Amanda and her friend Geena felt ‘very comfortable’ attending the Salvation Army Sunday school near where they lived in a north-western suburb of Sydney. The two 11-year-olds were the oldest of the group. They went along every Sunday and afterwards, while the younger kids were collected by their parents, they would stay on to help clean up. ‘We’d always stick around because there was nothing else to do.’
It was the mid-1980s. The group was run by Pastor Nichols, who eventually used the opportunity offered by being alone with the girls to molest them. At first the girls didn’t realise he was assaulting them both. They didn’t even realise it was assault. ‘I don’t know if I thought it was right or wrong; I don’t know what I thought’, Amanda said.
Pastor Nichols gave them lollies and other small gifts. As well: ‘He’d undo his pants and press himself against me … He’d stick his tongue in’, Amanda recalled. ‘He was just sick. It was awful.’
One Sunday Pastor Nichols pressed himself against Amanda and then pushed her head down towards his crotch. ‘That’s when I got angry. ‘Cause I didn’t really know what he was wanting me to do.’ Geena came into the room at that moment, saw what was happening and kicked Nichols. Then the two girls ran home to Geena’s place. ‘We felt so dirty … I remember just washing ourselves, in her bathroom.’
When the girls told Amanda’s mum what had happened, she reported Pastor Nichols at the local police station. Geena’s parents didn’t go to the police – ‘They didn’t believe her’. Both girls were interviewed, separately, about Pastor Nichols. ‘I remember telling them the story and I remember them looking at me with doubt.’
Amanda doesn’t know what happened next. She suspects that nothing did. Her family was known to the police, she said, because her brothers had been getting into trouble. She is sure that was a factor in the police’s inaction. ‘No one really believed us.’
The abuse caused Amanda to lose her Christian faith. It made her fearful. ‘I didn’t feel safe being left with anyone anymore.’ It disrupted her education. As a teenager she couldn’t settle anywhere, and ended up going to six different high schools. ‘I just rebelled’, she said. She spoke to a school counsellor about what had happened to her, but it didn’t help. As an adult, sexual violence found its way into her life again. In the mid-2000s, she was raped. A few years later her 11-year-old daughter Maxine was also raped, at the home of Maxine’s best friend, by a visiting family member.
Amanda was in a bad way at the time. She had become a heavy user of drugs, and had committed crimes because, she said, it was the only way she could support herself and her children. Her situation meant she wasn’t able to support Maxine in dealing with everything that followed. Maxine’s grandmother stepped in instead, and Amanda found herself excluded – information wasn’t shared with her and she wasn’t allowed to be part of police or court proceedings, despite Maxine wanting her there.
Amanda felt she was badly treated by police, the result she said of her own issues with them. She also felt responsible for Maxine’s distress when ultimately Maxine’s assailant was given a suspended sentence and allowed to walk free. ‘I’m still disgusted by that’, she said.
‘[Maxine] was scared to go to police but I persisted. Even though I was in trouble with the law, I just wanted her to see that this was okay … The trauma I put my daughter through of having him charged.’
She was critical of the lack of support available to her and Maxine at that time. They weren’t helped to get victim of crime compensation or services such as counselling. ‘No one cared about how we reacted, no one felt with us.’ Amanda tried to find residential care for Maxine where she’d get help recovering from the trauma she’d been through. ‘That was hard. She didn’t want to go to any of them.’ Again, Amanda didn’t get the support she needed to locate different options or get herself there to check them out.
‘You know who did help me? My parole officer … She was just nice. She understood the whole situation.’
As well, by now Amanda was seeing a psychologist. ‘I had to. I had to become better.’
Amanda was in prison for fraud offences when she spoke to the Commissioner. Maxine was living with her father. The relationship between mother and daughter had been very rocky in the years since Maxine’s rape. Amanda was hopeful it would improve. She has continued to see a psychologist - ‘I do feel that seeing someone has helped me so much’ – and even in jail that relationship was ongoing: ‘I always write to my psychologist on the outside and she always writes back to me’, she said.
She would like to see less judgement from agencies such as police, and better awareness of the different needs of families. ‘Police need to be taught something different about it … Like everything’s just one way. That’s it, case closed.’ She also feels very strongly that she should not be in jail for fraud while Maxine’s rapist walks free. The impact of such assaults is lifelong, she said.
‘I just want something more severe to happen to them in the court system. The sentencing ... I don’t say I haven’t done bad, but when I compare fraud to rape that’s a lifetime sentence for me; it’s a lifetime sentence for my daughter – this is going to affect my daughter for the rest of her life.’