In the late 1960s Annabel attended a Catholic primary school in Sydney where she was befriended by the parish priest, Father Gallagher. Soon afterwards, Gallagher began to sexually abuse her. In full view of the teachers and other students he would walk her across the school grounds and into the nearby presbytery. Gallagher took Annabel to his bedroom, where he would fondle her and force her to perform oral sex on him.
Annabel told the Commissioner that she still finds it incredible that none of the adults at the school ever spoke up about the abuse. She is particularly appalled at the behaviour of the principal, a nun, who regularly took Annabel out of class and sent her to see Father Gallagher at the presbytery.
‘What kind of a person would do that? She would have to have known that it was wrong. I wasn’t there for five minutes.’
Outside of school, Father Gallagher often visited Annabel’s family home where he ingratiated himself with her parents. Sometimes he bought Annabel gifts and even took her mother shopping. Annabel remembers one time when he accompanied the family on a picnic.
‘He was really funny that day. I was just finished sixth class and we were at the picnic and he got really angry at me. I think I put some leaves in the billy or I’d done something silly, and he growled at me. I remember walking away thinking “I’m going to tell”.’
Annabel didn’t tell anyone that day but the abuse ended a short while later when she turned 12 and moved to a high school in a different suburb. For the first few years Annabel enjoyed high school and thrived.
‘I loved English and I loved drama and I loved art. Terrible at maths, could never get that, but when I put my head to it and my heart to it I did really well.’
But her ability to focus dropped away as she got older and started thinking back on the abuse.
‘When I was getting to the 15 and 16-year-old age, knowing that that’s not right, it’s like: was I a chosen one? Or was it really wrong? Should I have said something? I just went off the rails anyway so it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to think about it anymore, didn’t have to face it.’
Annabel started consuming alcohol and drugs and left school in Year 10. She then went through a string of ‘disastrous’ relationships but told the Commissioner she was blessed to have ‘six beautiful children’.
More than 20 years went by and Annabel never mentioned the abuse to anyone. Then one day in the late 1990s she received a call from her brother out of the blue.
‘He asked me what my memories were of Father Gallagher … I just said to him, “Where do you want me to start?” Because it sort of blew me away because I’d never spoken to anybody about it previously. This was something I’d been carrying for my entire life up until then.’
Annabel discovered that her brother had also been abused by Father Gallagher and after a long discussion, the two of them decided to make an official complaint to the Catholic Church through its Towards Healing process.
The process turned out to be frustrating and disheartening for Annabel. The Towards Healing representative told her that little could be done about her complaint because Father Gallagher had died.
‘I thought that this would really help, that this would get it out there. But it’s not. It’s made it worse. I’ve got such a demon in there. And they virtually said, well he said: “there’s nothing we can do about it”.’
She was offered counselling, went for one session and left. ‘It was just crap. It was just nothing.’ After that she hoped to receive some more information and updates on her complaint but said that since her session with Towards Healing she has heard nothing from the Church.
Annabel has since disclosed the sexual abuse to her mother, but ‘she couldn’t believe it’.
Despite these setbacks, Annabel is upbeat about her future and has support from her siblings.
‘I’m really enjoying what I’m doing now but in the last six months it’s been because Jill and Cathy, my younger sister, have come and said “we’ll support you in this, we’ll be there for you”... in this last six months I’ve just really pulled my head in and thought “I want to see the next 30 years with me grandchildren”. So I’ve got to turn it around.’