After a long, torturous encounter with the criminal justice system and the legal arm of the Catholic Church, Alanna walked away with this message and this question:
‘“The crime, your crime, you, are not worth it, you don’t count, your evidence, your story has no value”. What victim would come forward knowing this would be the reckoning they would receive?’
Alanna was born into a strict Catholic family in regional Queensland in the late 1970s. From age six to age 11 she was sexually abused by a young priest who had befriended her parents.
She didn’t mention the abuse to anyone – at first because she didn’t understand what was going on, then later because she was afraid. In a written statement she told the Commissioner:
‘I had and have a deep need for denial, even now. The contents of what happened were so frightening and overwhelming it was easier to bury them all as deeply as possible. I didn’t want to hurt my family and I feared for them, I feared that something bad would happen to them and it would be my fault.’
The abuse ended after Alanna and her family moved to a new city. A few months later, Alanna’s mum announced that the priest was coming by for a visit. Alanna knew she couldn’t bear to see him again so she told her mum what had happened.
Despite her deeply-held Catholic beliefs, Alanna’s mum believed what her daughter said and immediately reported it to the Archbishop. In response, he attacked.
‘The Archbishop spoke very abruptly to my mother saying that little girls make up stories like that all the time. He accused me of being an attention seeker and a liar. He told my mother I was nasty and that she should speak to me about telling lies.’
Alanna’s mother went on to speak to several other priests, only to encounter the same evasiveness and antagonism.
‘All those she spoke to advised that she should show forgiveness. One of the priests she spoke to had the audacity to comment that some girls probably enjoyed it.’
Feeling exhausted and betrayed, Alanna’s mother gave up the fight. By this stage Alanna was already emotionally broken in many ways and the response of the Church worsened her condition. What started as an 11-year-old girl’s terror and confusion dug in its roots and grew into the complex mental illness that Alanna has carried her whole adult life.
‘For as long as I can remember I have been painfully sad, I have suffered from major depression all my life, post-traumatic stress, anorexia, debilitating anxiety, panic attacks … self-harming, sexual dysfunction, confusion, traumatic nightmares, phantom body pain and general malaise. I often have thoughts of suicide.’
After that first disclosure to her mother, Alanna didn’t mention the abuse to anyone for many years. Eventually she discussed a few aspects with her partner and her psychiatrist, but the topic has never been something she can easily talk about.
‘I did not want anyone to know this about me. I find the subject disgusting and very literally unspeakable. Preparing this document has been onerous. I feel ugly and humiliated.’
These feelings loomed larger than ever in the early 2000s when Alanna received an unexpected phone call from police. They told her that some of the priest’s other victims had come forward, and asked her to make a statement. At first, ‘out of fear’, Alanna refused. Later she agreed. That’s when everything started to go wrong.
For months the police pushed her to get her statement done before the court deadline, but when she actually tried to make it happen they became suddenly nonchalant. Tossing aside all the assurances they’d made (that she would get plenty of time to review and redraft the piece) they put her in a room with a junior officer who sped through the whole thing in three hours.
The trial, too, was like an ambush. The prosecutor asked Alanna to provide a victim impact statement, and she agreed only on the proviso that her name would never be used. In open court he ignored this agreement and read out Alanna’s name and then her statement, in all its graphic detail.
Alanna believes the judge was equally ignorant. He seemed to have little understanding of the crime of child sexual abuse and its unique impacts on victims, and consequently ignored many crucial elements of Alanna’s case. He gave the priest three and a half years, which Alanna found ‘just humiliating’.
Meanwhile, Alanna was also in the throes of negotiating a settlement with the Catholic Church. She showed the Commissioner a letter from the Church’s lawyers, which typified the legalistic, bullying style they used throughout the negotiations:
‘Our client denies liability with respect to your clients. … Further our client reserves the right to reply upon the Limitations of Actions Act 1974 in defending your client’s claim. … And further, our client maintains that a fair and reasonable estimate of damages to which your client would be entitled in the proceedings against it is nil.’
Ultimately, Alanna was too tired to fight and settled the matter for $70,000. She believes that this sum, like the priest’s sentence, is inadequate and unjust. Also unjust is the Archbishop’s apparent immunity – he has never faced any charges for his part in facilitating the abuse.
Justice is what Alanna needs to get on with her life, and the only way she can see it happening is if the Archbishop and the Church are held to account for what they did.
‘I would like a real prosecution, a real sentence, a real punishment for all those who knew and did nothing. I would like their names to be made public, I would like them to feel shame and humiliation and reflect on the malignancy of their crimes. My story was spat at in the process of criminal proceedings and the ignorance of the judicial system. … I feel deeply failed by all of it.’