hold of Robbie. When I tell her where he's staying, she resolves to speak to him the same day. Robbie, who has had his share of unhappy interactions with the police, lights up when Scott is mentioned.
"She is," he says, "a beautiful woman."
I BLAME DOUG for what he turned me into," says Robbie, "and I couldn't get out of it because of all the shit that happened to me on the way - I lost a son, I lost friends to ODs and car crashes, and it kept me there all those years. The only person I blame is that rock-bottom motherf...er."
How can he describe the impact on his life? "It's f...ed it up, mate."
After a silence: "I would go out always and drink to not think about it."
Shane Harvey, director of the psychology department at Massey University's Palmerston North campus, has extensively studied adult male sexual abuse survivors and says the lasting impact on people's lives cannot be underestimated.
These effects, says Harvey, "are lifelong unless they are dealt with. It is a continuum - some guys do move on and some don't, but it has to be dealt with."
They include the obvious - drink and drugs, deep feelings of shame, finding it difficult to form intimate relationships - but they can also lead men to question their sexuality, their sense of identity and masculinity, to become aggressive towards other men, to reject entire societal groups (if their abuser was a priest, they hate religion), and to fail as parents, often because they cannot cope with intimate parental duties like bathing, like one man who vomited when he had to bathe his child.
For Robbie, one of his deepest pains is his inability to care for his son before he died. "I couldn't even be a father to him. I didn't know what to do," he says. Later, he adds: "I was raised to be angry and nasty, I suppose, to hate the world."
Harvey found few had really explored their abuse: "It's not a thing you talk about."
Counsellors, he says, have to disentangle the later effects of the abuse, like depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and failed relationships before they can even confront what happened.
Robbie, for his part, has never had counselling for his sexual abuse. He's vaguely aware he might be entitled to some compensation, but doesn't know how much or how to get it. Beyond his conversations with Scott, he's never really talked about Doug Peters. But, he says, "it is kinda always there".
The Accident Compensation Corporation says there are no time limits to claiming for historic sexual abuse. Counsellors or GPs can lodge the claims and ACC will offer 16 support sessions, and further coverage can include psychiatric or psychological treatment or possible lump sum financial compensation. ACC says it can offer transport to appointments, which would help Robbie, who can't afford a bus ticket but has been lined up with a counsellor several suburbs away.
But Robbie did talk to police about Peters, and he's glad he did. He's happy to talk to the Sunday Star-Times in the hope other victims of such abuse read his story and come forward.
That's often the case, says Scott - previous media coverage of Peters produced a sixth victim, who assumed he had always been the only one to suffer Peters' attentions. Scott says some of Peters' victims have also volunteered to help others.
Interviews with offenders, says Scott, are difficult: "You are carrying a lot of what the guys [have told you] into the interview . . . but you need to be able to talk to the offender. All I want them to do is tell the truth about what happened."
Peters was very ill when police finally brought him to account for his actions of three decades ago and Scott says Peters probably deserves some credit for owning up early.
"It was a relief for those involved that he put his hand up and said he did it. I can only imagine that sometimes if you carry a secret like that, I think it must be a [relief] to be able to talk about it. For him, because he was sick, it may have been on his conscience."
Robbie went to Peters' first court appearance at the Waitakere District Court last June, at which he pleaded guilty to 10 sample charges. He says Peters wouldn't look at him. "I wanted to look him in the face," he says. "Then walk over and smack him in the mouth before they took him down. I don't care what they did to me, as long as he knew that."
There's a fair amount of bluster with Robbie about how tough he is. But when he talks about Peters it's believable. "If I looked him in the eye, I would probably have killed him," he says. Then he repeats it, slowly.
Who knows what Robbie might have done to Peters, if anything, but Peters cheated justice, both formal and Robbie's rougher version.
The night before he would be sentenced on 10 charges, carrying maximum sentences of 10 years each of "indecency between man and boy", he died of cancer in a Waikato Hospital bed.
It fell to Grainne Scott to phone his five victims and tell them. She considers it one of the most difficult days of her 10-year police career.
"I remember making the phone call to one of the survivors and was almost in tears, because I knew how hard it would be for him," she says. "There was a real mixed response from my guys, it was devastating. The day before . . ."
She smiles tightly: "Couldn't it be the day after? For a lot of them it was their opportunity to go to court and see him. Some of these guys have lived in fear of their offender for years. Finally, they get the strength to go and see them and the day before . . ."
At least, she says, they knew Peters had pleaded guilty, accepted his offending, and would never re-offend.
"I know for some of the guys it has changed their life for the better, it has helped them to deal with it. And we could say at least this guy can never hurt another child again, and we got to do something about it."
Robbie, meanwhile, is dealing with his other pre-occupations. He's despondent, questioning why he bothered to get sober, and irritated by the noise of fellow residents at his hostel. He might buy a tent, a pack and go bush, he reckons.
"What's the point in trying?" he asks.
"There's only me by myself - I have had to do it all by myself. I've got absolutely no money, I am broke. It makes me hate the world. Why am I clean? Why does it put me more and more in the hole?"
* Robbie was willing to be named but has permanent name suppression, which the Sunday Star-Times chose not to challenge to protect both Robbie and Peters' other victims. Police urge any victims of historic sexual abuse to contact them.
Sunday Star Times