‘I remember this plain as day’ Antonia recalled of the last time the local parish priest, Father Milton O’Malley – a good friend of both her Irish parents – arrived at the family home in a lakeside suburb north of Sydney.
Not long before, both Antonia and her older sister had suffered a prolonged period of sexual abuse, which began in the 1970s when Antonia was about nine or 10 years old.
‘[Mum] said [as the priest approached the house]: “You get back in that car. Bernie Whelan [Antonia’s father] will be home any minute and he’s gonna kill ya.”
‘Father O’Malley didn’t say one word. He just got back in his car and left.’
They never saw him again.
For years after that Antonia ‘just blocked’ the abuse which had started with Father O’Malley befriending her devout parents through their mutual heritage and weekly church attendance, and progressed to joining the family on outings and picnics.
The ‘first time’ occurred at a large public pool, Antonia recalled. ‘My sister and I were in the pool with him and I couldn’t stand up … so he’d get me to hang on to him so I had my arm around his neck, and next minute I could feel that my hand was down the front of him.’
This touching of his penis while stranded in deep water with Father O’Malley, later revealed as a notorious paedophile, occurred on a number of occasions both in pools and at the beach.
Once, her parents allowed Antonia and her sister to accompany Father O’Malley to collect his niece who lived a long drive away. In a motel en route, Antonia remembers her sister was in a double bed with the priest, so she began to cry and said to her sister ‘I don’t want to be here’.
‘Father O’Malley said “come in here into bed with us”. So I got on the other side of him and I think we were watching TV or something. The next minute I felt [what] I thought was his thumb, but it wasn’t. I, sort of, didn’t know what to do and then I remember getting out saying I had to go to the toilet.’
Antonia clearly remembers that while hiding around the next wall she tried to get her sister’s attention.
‘She [Antonia’s sister] must have said “Oh, I’ll just go and check on her”. And when she came in I said to her “he made me touch him”. I think she said, “He did to me, too”. I was crying. I said, “I want to go home. I want to go home to Mum and Dad”. She said, “It’s all right. We’ve only got one more night here and then we’ll be back [home] tomorrow”.’
Not having said a word to her parents on their return, Antonia was surprised soon after at her mother’s deep anger when Father O’Malley appeared at the house for the last time.
Despite her blocking what Father O’Malley had done, Antonia had a dreadful time at school, feeling ‘sad’ and suffering depression before she left in year 10. She gave birth to several children during different abusive relationships that have now ended.
Antonia’s childhood sexual abuse re-surfaced in recent years when her daughter complained to her school about a teacher touching her inappropriately.
Confused about the next step, Antonia consulted an old friend.
‘I said I don’t know what to do about this and she said, “You need to talk to her because, Antonia, you said to me once you felt that your mum and dad didn’t do anything about that priest. You don’t want her to think that you’re not doing anything about this”.’
While talking to the school counsellor Antonia learned of recent publicity she had missed about Father O’Malley abusing children.
‘That was the day it actually all came back to me. I had to redo my make up because I was crying too much … I got off the phone… and thought “Oh, my God, this did happen to us. I didn’t know he did it to anybody else … and it sort of made it real.’
With her sister, Antonia consulted solicitors in 2011 and received a settlement from the Catholic Church. She never reported Father O’Malley, now dead, to police.
For a several years Antonia did not speak to her mother who she once angrily accused of doing nothing when her older sister disclosed Father O’Malley’s abuse.
Her mother told Antonia she and her husband had not known what to do, having never heard of child sexual abuse. ‘We didn’t know whether to contact the police’, her mother said, because ‘we didn’t know whether anyone would believe us’.
Antonia, who remains ‘scared of life’ and ‘of loss’ and of something happening to her children, has been to ‘a lot’ of counsellors over the years about her severe depression and anxiety.
‘I couldn’t function. I had one counsellor who said at one stage she didn’t know what to do with me – I was too far gone. I got to the stage where she had to come to my house because I couldn’t leave the house.’
Antonia has remained somewhat resilient by maintaining ‘a brave face’ for her children with whom she is close and who know what happened in her childhood.
‘I have a lot of anger … I just think that [those] ones [in the Church] that knew about it covered it up. I know they can’t do anything about the ones who have died but I don’t understand why they can’t punish the ones that are still here. I’m so angry to think they’ve got off with that.’