‘I was always told by the priest that if I ever disclosed the abuse my mother would be killed by God. It comes later in the story, when I did finally disclose the abuse as a teenager at my Catholic high school I wasn’t believed and I was put into a mental asylum and then my mother died so I thought that was God punishing me for trying to speak out.’
As a five-year-old in 1985, Abi was sexually abused by two priests from her Sydney parish. She couldn’t recall their names and the details of what they did remain fragmented in her memory. The priests acted separately, coming into the family home to abuse Abi while her mother hosted workshops in an artist’s studio away from the house. Abi said her mother trusted the priests and had no trouble letting them interact with her children.
Abi told the Commissioner that the abuse included oral sex and rape. She was forced to swallow the offender’s semen while being told that it was a form of cleansing, and when she vomited she was ordered not to ‘reject a gift from God’. The abuse continued for five years until the family moved to another area and a different parish. Throughout the time of its occurrence, Abi would leave handwritten notes in the church, promising God she’d stop sinning and asking for the abuse to stop. She wonders now why no one ever found the notes and thought to ask questions about them.
Despite exhibiting signs of physical and psychological trauma throughout her childhood and teenage years, Abi was never asked if she’d been sexually abused. She visited her general practitioner often with urinary tract infections, incontinence and genital rashes. At school, she acted out and at one stage was admitted to the adult ward of a mental health facility, diagnosed with a personality disorder. In the hospital ward, she ‘hid in the corner for two weeks’, terrified of the other patients.
After being told that she was ‘beyond reform’ and expelled from her Catholic school, Abi went to an Anglican high school. A tentative attempt to tell a fellow student about the abuse had been followed shortly afterwards by Abi’s mother’s death and she held herself responsible. ‘I believed for most of my life that God had taken her from me as punishment for telling someone about the abuse, or trying to tell someone. I add killer to the list of names I called myself.’
Abi felt the only way she could atone for her mother’s death was by spending the rest of her life ‘reforming’. She excelled in her new school and went on to under-graduate and post-graduate university studies. She’d been in nearly continuous employment and felt a strong passion for social justice.
In the early 2010s, she had ‘a breakdown’. A consulting psychiatrist began a process of slowly examining with Abi the physical signs and patterns of behaviour she’d always struggled to contain and hide from the outside world. She’d had constant nightmares and bedwetting, had used alcohol and drugs at high levels and she’d attempted suicide several times. She also had a habit of scrubbing her genitals with steel wool. The psychiatrist referred her to a trauma specialist and in the intervening years, Abi had had weekly to twice-weekly therapy. She said that although she hadn’t overcome the feelings of despair and associated behaviours, she was learning to control them.
She’d set meaningful life goals, supported strongly by her father who knew about the abuse, but not its specific details.
‘I’m very independent and it’s been a great source of pain that I’ve had to rely on my father so much, because he’s done so much for me and I can’t repay him and I wish I could because he’s at an age where I want to be giving him a fantastic quality of life and yet he’s having to support a 34-year-old who can’t seem to get on her feet.’
Abi said she had ‘a deep desire to get on with life’, and was looking forward to starting a new job in the health sector where she hoped to contribute to better understanding of the services needed for young people with mental illness.
She thought speaking out about her pain might further help her path to recovery. ‘It is my greatest hope, however, that by participating in this Commission I will help to raise awareness of child abuse, maybe even prevent someone else from encountering its associated, unspeakable pain.’