Belle loved the Catholic Church when she was growing up in Western Australia. She was extremely religious, much to the concern of her Methodist mother, and was even thinking about becoming a nun.
Remembering how that trust and love evaporated in an instant still makes her physically sick. Belle was 15 when she went to an open day for a boys’ college run by the Christian Brothers. Her memory of who drove her from home to the college, or whether her family were even there, is very foggy. But the abuse itself is crystal clear.
A Father Duggan was showing her group around the grounds. He managed to separate her from the group and point something out to her. Belle had her school blazer on. ‘He must have turned … and he put his left hand in through my blazer and he started playing with my right breast.’ Father Duggan hid her easily from the group ‘because he was so fat and I was so skinny’.
‘It was like an electric shock, what he was doing to my body. I thought God had come down and struck me ... I absolutely adored what went on in the church and the way I was treated. Because the nuns really thought that women could do it all.’
Belle had flourished under their attention. ‘And suddenly, bang … I’m struck. I didn’t know what was happening. I don’t remember what he said.’ But Belle remembers how he smelt. She passed a Brother years later on the street and nearly threw up.
‘I know there’s been worse, however … I was just, well, it destroyed me.’ She didn’t know anything about sex, or the body. She was from a Catholic school in the early 1960s, after all. ‘12-year-old girls today would know, but we didn’t. We knew nothing.’
Belle didn’t know how to tell anyone, or that she even could. ‘We were told the priests represented God.’ The betrayal transformed Belle. Father Duggan’s abuse of her was the start of a downward slide. She went off the Church completely, left her Catholic school and went to a state school. She transformed from an ambitious young girl who was going to be someone, into a young woman who couldn’t speak up. ‘Men had this amazing power. It was physical and emotional.’
There were further episodes of Belle being sexually abused. ‘It’s like there’s a tag on you - “It’s happened. Do it again”.’ She now has severe trust issues with men.
Thirty years after the abuse, Belle contacted a support group in WA who were connected to an inquiry into the same boys’ college. They sent her photos of the staff and she identified Father Duggan. A group spokesman told her Duggan had been the principal at the time and Belle wasn’t the only woman he abused. ‘His words were “He got to the cook in the kitchen”.’ Unfortunately, the investigation into the college had closed, so Belle was unable to tell her story.
When Belle was a high school teacher, girls would sometimes come and disclose sexual abuse to her. Belle would duly report it. Time after time she saw incidents get swept under the carpet. Belle disclosed her own abuse to a nun at one Catholic school where she taught. Her response was ‘cool, calm and collected’.
‘It’s all okay now, we’re dealing with it,’ the nun told her, ‘I’m on the board. We’re dealing with it.’ Belle said that phrase was one she heard a lot.
After seeing the weak responses to sexual abuse from both government and non-government schools, Belle is keen to see them become more accountable. She’s not sure how that might be achieved.
Belle’s been on antidepressants, on and off, for many years. She has a counsellor who is not dwelling on her past but giving her practical tools to help improve her quality of life.
She has never tried to take legal action against the college and hasn’t got the energy to do so. ‘I just want to get over it,’ she told the Commissioner.