‘The most important thing to get across is the authority that a priest holds when you’re raised Catholic in generations of strong Catholics, and also the fear they inspire. The authority, and they’re scary, scary people. What that can do to a child in the fear that it gave me and the fact that I could not tell anybody was because of who he was and the authority that he held. He wasn’t just my uncle, he was a Catholic priest.
‘As a little child you know, being brought up Catholic, their word is sacred. They hold the truth, they are respected, and you don’t have anything on that. And when they treat you like he treated me, you do feel like you are the ultimate dirt because this is the man of God doing this to you. You are nothing. To have that as a little child, that takes away anything, everything. It colours everything and every other person that you see and that you meet.’
In Bridget’s family there was a gap of many years between her and older siblings, so they were free to go out whenever their uncle, Father Gerry Dawe, came over, while she was stuck with him. Dawe’s attention towards Bridget started with ‘special time’ when she was four years old. He began by lying with her, reading bedtime stories then started touching and stroking her. Over the next four years the abuse progressed to oral sex and digital penetration.
Bridget told the Commissioner that the abuse often occurred while she was sitting watching television with her parents. No one thought it odd that the priest sat alone with her on the lounge with a blanket over them.
‘I think if people have no thought that that could be happening, it won’t enter their minds’, Bridget said. ‘It’s so, I guess, alien to what they expect to be going on … What’s right in front of your face you don’t see. It still does disturb me in some ways. I know I had such fear on my face and I was, my memory is, I was there shaking, and no one noticed it.’
Bridget said she felt such a sense of betrayal by her family that she stopped talking to them from the age of 12. She had no one else to tell about the abuse and while teachers at school noticed bad behaviour, none questioned why she was acting out.
Her attempts to alert them through creative writing exercises failed. In Year 8 she wrote a story with graphic depictions of rape and was told that her writing was good, but that because it was a Catholic school she’d have to remove those references. In Year 10, she wrote what was ostensibly a suicide note, and was given an ‘A’ by the teacher and told she should be a writer.
In her teenage years, Bridget started using drugs and exchanging money for sex.
She was in her mid-20s when her mother told her that Dawe had been admitted to hospital for psychiatric care. Bridget was relieved he wouldn’t have access to children. However, in 2001 she learned, again from her mother, that he was back working in a parish in New South Wales. The news so distressed Bridget that she disclosed the abuse to her mother, who replied that she’d always had suspicions about Dawe, but had never thought he’d do something under their roof.
Bridget then rang Dawe and confronted him directly. He responded by saying, ‘I only ever loved you’, at which point Bridget hung up and was physically sick.
Next, she reported the abuse to the diocese. A short time later she received a call from a counsellor whose first line of questioning indicated she thought Bridget was having a ‘false memory’. At that point Bridget said she discontinued the conversation and had no further contact with Catholic Church staff.
In the mid-2010s, Bridget reported the abuse to NSW Police. Although she’d always had a deep distrust of everyone in positions of authority, she found the officer she spoke to ‘very good, very understanding’. The officer outlined the requirements of making a formal statement and the details that would be required.
‘She gave me a lot of the questions they would be asking, if it was to go any further, I would need to be able to answer, and a lot of them I couldn’t answer ‘cause I was so young and I did dissociate a lot when I was going through this. So there were specific incidents where I could say it happened all the time, but I couldn’t tell you the dates. I’d be lucky to tell you the months. So I kind of fell over at that point.’
Bridget said she struggled with feelings of worthlessness until her mid-30s. ‘I don’t have a hatred of myself anymore, I don’t have that shame around what was done to me anymore. But for the first 30 years, yeah, I did. And I treated myself very, very badly as a result.’
She stopped using drugs in 2002 and had made many changes in her life since then. ‘There are still triggers’, she said. ‘I’m much better at recognising them, but I still have problems with trust, particularly in intimate relationships.’
She said she didn’t want another child to live through what she did. In coming to the Royal Commission she was speaking for others.
‘This is my opportunity to speak and be heard, which I’ve never felt that I’ve had, and to be taken seriously. There’s so many people I knew when I was younger who are dead who don’t get that chance. They’re no longer here. And there’s many people I know who, that fear has gripped them so much of speaking out, that they’re not doing it.
‘I can work through the anxiety. I can have the anxiety with me. I know it will pass. My experience has taught me that … Standing in my truth and speaking up is more important than giving in to feeling sick and running away again.’