Aussie mum Victoria*, 40, wasn’t looking for love when she crossed paths with a predator in disguise.
I laughed at my best friend’s latest idea.
‘I’m joining an online dating site,’ Rihannon* said excitedly.
A single mum of two boys, I’d sworn off men myself, but I was happy for her.
After putting my sons, Ryan*, eight, and Alex*, four, to bed, my phone buzzed.
Can you check out my profile? Rihannon texted.
I tried to look – but it wouldn’t let me unless I signed up.
Sighing, I set up a basic account and checked hers over.
The next morning, I had a message on mine.
Michael*, 37, described himself as 6ft tall and a Christian, and his profile said he ‘loved’ kids, didn’t drink or smoke, worked as a chef and valued family.
I hadn’t intended on this happening at all, but I was flattered and he sounded wonderful, so I replied.
The more we spoke, the more I liked Michael.
After three months, we decided to meet in a cafe.
I was pleased when our conversation flowed.
‘I can’t wait to meet your boys,’ he kept saying.
I wasn’t ready to introduce Alex and Ryan to anyone yet, so I brushed him off.
Afterwards, we planned a date at the beach.
It soon became a daily ritual. I’d drive my sons to school and meet Michael for a coffee and a walk.
After a few months, I took the boys with me on a weekend.
‘Hi boys, I’m Michael,’ he said confidently.
‘Hi!’ they chorused back, before running to splash in the waves.
It felt like everything was falling into place. I might get my white picket fence! I beamed.
When we’d been together for six months, Michael moved in with us.
He loved camping with the boys in the backyard and even kissed them goodnight every evening.
When he proposed, I said yes immediately.
But after we got married, the cracks started to show.
Michael began asking me to wear risqué things in the bedroom and begged me to dye my dark hair blonde.
Sex became rough too. But I ignored my gut instincts.
I made a vow to this man, I reasoned.
One day, when Alex was eight, I got a call from the school nurse.
‘Alex is complaining of stomach pains again,’ she said.
It was the third time this week. He’d also started wetting the bed almost nightly.
‘Are you being bullied?’ I asked Alex, to which he just shrugged.
I felt like I was losing him. He spent every waking moment with Michael.
Then, on a hot day, Michael and the boys went outside to play in the pool.
I stayed inside, checking on them out the window.
Expecting to hear splashing and squeals of laughter, I was surprised to see the water was still and Alex and Michael just floating around.
After dinner, I sat down with Michael.
‘What were you doing in the pool today?’ I asked cautiously.
He didn’t reply and just looked away. My stomach sank.
‘Michael, what happened in the pool?’ I repeated.
When he refused to answer, I raced upstairs to Alex’s room.
‘Mummy has to ask you something important,’ I said gently. ‘What were you doing in the pool with Michael?’
‘I’m not allowed to tell you,’ he said softly. ‘It’s a secret.’
Shaking, I held his little face in my hands.
‘Please tell me, I won’t get mad. I’m your mummy,’ I said.
‘He played with my doodle,’ he admitted, burying his head in his pillow.
I hugged Alex tight and promised him he wasn’t in any trouble.
Feeling nauseous, I went back down to Michael.
‘You touched him?’ I exploded. ‘What else have you done?’
The coward didn’t look at me and ran into the bedroom to pack his bag.
I slammed the front door behind him.
‘Don’t you ever come back!’ I screamed.
I rang the police, who arrested Michael as he sat on my driveway.
The next day, Alex and I went to speak with a detective and he gave a statement.
Ryan was interviewed too, but as he’s autistic, the detectives couldn’t figure out if he’d been abused as well.
Michael had been in Alex’s life for four years.
But because my boy was so young, he couldn’t remember that far back, and Michael was only charged over three months of abuse.
In court, in May 2014, Michael, 41, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of indecent dealings with a child and eight counts of sexual penetration of a child.
I went along to the sentencing and it was there I heard the extent of his heinous abuse. Nearly every time he was alone with my son, Michael had sexually assaulted him.
It happened so often, Alex believed it was his stepdad’s way of showing love.
Michael abused my innocent son as they camped outside, as they swam in the water, during tickle fights and even in the backyard shed. I felt horrified and so guilty that I hadn’t protected my little boy.
But I knew that monster was the only one to blame.
He was sentenced to five years in prison.
A few months ago, he was let out on parole.
Sickeningly, I’m even still married to him as I can’t afford a divorce.
Now, my boys and I are slowly healing from the horror.
I want other parents to know how to spot signs of sexual abuse. Teach your children that their private parts are for their eyes only.
Never force your kids to hug an adult they don’t want to touch and trust your gut instinct.
I wish I’d trusted mine years ago.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT for 24/7 support.