When I first met Grace Tame in 2017, I was struck – not just by her personal story of overcoming adversity, but by her sheer determination to share it in the hopes of educating others and preventing child sexual abuse.
At age 15, Grace had been groomed and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her high school maths teacher, Nicolaas Bester. At age 16 she had found the courage to report him, first to the school, then the police, and finally through the courts.
By age 22, she had made the brave decision that she wished to waive her right to anonymity and speak out publicly, hoping her story might help educate others on the warning signs of grooming.
At 22, Grace Tame had already defied the odds.
According to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it takes most survivors an average of 24 years to tell anyone – if they tell anyone at all.
It is even less common for child victims to come forward to authorities if they are still under the care of the institution where the abuse has occurred, or if the perpetrator still has access to them.
In Grace’s case, both these factors had been present when she reported.
So from our first meeting, I knew she must be uncommonly brave and resilient. I also knew that it was a privilege to be entrusted with the responsibility of helping her tell her story.
What I didn’t know was that Tasmania and the Northern Territory both had archaic victim gag laws in place which prohibited survivors like Grace from self-identifying in the media. Not only could I face jail time as a journalist for telling her story (despite having her full consent as an adult), but outrageously, so could she.
In response, News Corp Australia senior legal counsel, Gina McWilliams, sought and obtained a court order on Grace’s behalf through the Supreme Court of Tasmania. At the same time I created and launched the #LetHerSpeak campaign in partnership with Marque Lawyers, End Rape On Campus Australia and media partner, News Corp. (This campaign has since gone on to support another 16 survivors in their legal cases, changing four laws across three jurisdictions in the process).
Finally, in August 2019, over two years since we originally met, Grace was able to go public for the first time with her story. Since then she has gone on to champion the rights of all who have experienced sexual abuse in institutional settings, and yesterday she was named Australian of the Year for her powerful efforts raising awareness about grooming and the impacts of trauma.
Her accolade represents a powerful emblem of hope for many survivors in the community without a voice – particularly those who have been abused within institutional settings.
We know that many survivors still fear that they will not be believed or that they will be blamed, shamed or mocked for the violence they have experienced.
These fears are not unfounded. Indeed, when Grace first disclosed her abuse, she was bullied by her school peers and called a “homewrecker” and a “sl*t”. Local media reporting the case labelled the sexual abuse a “relationship”, “tryst” and even an “affair”.
And yet despite it all, Grace pushed on, extending only compassion to those who belittled her, telling me over and over that their attitudes were merely by-products of the very culture of ignorance she was seeking to change.
One moment I will never forget is the moment I flew to Hobart prior to Grace’s story breaking for the first time.
As a gift, I’d printed and bound a copy of the first 5000 names of people who had signed the #LetHerSpeak petition. The book contained many messages of support and encouragement and I intended it as a talisman: a reminder that despite the bullying she’d experienced at school, many in the community supported her right to speak out.
Can you imagine our mutual surprise when she opened the book and began reading the names, to find that many of those former school peers who had once belittled and bullied her had come full circle, contributing their own signatures to the petition?
As a community, we cannot underestimate how invaluable that kind of support is for sexual abuse victims.
And this is why Grace’s award matters to so many. Grace is not just the first Tasmanian to ever be named Australian of the Year, she is also the first person to ever receive that accolade as a public survivor of sexual assault.
It is a piercing symbol of hope and a reminder of just how far community attitudes have come in recent decades. It is a reminder that survivors are not to blame, are not at fault, and are not alone.
Nina Funnell is a Walkley Award winning journalist and the creator and manager of the #LetHerSpeak and #LetUsSpeak Campaigns.