Ashlee describes herself as a survivor.
‘I’ve had to be. The last relationship was just a nightmare but I survived … I feel like I’m doing okay, I might look like a mess but I feel like I’m on top of it. But my emotions are a bit touchy sometimes.’
She survived sexual abuse by a priest when she was a child, then further sexual abuse as a young girl, and later, a series of relationships with abusive partners.
Ashlee grew up in a small town in regional New South Wales in the 1960s. Her father was often away from the house because of his job and her mother, who was a staunch Catholic, became very friendly with the local priest, a man in his early 30s.
‘He became part of the family. Like he used to come on holidays with us.’
It was on one of these holidays, when Ashlee was about four, that the priest sexually assaulted her. He got into her bed, lay on top of her and rubbed himself against her. He would often volunteer to take her to the toilet and he would wipe her genitals with his fingers instead of toilet paper.
Ashlee knows her sister was also abused by the same priest, and over a longer period of time, but neither of them believe their parents knew anything about it. She said, especially for her mother who trusted the priest absolutely, ‘it wouldn’t have entered her mind’.
‘We were quite outspoken. But I still never said anything about this. And with me I didn’t realise there was anything wrong at that stage. It was only when I was older that I realised what actually had happened. So I wasn’t going to say anything.’
However, the abuse did have a devastating impact on her.
‘This is where it gets tough. I didn’t think it would. So basically, looking back now I feel like what he did may have just left me open and I was abused after that by a couple of other people … And I have always wondered if there’s something about your personality that makes you vulnerable or, I don’t know.’
She was abused by a friend of her mother’s when she was eight, and a friend of her father’s when she was 11. The second man made her believe she would get into trouble if she said anything to her father, so she stayed quiet about all of it.
‘I thought it really didn’t mean anything to me as I grew older, but then you sort of think, I think it really did and I found myself in quite abusive relationships through the years and you think “That’s my lot”.’
Ashlee has two children from two violent relationships, and has only managed to free herself from the most recent relationship in the last few years. The struggles have left her drained and emotionally cold, and she’s concerned about the intergenerational impact of the abuse.
‘We have a daughter and she doesn’t have anything to do with him … but it is a worry because she’s seen stuff she should never have seen and it does have an impact. And she’s been in a relationship with a guy since she was 14 [who] hasn’t treated her very well and then I blame myself.’
Ashlee has not approached the police or the Catholic Church about the abuse, and she doesn’t plan to. She doesn’t see a counsellor, but she and her sister talked about their experiences and her sister supported her decision to come forward and tell her story.
The thing that really keeps Ashlee going now is her love of animals. She has a large property where she keeps horses, dogs, cats and goats, and she appreciates the unconditional love they offer.
‘My animals, definitely. And then my children once they came along ... And then even once I had the children the animals were always very, very big, they’ve always been a big part of my life. Because you know that you have to, if I’m not there to feed them they’re going to die … They 100 percent rely on me.’