When five-year-old Blanche’s father died, the clergy rallied around his widow and her young children. One in particular, Brother Wilfred, ‘used to come to our house on the weekend to help my mum get all the kids to bed’, Blanche recalled. ‘He came on Friday and Saturday nights for many years.’
And in their beds on those nights, Brother Wilfred regularly abused Blanche and her sister Rosie. ‘From when I was about seven, he would put his hands under the covers, and finger me and rub my breasts. He would often rub his penis in between touching me … He would also do some of these things to my sister.’
The priest was a teacher at a Sydney Marist Brothers school.
‘I can remember the first time it happened’, Blanche says. ‘Mum was in the kitchen, we’d just had fish ’n’ chips; we – the youngest – were sitting on the floor, watching TV. And it was cold on the floor, and Brother Wilfred was sitting in the armchair, and he said, “Come and sit on my lap”, which I did. Then he started touching me, and I remember looking over at my big brothers – and nobody did anything. And I went, “Oh, maybe this is normal?”’
Eventually she decided it wasn’t – but she shrank from telling her mother. ‘When you were a child, they – the priests and nuns – were stuck on a pedestal. They couldn’t do anything wrong. You’d end up going to hell if you dobbed on them.’
The family was very poor. Blanche remembers how she and Rosie got a newspaper delivery round when she was 11. ‘Mum didn’t have any money; we had just hand-me-down clothes and we wanted to buy things. So we went for this job – and we got it! And the way we got around, we had skates: I wore one skate and Rosie wore the other one.’
Poverty helped make Blanche vulnerable to Brother Wilfred. ‘He would take me out to the movies and to dinner, and because I was poor and didn’t get to do these things, I would always go … But you know what is going to come after it … He would finger me, touch my breasts and rub his penis at these other places as well.
‘Then he would tell me, over and over, that this was our special secret and not to tell anybody.’
The abuse became worse as the years passed. ‘When I was 12, Brother Wilfred took a bunch of us kids away on a leadership weekend. The boys were put together in a big room, but all the girls were on their own in separate rooms … I woke in the middle of the night and my nighty was pulled up to my shoulders, and Brother Wilfred was stooping over me, putting pressure on me – and he had no pants and his penis was out.
‘He was about to penetrate me but I bolted to my brother and begged him to take me home. I wonder what happened to the other girls in those single rooms.’
Blanche and Rosie began changing their lives to avoid their abuser. ‘As soon as we turned 14 we got part-time jobs at David Jones, and then McDonald’s. We signed on for every shift we could, so we wouldn’t be at home on the weekend. By then, our family had moved to another suburb – but he still kept coming to our house.’
The sisters finally told their parents when Blanche was 17. The shock was intense but not much was said – there was no real answer when Blanche asked, ‘Weren’t you aware, Mum, that he was molesting us for seven years?’ However, a week later their stepfather relayed the news that Brother Wilfred had been moved from school teaching to work at a university.
This didn’t help Blanche. ‘I would have liked to have done nursing, but I didn’t go to university because I felt I might come near him.’ Instead, she worked in community health, then married. She says she was extremely protective of her children and grandchildren and, after her divorce, kept adult males away from the home for 12 years before forming a new relationship.
The idea of seeking counselling and pursuing her abuser was set aside while her mother was still alive – ‘When Mum was in the nursing home she got upset about it’ – but more recently Blanche approached a lawyer. The encounter was not a success. ‘It was very confronting … I explained how I had been abused from the age of seven until I was 15, and he said, “Have you ever had a drug habit? Alcohol habit? Gambling habit? Been involved in prostitution?” And I went, “No, thank God!” And he said, “Oh, well, you’re not really affected”.
‘Then he just started talking about the monetary factor. So in the end I told him, “I think this is more about your pay day than some sort of solution to how I’m feeling”.’
Brother Wilfred is long dead but Blanche still wants her story to make a difference. ‘Back then, when we told our parents, it was all handled in-house: over and done with, move on. No police, no counselling.
‘I want the abuse that we suffered to never happen again. I want children to be believed. I want allegations to be properly investigated. And there should be checks put in place so that abusers can’t continue working with children.’