‘What happened was wrong … the more people that say things that were wrong, the better … I’m so glad you [the Commissioners] are doing this.’
Belynda grew up in a small town in Western Australia in the 1970s. She wasn’t Catholic but her best friend Carol was. When the girls were eight or nine years old, Carol’s family began to host the visiting priest when he flew in to conduct mass.
‘I just remember when he turned up and then, ‘cause my friend’s family were really strict Catholic, they’d invite the priest around for tea … my early memories of him, you know, just drinking a lot of wine and that sort of stuff.’
The priest paid special attention to Belynda, Carol and Carol’s younger sister.
‘When he had mass … we’d go to the presbytery and then he’d let us be like altar boys … do the wine and ring the bell … and I guess in hindsight … I think of grooming. At the time, obviously, I didn’t know that.’
The priest invited the children to come and stay at his home presbytery for a weekend. The trip would involve a plane ride.
‘My [Catholic] friend’s parents didn’t have a problem with it.’
Belynda’s parents gave her the choice and she decided to go with her friend. She thought it would be exciting, that it was ‘a really big thing’.
The priest picked the girls up from the airport and drove them to the presbytery where they stayed with him for the weekend. Belynda has sharp, clear images of the weekend.
‘I can remember certain things that happened, like I can close my eyes and see a photo, you know.’
One of the incidents Belynda remembers is when the four of them, the three girls and the priest, were playing in the bedroom of the presbytery.
‘It was like a pillow fight and, you know, we were all just mucking around and his pants came down and he had an erection. Like I can see that. And I’d never seen that in my life. That’s something that’s vivid.’
Another incident that Belynda remembers is when they all went to the beach.
‘The same thing happened again. We were swimming and his bathers fell off … he was running around with no pants on.’
They all slept in the same bed too and Belynda, at eight or nine years of age, had no idea what to make of the priest’s behaviour.
‘I have that photo of him naked and his erection … I knew that it wasn’t right and I never spoke about it to anyone … I guess what really bugs me about it is that I never did forget about it. And I’d never seen that before … it’s like a photograph.’
For many years Belynda has wondered if the priest did more to Carol.
‘She [Carol] killed herself when we were 17 … we were 17 and she killed herself, she overdosed. And ‘cause we were like besties, I didn’t get that. I didn’t understand … there was never a reason that she did it … and I really mourned that. I didn’t know how to grieve for that.’
In 1992, five years after Carol had taken her life, Belynda found out that the priest had visited Carol just a week before she died. She tracked down the priest and called him, leaving messages, with no response for months and months.
‘Finally … I got him … I wanted to know – I said, “Did you see Carol before she died?” And he’s like, “Yes … she was really happy. A week before she died, she was really happy when I saw her”.’
Belynda continued to be suspicious and almost 10 years after that phone call she read a news report that detailed charges and convictions brought against the priest for the sexual abuse of children in another part of Western Australia.
‘It was like I’d just been like stabbed or something. It was like all these jigsaw puzzle pieces came together … It was so familiar … everything … I read the story. It’s the same MO, exactly the same. And then [I thought], “What else did happen?”’
She spoke to a number of people from her old home town and discovered the priest had been ‘run out of town’ all those years before.
‘And I’m like, “What does that mean?” And, “Why was that?”’
Sex was generally not spoken about in her family.
‘Back in those days it was taboo stuff … I’d never seen my parents naked. It was like taboo … You just don’t talk about stuff like that. [At the time] I didn’t even know where a baby came out.’
The shame that Belynda felt around the incident meant that she didn’t speak about it until she was over 30 years of age. She told a Catholic principal at a local Catholic school but doesn’t believe the principal passed on her story to anyone within the church.
‘I was really that naive and I’d never seen a man’s penis ... it kind of grew me up a few years in advance. It was an exposure I didn’t understand.
‘I could never tell my husband about it ... I wanted to tell him but I didn’t know how to tell him … If it wasn’t wrong, I wouldn’t think about it like that.’
But it is her friend’s death, and the possibility that the priest could have been stopped long before he was convicted of child sexual abuse, that has really haunted her.
‘That’s the biggest thing for me because she was the best … I sent the newspaper clippings to her family because they never knew why she killed herself. But they never responded … He was worshipped by my friend’s family … Whatever hold he had on her, he didn’t have that on me. But he knew he had it on her. Good little Catholics.’
Belynda has been on anti-depressant medication since her early 20s, manages anxiety and is divorced.
‘It took all my life to put this together … And I guess what bugs me the most, is that if they did know, why didn’t they do anything? Why did they [just] move him? … I think they need to admit what they’ve done wrong, the [Catholic] church, “Yeah we did shuffle these people around and expose your children”.’
Belynda doesn’t feel that she needs justice for herself but she has made a police statement and is ‘happy to stand up in a court’ and ‘support someone else that may have been actually [abused] more severe’ by the priest.
‘We were little girls. Innocent little girls … took away a few years of my innocence … The questions of “how did that happen?” they are always there.’