Aisha’s family are deeply religious and she was brought up with a strong connection to their orthodox Christian church. ‘We go to church every Sunday. Go to youth meetings, maybe meetings during the week. Sunday mass. We’re very involved in the church.’ As a child, Aisha attended the local orthodox Christian school where Father Ghabras often served when he was not attending to other parishes.
One day, when Aisha was in her early 20s, she was assisting in the church when Ghabras, who was about 45 at the time, requested her help picking something up from his home. Aisha drove them both to his house where she discovered his family were away. After convincing Aisha to come inside, Ghabras locked the door and sexually assaulted her.
‘The next probably hour and a half, I don’t know exactly, he did a lot of inappropriate things ... Every time I’d resist what he was doing he’d be a little bit more forceful … Eventually … I found an opportunity where I could just get to the door, turn the key and go.’
Before this incident, Aisha had led an extremely sheltered life. Immediately after escaping from Ghabras, she drove to a friend’s house where she confided in her friend’s mother. Her friend’s mother believed her but said nobody else would and she should not say anything more about it. Several months later Aisha told another priest about the abuse without disclosing Ghabras’ identity. The priest told her she must have misunderstood what happened. After this response, Aisha did not pursue the matter.
Several years later, an internal investigation was conducted after other complaints about Ghabras surfaced. Aisha was interviewed, and he was ultimately removed from his position and sent overseas. Aisha was told he would be defrocked but this didn’t happen for several years until after his return to Australia. Even when he was eventually defrocked, Ghabras continued to serve as a deacon and refused to give up his garments. Because the matter had not been made public, the community were none the wiser. Some church members, who were aware, successfully lobbied for his reinstatement. ‘They returned him back on the basis that he didn’t have sex with anyone, so he did nothing.’
After being reinstated, Ghabras was sent back overseas where he currently serves as a priest in another church. Aisha has since discovered that he also sexually abused her friend Selma.
‘I was an adult at the time, she wasn’t. She was 11 ... He abused her for five years. He was a very good friend of the family and her dad.’
Aisha contacted the head priest of Ghabras’ church to warn him of his history of abuse. ‘The first thing he said to me was “I believe you”. And that for me was huge.’ The priest took the matter to other bishops in his country but no action was taken. Aisha contacted the Church’s Pope and threatened to launch criminal proceedings if nothing was done.
‘I defined him what a paedophile is and what a child molester is in case he didn’t know. And I said “Look, you can’t have him around people. You can’t have him around kids. He’s going to do it again eventually. You’re supposed to protect us as your congregation. You need to remove him, you need to see that this isn’t a joke and these kids are vulnerable to him”.’
Aisha’s requests have been ignored by the Pope, and the bishops in Australia also refuse to take action. One even told her, ‘Do anything but don’t go to the Royal Commission’. Aisha has since reported her abuse to the police but, because of the significant threat of her family being ostracised by their community, she wasn’t able to proceed or encourage other victims to join her.
‘[The police officer] encouraged me to go ahead, and she said, “Your case alone probably wouldn’t be very strong because you were an adult and you’re one person. If Selma would come on board, and other girls do, we would be able to do a lot more”. I said “Can you protect our identities?” Because for me, and I know for Selma and the other girls, we’d be blacklisted from the Church. We would be so pushed out.’
Aisha had all but given up on pursuing the matter any further when she had a chance encounter with Ghabras.
‘I had decided I’d done everything I could … I know I won’t be protected by law. I felt “I can’t keep doing this … I’m not gonna touch this issue again. I don’t care what he does”. And then two months later I ran into him at a petrol station and that just blew it all up. I was petrified, I ran and hid in my car. Over the next two or three weeks I was pretty much a wreck. I’ve moved on from it but whenever it does come up it’s really difficult … I have kids. The thought of him touching anybody’s kid …’
Aisha has not accessed any counselling and is not interested in compensation. ‘It’s not gonna change what he did. I don’t have the emotional strength … It would just take too much of a toll.’
‘It’s been a rollercoaster. Initially it was huge because I had never had any physical or sexual experience with anyone. For me he took something from me. The fact that it’s come up so often and having to fight what they’ve done in bringing him back and trying to bring him back, it’s been a really difficult two or three years.
‘I’m lucky that my husband is very supportive. I told him as soon as we got engaged, I wasn’t gonna hide it. He was shocked but he supported me, he believed me. In some instances, not many, it has affected our relationship. And emotionally it’s been extremely difficult.’