Sydney man’s life totally changed by a simple text that exposed a 40-year secret

Sydney man’s life totally changed by a simple text that exposed a 40-year secret

Five years ago, a seemingly ordinary text message from an old school friend lifted the lid on a 40-year shame and completely up-ended David Meagher’s life.

The SMS from Paul, whom he met at Marcellin College in Randwick in Sydney’s east in the late 1970s, simply asked if they could catch up for dinner.

They bonded at school in their teens and remained in touch for a while after graduating, but it had been years since they spoke.

At some point in the 90s, David and Paul crossed paths at a nightclub. Heavily intoxicated and beneath the glare of disco lights, they shared with each other a dark secret – and then never spoke of it again.

“I’d actually forgotten all about it – when he reminded me of that night, I had no recollection of it,” Meagher said.

Sitting at a restaurant on a brisk evening in July in 2018, their unspoken intertwined history came to the surface once more.

David and Paul had both been sexually abused in separate but similar circumstances by Desmond John Thornton, 26, who taught social sciences at Marcellin while also dabbling as a careers counsellor.

The latter afforded him the privilege of an office – a private space where he regularly molested 13-year-old David.

It happened countless more times over the coming several months until at some point, distraught and desperate, he worked up the courage to demand it stop.

It did and the teacher never spoke to him again. Halfway through the following year, Thornton abruptly left the school.

“I found out later that another child made a complaint about him and he was fired on the spot. Shortly after that, he moved to Alice Springs,” Meagher recalled.

“He worked in education but at a TAFE and had various other jobs. He was a St Johns Ambulance volunteer, he worked with the Rural Fire Service … but he didn’t work in a high school again.”

The long-lasting impact of that trauma and the concealed shame it fuelled was destructive and David self-medicated with drugs and alcohol through his 20s and 30s.

“It troubled me quite a lot when I was younger. As I got older, I was able to get it out of my head and would sometimes go years without thinking about it.

“But the Royal Commission into [Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse] in 2013 brought it all to the surface. There were stories about survivors in the news every single day. People were talking about the issue. It was impossible not to think about what had happened to me.”

The Royal Commission ignited something inside Paul too, who went to the police and made a formal complaint that sparked an investigation.

At the restaurant that night in 2018, Paul asked David to consider giving a statement. He declined.

“Only a handful of people knew what had happened to me at that point,” he explained. “I never talked about it and I kept it this big secret for most of my life.”

There was a long list of reasons for saying no.

The idea of unleashing that horrible truth after so long was a daunting thought. So too was the idea of how it might impact his family, especially his elderly mother.

“Paul never pressured me but he kept me informed about how the investigation was going. I changed my mind about going to the police, then changed my mind again.

“We were having coffee one day, maybe six months after he first contacted me, and Paul was talking about the case. I just blurted out: ‘Give the detective my number. I’ll do it.’ And that was that.”

One of the reasons for that eventual change of heart was the reassurance that he wouldn’t have to seek justice on his own.

If not for that message from Paul, if not for him getting the ball rolling on the investigation, Thornton would likely have never answered for his crimes.

Thornton was arrested in September 2019 and charged with multiple child sexual abuse charges.

When the matter came to court, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced in February 2021 to four years’ in prison. He was released on parole 18 months later.

“It was hard to weigh up whether it was adequate or not, but I was kind of happy with any sentence. I know that it often doesn’t happen and that seeking justice is a fraught process.

“It sounds kind of corny, but I was in court at his sentencing and got to see him taken away by corrective officers. It did put a line under things in a way.

“I was kind of thrilled that he was sent to prison. There was a feeling that it was a little on the light side, but if it had been heavier it might’ve given him grounds for appeal.

“With all of that in mind, I think it was a pretty good result.”

Secrets and Lies, a book about Meagher’s childhood, the impact of the abuse and he and Paul’s quest for justice, has just been published.

He began working on it after Thornton was sent to prison and said it was a cathartic process that left him “in a pretty good state of mind”.

Its release last month has sparked an outpouring of support from former classmates and teachers, as well as messages from total strangers who are also survivors of abuse.

That message from Paul, the court case, the book – they’re all experiences Meagher reflects on positively.

“It’s kind of remarkable to think about.

“I never really allowed myself to think too far into the future while it was all happening and just took it one day at a time. But it has really changed so much for the better.

“It was a long journey but I’m very glad we did it.”

Secrets and Lies by David Meagher is out now.

Originally published as Sydney man’s life totally changed by a simple text that exposed a 40-year secret