‘I wipe my hands of the Catholic Church at the moment’, Annie told the Commissioner. She described herself as, these days, simply ‘Christian’. But growing up throughout the 1940s-1950s, she was one of a devout Catholic family. For her parents, as for others in the small New South Wales country town where they lived, Catholicism was not just a faith – it was also their community and their social network.
The local priest, Father Ian Pendle, was a central figure in their lives.
‘When he came there he befriended many families … Everyone thought he was wonderful. My parents took him into our home and he became, really, part of our family’, Annie said. ‘He went everywhere with us.’
Her parents, particularly her mother, looked after Pendle. She did his washing and ironing, bought him new shirts, and cooked meals for him. ‘My mum was so good to him.’
The high regard in which Pendle was held made it impossible for Annie to tell her parents that he was sexually abusing her. ‘I didn’t tell anyone because I think they might have thought there was something wrong with me.’ She doubted that anyone would have believed her, except perhaps her father, and he wouldn’t have wanted to ‘rock the boat’.
Annie didn’t disclose the abuse till she was in her 60s. Her session at the Commission was the first time she had ever spoken of it in any detail. But she hadn’t forgotten anything. ‘I’m 70’, she told the Commissioner. ‘I’m going back 60 years. I can still smell him. To this day, I can smell him.’
The abuse began when she was 10 and lasted about two years, until Pendle moved to another parish. Later, it emerged that Pendle sexually abused many young girls in his time as a priest, and that the Church protected him by moving him on to new parishes around Australia and overseas. He once faced charges and was acquitted, and died before he could be prosecuted again.
Annie thought Pendle targeted her because she was quiet and the ‘good one in the family’. As a trusted priest, he was able to spend a lot of unsupervised time with Annie and other kids in the church. ‘Back then parents would have thought, “My child is so lucky to go with the priest”. These days parents are much more cautious, and kids aren’t as involved in the church.’
Pendle took the children on picnics and bush walks, and to church group events and meetings. He volunteered to drive them home afterwards. Annie’s family didn’t have a car, so they were grateful. Annie was the last one in the car after the others had been dropped off. ‘That’s when it all started.’
The priest would drive into the bush. ‘He’d take me off the track – hands’d go into the clothes and down the pants, and digital penetration, and [he] kept whispering in my ear and kissing me on the neck and telling me it was okay. He said, “You can’t tell anyone because they won’t believe you”. Then he threatened me with, “I can read your mind”. I really thought he could. I was only a very young 10 year old. Very protected. A lot of us were, then.’
Over time Pendle became more insistent. ‘Even at home he’d try things.’ He’d be invited to family dinners and would molest Annie afterwards as she did her homework, or under the guise of putting her and her siblings to bed. He accompanied the family on holidays and molested her then. He threatened her, and also bought her silence by giving her expensive gifts.
‘Nobody twigged. But probably deep in my mind I knew it was another way of keeping me quiet’, she said. ‘He used to really stare at me with those evil eyes … He’d say, “I know what you’re thinking. Be careful”.’
Even after Pendle left the parish he stayed in touch with Annie’s family. When she married, her parents wanted her to ask him to conduct the service, but she refused. ‘He sent me a gift of Irish linen, which I gave promptly away.’
Annie is now pursuing a civil claim against the Church. ‘Something’s got to be done about all of this. The Church has got to be accountable’, she said. ‘It’s really bad, isn’t it – like Pendle, he’d do something wrong, abuse children and next minute he’s somewhere else. Then he’s somewhere else. He’s overseas, he’s interstate, he’s over in New Zealand. It’s a real pattern.’
She is also having counselling, paid for by the local diocese. ‘It’s working well for me’. And she has told her siblings and her children about her experiences. ‘To tell the kids was really hard. And my brother and sister got really upset.’ They are now a good source of support, as is her husband, who came with her to the Commission.
‘It took you a long time to tell me the story’, he said. And then they agreed: it just shows how hard it is to tell.