‘I have experienced a murderous rage. I have been painfully shattered by the deceit, betrayal and corrupt psyche of a … priest whom I thought would never harm my daughter. I also feel betrayed by the Catholic Church’s systemic inadequacy to satisfactorily address their internal structures, belief systems and corrupt power that have long protected priests’ criminal activity, and have provided fertile breeding ground for the abhorrent abuse to continue.’
Bev and her daughter, Jess, attended separate private sessions at the Royal Commission, to speak individually about how the abuse Jess experienced at the hands of a priest has affected them both.
Bev told the Commissioner, ‘[The Church’s] actions have not protected the most vulnerable members of our communities, the innocent children who are unable to speak up for themselves out of … fear and incomprehensible cruelty that has been forced upon them’.
Jess grew up in rural New South Wales, and attended a Catholic primary school in the late 1980s. Her mother was a staunch Catholic. Jess said, ‘Religion, church, all came before anything else … Sunday mass. You had to go. If you didn’t sing and participate, she’d smack you and stuff like that …’
Jess’s father was also Catholic, but ‘believed that you can be a good person and not have to go to church … There were a lot of arguments at home between my mum and my dad over going to church’.
Father O’Brien was an older priest who lived in the presbytery on the grounds of Jess’s school. He often came into the playground and offered the children lollies and chocolates.
‘And that’s how it all started really. I’d go up and get a chocolate from him.’ He would then entice Jess into his room with the offer of another treat, such as a soft drink. ‘We were raised that priests were … the gods, absolute gods. They could do no wrong.’
None of the other priests in the presbytery said anything when they saw Jess going into O’Brien’s room.
Jess was raped by Father O’Brien many times, from Year 3 until she left primary school in Year 6, and he threatened that if she told anyone, ‘“You’ll go to hell”, all this sort of thing … He was just awful. He’d say, “I’ll kill your family”. He was just horrendous. You know, “You tell anyone, they’ll all die. I know where you live”. I was just absolutely petrified’.
Jess told the Commissioner, ‘He drank a lot. Like he always drank … I didn’t know that he was an alcoholic and that they kept sending him away. I didn’t find that out till … years later. Till [the lawyer] got the records’.
After the sexual abuse started, Jess’s behaviour began to change. ‘I got really, really naughty and just really, you know.’ One of the nuns took Jess out of class one day and asked her if anyone had touched her. ‘I just got up and ran away. Didn’t want to see her ever again.’
The nun phoned Bev to ask her the same question. Bev recalled, ‘I just kind of assumed that she’s thinking someone in our family was touching Jess inappropriately and I knew that wasn’t happening and I never, ever twigged that it was happening at school. I think my upbringing … blinded me … I had an unquestionable belief … and trust … and he took advantage of that’.
Bev never asked Jess if anyone was abusing her. But Jess believes that even if Bev had asked, ‘I was so petrified, I don’t think I would have told her. I think I would have denied it’.
Bev told the Commissioner that Jess’s behaviour became unmanageable when she went to high school.
‘It was just unbearable, because she used to become very aggressive and she was very outspoken towards the teachers … I could never understand why she was so different and behaved so poorly and really quite rude and obnoxious.’
When Jess was 17 she began to suffer depression. She decided to move away after she left school. ‘I couldn’t settle into anything. Had a … drug habit … alcohol abuse, drug abuse. That’s all part of it.’
Jess was ‘really suicidal’ and her alcohol consumption was out of control. ‘I’d just start crying and burst into tears … I just couldn’t function at all really. So then I … went to see a sexual abuse counsellor … and because I was under 18 she said, “I have to report it” … I told her my story, from start to finish. I’d never told anybody, and then I didn’t want to go back and see her again.’
When Jess didn’t return, the counsellor went to her home and told Jess that her reaction was quite normal. She has continued to have counselling and is on anti-depressants. Some days are better than others, and Jess believes that this contributed to the breakup of her relationship. She is also very protective, ‘probably over-protective’ as a parent.
After the counsellor reported the abuse, the police informed Jess and Bev that O’Brien had died, so there was nothing they could do for them.
Jess was angry with herself. ‘I always wanted to go and confront him and say, “Now I’m an adult, mate. You know what you did to me” and punch him on the nose, probably with my thoughts. And then he died and all of a sudden I felt so powerless …’
Bev felt that she needed to do something, despite what the police had said. ‘If I listened to [the police], she wasn’t going to get any justice, and I really wanted her to receive some justice.’
Bev began writing letters to Church officials. She asked, ‘How can my daughter manage her life well in the face of Father O’Brien’s sexual abuse and grow into all that she was created to become … when she carries the dense, painful, bodily, psychological and spiritual carnage within her? Even addressing this man as “Father” in my letter strongly revolts against the very core essence of a sacred inner truth within me’.
The officials directed Bev and Jess to the Church’s Towards Healing program. Bev: ‘[The program was] really poorly put together. None of it was professional. You’d get different people on the phone all the time, and then they sent this parish lady out … No follow-up calls or anything.’
When Jess received a draft of the report of her interview, it was filled with inaccuracies. Instead of using the recorded transcript of the interview, the woman had used her own words to describe Jess’s sexual abuse.
Jess decided not to continue with Towards Healing and consulted a solicitor instead. Because O’Brien had died, the Church was no longer accountable for the abuse and the school eventually took responsibility. Jess was awarded a large compensation payment, two-thirds of which went to the solicitor.
Jess believes that the abuse she experienced has ‘destroyed’ her mother’s life.
‘It destroyed her marriage to my dad. He just couldn’t put up with [her religious passion] any more … And then I come out and say what’s happened to me and then she stopped going to church altogether. So I think … when she looks back on her life … I understand that she must be feeling pretty rotten about all that.’
Bev is proud of her daughter, and told the Commissioner that she ‘would like to highlight the fact that despite the abhorrent abuse and enormous difficulties Jess has experienced, she has overcome much adversity with strong self-determination and she continues to make every effort to bring goodness and happiness into her life’.
Jess came to the Royal Commission because she considers herself ‘one of the lucky ones … It changed me as a person, and it’s still there, but I’ve come out the other side of it … [Some] people don’t tell anybody, so that’s why I thought, “If I can help …”’.