Australian of the Year Grace Tame has returned to the scene of her many rapes to deliver a powerful speech to students.
Grace Tame, the Australian of the Year 2021, has revisited the scene of many of her rapes – St Michael’s Collegiate Girls’ school in Hobart – giving a heart stopping speech to students the same age she was, when the abuse took place.
In 2010, at age 15, Grace was groomed and then repeatedly raped on school grounds by her 58-year-old maths teacher, Nicolaas Bester, who was also found to be in possession of child pornography, on arrest the following year.
Now, in an electrifying speech, Grace has gone straight to the scene of the crime, calling on all institutions where children have been abused, to step up and be accountable.
“Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t stepped foot on this campus in years,” she told the students. “We all know why I’m uneasy. And it has nothing to do with anybody in this room. He’s been in here though; in this very hall. He’s stood on this stage, right here at this lectern, and sat on those chairs. I remember him playing that piano. And I can still feel his eyes watching me as he did.
“For nearly 20 years—from 1992 to 2011, a serial paedophile was able to operate within these walls in plain sight by way of calculated psychological manipulation.
“He used anyone and anything that stood in his way. With threats and fake charm he fuelled the doubt, the denial and the dismissal. He drove the abuse by weaponising fear and secrecy.
“After I reported, even though the police found him with 28 multimedia files of child exploitation material on his computer — including a trophy file of other students, topless —many blamed me for what happened and I was ostracised.”
Grace, who had been a dual scholarship holder at Collegiate, was mercilessly bullied on the playground, called a “homewrecker” and a “slut” by her peers, who she says lacked the framework to properly understand abuse.
She dropped out, turning to alcohol and other drugs to cope.
“I drank, cut myself, slept out of a car, dyed my hair, got ugly tattoos and dressed like someone I wasn’t—none of which made me any cooler, happier, or eased any of the pain” she told the students.
When Grace eventually returned to another school, she graduated with an ATAR of 98.3. But by this time, Bester had already completed his two year and six month jail sentence.
On release from Risdon prison he then enrolled in a PhD program at University of Tasmania – living in student quarters there.
As the only university in the state – Grace felt unsafe to attend UTAS, and so moved overseas in order to complete tertiary study in peace.
Now Grace wants all students to know what she didn’t at that age: that abuse is never the child’s fault.
“Evil thrives in silence. Silence and inaction […]As we know, this institution is no exception. I am one of at least five girls who were targeted, conditioned and exploited here,” she said.
“Some of whom I have spoken to. Some of whose experiences of abuse were already known to school before I was even born. There’s the catch — perpetrators don’t just groom individuals — they groom everyone in order to get what they want; fellow staff members, parents, friends, extended family—no one is immune to grooming.
“What is grooming? It is the careful manipulation of our minds to prepare for, normalise and accept abuse. The bigger picture extends far beyond the failings of this school. It extends far beyond the man who orchestrated them. He is but one agent of a corrupt culture that still grips the whole of society.
“It’s all well and good to raise awareness. It’s all well and good to influence hearts and minds; but if we don’t rebuild the foundations that support and reinforce them we will remain at the mercy of policies and practices that override them.
In 2019, news.com.au which hosted the #LetHerSpeak campaign, obtained documents under Freedom of Information, which demonstrated that numerous individuals at the school had at least partial knowledge that Grace was being abused.
Later, the school tried to threaten Hobart’s largest newspaper, The Mercury, if they continued to publish Bester’s name in connection with the school – saying they would take their advertising dollar elsewhere.
Grace told the students that “progress begins with accountability. When we hold ourselves and others to account, we set a higher standard for those who follow”.
“In order to build new cultures and systems in their place, we have to put a stop to outdated behaviours. We need to be proactive. Together. In this cause of ending child exploitation, every person has a part to play. We all feel its impacts. It is far too important to be politicised. Children are our future. There’s no two ways about it”.
Grace told the students it was a “full circle moment”.
“[Collegiate’s] spirit is rebuilding. And so is mine. Certainly, there remains work to be done both in my private world and here at Collegiate. But nothing is set in stone. That is one of the hopeful, redeeming facts of life. Nothing is incapable of being transformed and redefined.
“The first friend I ever made here in Grade 7 is here with me today; Jessie. She came along to support. How special is that? How special is all of this? As hard as it may be, life is ultimately a beautiful gift. And you know, for all that I lost here, I have gained so much more in return simply by being able to share in this moment with all of you. I never got to graduate from this school. But this has been an honour. Thank you for having me.”