In the early 1940s Bernadette was born into a large, staunchly Catholic family that lived in a small New South Wales town. Church and the church community were central in their lives, and the priest, Father Fitzjames, was a figure of absolute authority.
‘The priest was like God to everybody in the church’, Bernadette recalled. ‘Particularly this one, because he was tall and good looking, and looked great in his gowns and all that sort of stuff, and had an air about him.’ He was charismatic, she said.
When Bernadette was about 12, Father Fitzjames’s housekeeper fell ill, so her mother volunteered her and her older sister to take turns cooking breakfast for the priest after early morning mass. Bernadette explained that it was part of Church law that the priest shouldn’t be watched while he ate. So she cooked bacon and eggs for Father Fitzjames, and waited in his library while he ate them.
On two occasions, Father Fitzjames came to the library after breakfast and molested Bernadette. He put his hands down the front of her school uniform and fondled her.
It was the mid-1950s and Bernadette knew nothing about sex – and she didn’t for years to come. When she was 15, and her ‘sort of boyfriend’ kissed her and left a bit of spit on her lip, she believed that this would make her pregnant. Sex education just didn’t exist, she said.
After the incidents with Father Fitzjames, Bernadette refused to go back. She was made to go once more, and delivered his breakfast to him at the front door. Father Fitzjames did not abuse her again, but she often found him watching her when she was playing sport after school.
Most difficult were Bernadette’s ongoing encounters with him at confession. She felt guilty about what had happened, but didn’t want to confess this to Father Fitzjames.
‘I felt like I was the perpetrator. Which is a strange thing but I think it’s fairly common.’
Therefore, when she went to confession, she invented sins to tell the priest. In other words, she lied – which was a sin - but not a sin she could confess.
A few months later, Father Fitzjames was moved to another parish, and this was a great relief to her. The replacement priest was Father Patrick, a friend of Bernadette’s family.
Finally, she felt that she could truthfully confess. ‘The sun was shining through, so I could just see him through the wire mesh’, she recalled. ‘And I said “I let a priest touch me” - that’s what I said – and he said “Oh, he shouldn’t have done that”. But he didn’t know I heard him.’
Father Patrick told her to do penance. ‘It made me even more certain that I was the one who’d done the wrong thing.’
Not long afterwards, at a BBQ hosted by Bernadette’s family, Father Patrick ‘looked around and nobody was looking, and he just grabbed me and kissed me. Got my face and kissed me on the mouth.’ This was another enormous shock for Bernadette, one that has affected her all her life.
As an adult, Bernadette found it difficult to settle into jobs, relationships or a permanent home. She has spent time living and working in different parts of the world, and has raised her children on her own.
Bernadette suspects that one of her brothers may also have been abused. He attended a seminary, but left before entering the priesthood. As the years went by, he developed acute psychological problems, became very angry and erratic, and became estranged from his wife and children. He committed a serious and violent crime and is now in jail.
Like some of her brother’s children, Bernadette believes the only possible explanation for his unravelling is that he was sexually abused while in the seminary. ‘There’s no other reason really for a breakdown.’
In her late 20s, Bernadette disclosed Father Fitzjames’s sexual abuse to her mother. Her mother said ‘I never liked that man’ but she had no advice beyond that.
‘It was just such a foreign thing’, Bernadette said. ‘It was just so unknown.’
Bernadette later made contact with Broken Rites, and that led her to approach Towards Healing for compensation. Her application was declined at first, but her lawyer persisted and ultimately she was awarded $100,000. ‘It didn’t last very long but at least it happened.’
She is now pursuing additional compensation for her children, as secondary victims, and for herself, in recognition of Father Patrick’s assault. She hopes for enough to buy a small property. She has rented about 40 different places over the years, she said, and all she wants now is to be able to settle down.
The pain caused by her abuse has not diminished over the years. ‘It just gets worse’, she said. However, she is comforted by her Christian faith, not one aligned with a particular denomination, but one that is the product of a revelation.
‘Jesus came into my room’, she said. ‘Without the Lord, I don’t know what I would have done.’