Schoolgirl’s ‘repulsive’ abuse revealed
WARNING: Graphic content
Nine years after 15-year-old Grace Tame was repeatedly sexually abused by her 58-year-old teacher, she has won her fight to be named. This is her story.
Grace Tame had just turned 15 years old when her 58-year-old high school maths teacher, Nicolaas Ockert Bester, began grooming her, later committing between 20 and 30 sexual assaults against the schoolgirl.
A talented student and dual-scholarship holder at the elite St Michael's Collegiate Girls' school in Hobart, Grace had recently been hospitalised with anorexia, and was suffering from depression and low self-esteem. In the playground the "academic tomboy" had been targeted by schoolyard bullies, and at home, normal routine was disrupted by the impending arrival of a new baby brother.
The stage was set. And unbeknown to the family, a predator was hiding in plain sight.
Grace Tame, now aged 24, remembers the exact moment that the grooming began. Following a morning medical appointment in April 2010, she had arrived to school late. Her year 10 classmates were on a school excursion and as Grace wandered the playground alone, Nicolaas Bester - the head of maths and science - spotted her.
He invited Grace to wait in his office, where she gradually opened up, confiding details of her eating disorder in a man she thought she could trust.
"We talked for a long time and after that day he became a confidant," Grace tells news.com.au. "He would give me advice and let me stay in his office whenever I wanted. I was given a key, and if I got distressed in class other teachers knew to take me to him for a time out."
For hours they would talk about Grace's illness and other subjects and he would flatter the schoolgirl telling her he had "learnt more from her than any other student in 30 years of teaching".
But as Grace began to place more trust in him, he gradually isolated her by undermining her relationships with others.
"He knew my mum was pregnant so he would disparage pregnant women saying they are irrational," Grace says. "He told me to ignore the advice of my doctors saying I could cope with my anorexia on my own and that he would help me. He measured me in his office and told me what weight I would need to get to. I began to substitute his judgment and advice for that of the experts.
As Bester manoeuvred into the role of therapist and friend, his advice began to take on more sinister sexual tones - a grooming process known as 'desensitisation'.
"He asked me if I ever did sketches of myself without any clothes on, and told me that it would help me 'feel better' about my body image issues," Grace says. "I told him I never had and he insisted it would help. I initially ignored him but felt pressured."
Meanwhile, concerned about the inappropriate level of contact Bester was having with their daughter, Grace's parents requested an urgent meeting with the school.
Notes obtained under Right to Information show that at that meeting, Grace's parents alerted the former principal, Robyn Kronenberg, that Bester had given Grace a key to his office and was spending hours alone with their daughter unsupervised. The documents also show that following that meeting the principal agreed to warn Bester that "his conduct was not professional and that he should not see Grace at all".
That meeting took place in late April 2010, before any contact offending had taken place. It was a critical moment.
At first Bester kept his distance as per the principal's directive. But as time wore on, he re-initiated contact and in June he again suggested that Grace complete a nude sketch as part of her "therapy". Eventually she co-operated.
"When I gave it to him I specifically wrote in an accompanying letter that it was for artistic purposes only," Grace says. "But everything just snowballed from there.
"He knew I'd been sexually abused as a child by an older child in a wardrobe closet. The memory of that incident had recently surfaced, causing my anorexia to relapse and it was one of the things we discussed. I told him because I trusted him and thought he was there to help me. Instead he took that knowledge and used it against me in the most sick and sinister, cruel way."
In June 2010, Bester locked Grace in a small, dark school storeroom reminiscent of a cupboard, telling her to strip.
"He recreated the scene of abuse from my childhood," Grace says. "I was terrified. My stomach just dropped. I thought he was my friend and it suddenly hit me all at once what his real intentions were. In that moment my world fell away and I didn't know what else he might be capable of doing.
"I had never taken my clothes off in front of anybody before. I wanted to get out, run away and scream. I remember wishing someone would burst into the room looking for me. But no one did.
"I was in shock and went into autopilot survival mode. I told myself, 'just do what he wants and get out'."
From that day on, Grace felt locked in a secret, and what followed was months of escalating sexual abuse - culminating in 20 to 30 instances of unlawful intercourse.
"The first time it happened Mr Bester brought alcohol," Grace says. "I had tried to put him off by telling him that I would be hopeless because I was a virgin and was really not into that sort of thing but it was of no use. He planned it very carefully.
"I remember looking at the bottle of alcohol and thinking I wanted to just drink the whole thing so I wouldn't have to think. So when he left the room momentarily, I drank as much as I could before he returned.
"I will never forget that night. I was 15, drunk, and lying on the floor of a dark office at my own school. I never resisted. I just let it happen, aware that any screams would be unheard."
After that, the sexual abuse became frequent, often occurring on school grounds and at one point occurring in the principal's own chair.
"I hated it," Grace says. "It was repulsive. I always closed my eyes. I didn't want it to be real. I didn't want to be doing and saying the things I was either, but I felt trapped.
"At the back of my mind were stories he'd told me about being in the army and killing people and feeling no regret."
