Angela’s mother received treatment for cancer during the 1980s. Angela was the eldest child and took on responsibility for keeping the household together while their father was at work. During this time members of the local Uniting Church in country Victoria visited the family to help out with household chores and getting the children to school.
One of the church members, Alf Cowan, used the family’s situation as an opportunity to sexually abuse Angela. ‘Looking back, he preyed on our vulnerability. I was 11, starting high school and we’d not long moved to the town, plus Mum was in hospital for nearly a year.’
Cowan was an elder in the church and his wife taught Angela to cook and sew. ‘She was lovely and kind and helped me with so many things.’ He initially came to the family home with a group, but was soon visiting on his own. ‘He’d done a lot of massage courses and used to rub my mother’s feet, then Mum said he should massage me because I wasn’t sleeping well.’
It was under the guise of giving Angela a massage that Cowan first sexually abused her. ‘He did the massage in the lounge room with towels and sheets over me, but he was touching all over, inappropriately. He was doing it in front of the others. Over the years he got bolder so when no one was there, it was oral sex.’
Angela didn’t disclose the abuse because Cowan was doing a range of duties for the family, including picking up her brother from infants’ school. She also didn’t think anyone would believe her. ‘He seemed so nice and it was happening in the lounge room in front of people. My mother wasn’t well, and by then I thought all the bad things in the family were my fault.’ Angela also felt a strong attachment to Cowans’ wife and didn’t want to risk upsetting her.
In the 1990s Angela responded to an invitation by Victorian Police to report incidents of historic child sexual abuse. She called police because by then she had children herself, and she was concerned that the Cowans might have grandchildren at risk. The police took her call seriously; however she was undecided about pursuing the matter and was also unclear about some details of the abuse.
‘I gave the police his name and address. They said they could go and interview him, but there might be no point if I didn’t want to take it any further. I didn’t want to, but I thought it important that they have his name.’
A few years ago Angela felt anxious and depressed and couldn’t get out of bed. She worked in a professional job and apart from her husband, hadn’t disclosed the abuse to anyone else. She sought help from her doctor who prescribed antidepressants and recommended counselling.
Angela told the counsellor about the abuse, and found the sessions helpful, but couldn’t afford to continue them beyond the government-funded allocation. ‘We were under a lot of financial pressure and I didn’t want counselling to add to it.’
Angela hadn’t contacted the Uniting Church about the abuse because she thought that Cowan wasn’t an employee and therefore not their responsibility. She also still had misgivings about upsetting Mrs Cowan. ‘The type of abuse is different to what you see on television. It’s from someone who looks like one thing, but he’s working out which children are vulnerable, and that’s who he’s preying on.’