Bester was a South African soldier in the Angolan civil war.
"He also told me stories about what happened to unfaithful women, including one about a man who scooped a woman's eyes out with a spoon," Grace says.
"He would constantly say 'you don't want me to lose my job do you?'.
"I started dreaming he was assaulting me. I was afraid of sleep and dreaming because he was always there.
"I began self-harming and drinking. Unless I knocked myself out with spirits I'd lie awake all night. Some nights I'd fill a glass of vodka and drink half before bed, and then half in the morning before school.
"Other times I would just sit on the floor in front of my mirror and start shaking and crying and then run to get a knife or scissors and cut myself.
"I'd lost all motivation to do school work. I hated going to school every day holding in all these lies. And of course he was there. He was everywhere."
Penny Plaschke, Grace's mother said "we were doing everything we could think of to try to help her - we were taking her to appointments and counsellors".
"But we had no idea the real source of the pain. We were trying desperately to work it out and help her, but we had no idea that abuse was happening during school hours when we assumed she was safe."
A PREDATOR HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
The sexual abuse continued until December 2010, when Grace turned 16. Notes obtained under Right to Information written by the former school principal indicate that there were multiple opportunities where further intervention could have potentially taken place.
At one point in 2010, a teacher witnessed Grace and Bester at the school on the weekend in the science area. That teacher later admitted feeling "concern" but did not report it when it occurred.
Then on August 7, 2010, Mrs Kronenberg, the principal, herself was "surprised" to see Bester at the Year 10 formal and was "concerned that he was present to see Grace". (Another staff member reassured Mrs Kronenberg that she had asked teachers to assist at the formal and that Bester had "volunteered". Tragically, by then Bester was already sexually abusing Grace - including on school grounds the night immediately prior).
Then on October 23, 2010, yet another staff member witnessed Bester at Grace's weekend workplace. That teacher thought it odd and reported it to the school. In response Mrs Kronenberg met with Bester and her notes following that meeting read:
"(Bester) gave the excuse that it was innocent, that he did not know that Grace would be there. I told (Bester) that he MUST keep his agreement not to meet with Grace. He agreed. I then rang [our school solicitor], and told him about this incident and my concerns in relation to previous incidents between Grace Tame and Nico Bester. I asked if this could be regarded as grooming and what I should do about this. (The solicitor's) advice was that grooming had to show that it was leading to sexual misconduct and that would be difficult to prove. He confirmed that I had met with the teacher and warned him about his actions. His only other advice was to inform the parent (which I did)."
Police were not notified and the abuse would continue for another two months.
According to Grace, a small number of students were also aware of the abuse, but at that age had little comprehension of the seriousness of the situation.
"Perpetrators don't just groom victims. They groom other people around the victim. And they use the victim to convince others to remain silent as well," Grace says.
So in the end, it was Grace herself who finally sounded the alarm.
BESTER TELLS GRACE'S FATHER: 'SHE WANTED IT'
"I'd reached a point where my anger was stronger than my fear," Grace says. "I was still terrified he would hurt me but I chose to confront him and I told him he was a monster. And then I reported what he'd done to a teacher at the school who I trusted."
That teacher took action, and in April 2011 police became involved. Grace's father, Michael Tame, confronted Bester who responded by saying "she wanted it".
An arrest followed, upon which time police found 28 pieces of child pornography on Bester's computer including images depicting children naked in sexual poses, as well as children engaging in intercourse with adults.
Bester was charged with the offence of "maintaining a sexual relationship with someone under the age of 17". In other jurisdictions the equivalent charge is known as the "persistent sexual abuse of a child". Grace and her family believe the Tasmanian law should be renamed to align with other jurisdictions.
"This was not a relationship. This was a calculated crime committed by someone in a position of trust and authority," says Penny. "The scars of self-harm on my daughter's body attest to persistent sexual abuse, not a sexual relationship. We must not sanitise what occurred."
In August 2011, Bester was convicted and sentenced to two years and six months jail for the crimes against Grace and a further four months jail for possession of child pornography.
At sentencing, Justice Helen Wood said "it is obvious that all 15-year-old children are vulnerable and ill-equipped to protect themselves from sexual advances from a teacher in a school environment. The complainant in this case was particularly vulnerable given her mental state. You knew her psychological condition was precarious."
"You ignored clear representations made by her worried parents and the clear direction of your employer, the school, to have no contact with her. You betrayed the trust of the child's parents and the school's trust in an utterly blatant fashion."
This should have been the last time that Grace and her family ever heard from Nicolaas Bester. But Bester was far from finished inflicting harm on the family.
A SECOND OFFENCE
After serving just 18 months of his sentence, Bester was released from Risdon Prison in March 2013. On leaving he remarked that prison "was nothing like the cesspool of drugs and violence which the local media seemed to make it out to be" adding that during his time there he had met many "thoroughly decent people".
"I spent my time (in jail) well: reading and thinking about political philosophy, doing mathematics, and engaged in study for a doctorate in Chemistry," says Bester.
Life, meanwhile, had been significantly less kind to Grace.
In the months since the abuse was exposed, Grace had been mocked and bullied by peers who, at that age, had not acquired the life experience or maturity to understand the inherent power imbalance between a teacher in advanced middle-age and a schoolgirl in the grips of anorexia.
In the playground Grace was called a "homewrecker" (due to Bester's married status at the time), and a "sl*t". Around Hobart she would overhear others gossiping and sneering about her case.
Adding further insult to injury, the media - taking their cue from the name of the law - euphemistically reported that the abuse constituted a "relationship". Some headlines went so far as to call it a "tryst" or even an "affair".
In response, Grace - who had once been an A-Grade student - dropped out of school. (Collegiate sent a further tuition bill to the family for $2524.)
Bester's education, on the other hand, was thriving. On leaving jail the 60-year-old convicted paedophile enrolled in a PhD at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) and due to a "system error" was allowed to live in John Fisher college - a residence with communal bathroom facilities.
UTAS is the only university in the state, meaning that when Grace did eventually return to a different school and complete Year 12 - securing an ATAR of 98.3 - her only option for university in her home state would have forced her back onto the same campus as her offender.
Instead she packed her bags and moved to America to start a new life.
"It broke all of our hearts to see her move overseas," says Penny. "She had a baby brother at home who she wasn't going to be able to watch grow up. But we knew she couldn't stay. She needed a fresh start."
The move to America did bring some stability and calm. Grace achieved two associate degrees in theatre arts and liberal arts from Santa Barbara City college. She is now also a distinguished artist, with high profile clients including comedian John Cleese.
But Bester's torment of the family was far from over.
In February 2015, he took to social media describing in lewd detail the sexual assaults against Grace Tame. For legal and ethical reasons news.com.au cannot reproduce that material. In the same post, Bester also boasted that the abuse was "awesome" saying "judging from the emails and tweets I've received the majority of men in Australia envy me. I was 59. She was 15 going on 25 … It was awesome."
The local media republished parts of the Facebook post, which then came to the attention of the family sending shockwaves throughout. Penny, who is also a mature age student at the University of Tasmania, dropped everything to urgently fly to the USA to comfort her daughter.
"Grace regressed and began self-harming again. She'd been making so much progress and that Facebook post really set us back," she says.
Bester was charged with production of child exploitation material and sentenced to a further four months jail in January 2016.
In victim-impact statements written at the time, Penny states: "I write this for my daughter who has suffered enormously; still suffering nightmares and anxieties associated with the abuse. The intensity of her suffering has now been significantly exacerbated by Nicolaas Bester's Facebook conversation. My daughter says she can never return to live here (in Hobart) … . (She) feels publicly humiliated and derogated by the man who sexually abused her as a child … His words represent his unguarded opinion of the original crime … We want Nicolaas Bester to stop offending my daughter and our family. We need him to stop."
But again, yet more lay in store.
FINDING HER VOICE
Throughout all of these ordeals Grace Tame has been unable to speak out or respond in public using her real name. She has been unable to defend herself and her parents have not been able to speak out under their own names either. That is because in Tasmania it is an offence for any person, including a journalist, to name a sexual assault survivor, even with their consent.
The archaic gag law - known as section 194K of the Evidence Act - was initially intended to protect sexual assault victims who do not want to be named, but an unintended consequence of the law is that it also gags those victims who do want to speak.
"This law is wrong. While well intentioned, it doesn't protect survivors from media exploitation. Rather it shields perpetrators from having to face up to the public consequences of their own actions" Grace says.
"Journalists, commentators, and even my perpetrator have all been able to publicly discuss my case. I'm the only one who hasn't been allowed to. It's not just illogical, it's cruel."
In November last year, news.com.au launched the #LetHerSpeak campaign for law reform along with End Rape On Campus Australia and Marque Lawyers.
Over 5000 people signed a petition for law reform and in a recent Mercury poll over 92 per cent of Tasmanians expressed support for changes to the law.
In April this year the Tasmanian Attorney-General, Elise Archer, agreed to review the law and called for public submissions. Those submissions are currently being reviewed.
With the support of news.com.au, Grace Tame has also taken her individual fight to be named to the Supreme Court, and has now become the fourth person in the state to be granted permission to speak about her own sexual assault under her real identity.
"I had to prove my case was in the public interest. When I found out I'd won, I was speechless," says Grace.
"Getting my voice back has been so important for me. If telling my story can help even one boy or girl out there and prevent them from being abused then this fight has all been worth it".
"Perpetrators thrive on victim silence and community misconceptions of these crimes. I want to help educate parents and other members of the community about the warning signs of grooming."
Grace also intends to continue to campaign to change the gag laws in Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
"The law is still in place and other survivors still can't speak. The fight is far from over. But having come this far I will stop at nothing."
If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault support is available by calling 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
Grace Tame's full video interview will be aired tonight on ABC 7.30 Report.
Nina Funnell is a Walkley Award winning journalist and a director of End Rape On Campus Australia. She is the creator of the #LetHerSpeak campaign.