During summer holidays in the early 1970s, Catherine went to stay with her aunt in coastal New South Wales. Her aunt was friendly with a local priest, Father Donald Ross, and one day he drove everyone to the beach. While her younger cousins played in the shallow water, 10-year-old Catherine was on a boogie board further out when Father Ross swam towards her.
‘I was out there in the water with him by myself’, Catherine said. ‘He was going to help me catch waves into the beach but instead of just holding the board or ankles or whatever, he held me and put his fingers inside the crotch area of my swimmers.’ This happened twice before Catherine caught a wave to shore and didn’t go back out.
‘I did not say anything to my aunt. In fact, I did not tell anyone of the incident until I told my first boyfriend at age 16. He was sympathetic, but had no idea what to do or say.’
At the end of summer holidays, Catherine started high school. Father Ross was a regular visitor there, and would often have groups of girls around him.
‘Because I thought I was the only one I thought it odd that he didn’t single me out for attention. He had a little harem of girls around him and I was just one of the girls, and I just found that very confusing that he’d done that to me and I wasn’t singled out as being special.’
In her teenage and adult years Catherine tried not to think about what the priest had done. In her 30s, she told her sister and was able to ‘talk to her on an empathetic level’.
‘It was just a memory that would come to me every now and again and I’d think I really should ring the church because my main worry was where he was and what he was doing, but I didn’t know who to ring. I didn't have the courage to ring.’
In the late 2000s, news of Father Ross’s sexual abuse of children came to the fore in media reports. Catherine contacted staff of Towards Healing and this process ‘went really well’. The person to whom she spoke was understanding and offered counselling, and Catherine requested and was granted support to attend a yoga retreat.
At around the same time, Catherine told her husband and children who, after their initial ‘shock’, were very supportive.
Towards Healing staff put Catherine in touch with a formal support service not far from where she lived and she found that helpful. Through the service, she met other women who’d grown up in the same area and had also been sexually abused by Father Ross.
As time passed, Catherine became aware of the extent to which Ross had been moved around parishes in New South Wales and interstate whenever news of his abuse of children surfaced. ‘Clearly, people did know’, she said. Ross died over 10 years ago but Catherine believed these who knew of his offending carried responsibility as well.
‘What I really object to is the notion of confession for priests – that they can still confess to a fellow priest and therefore they’re absolved of their sins and I just think that gives them an out to say, “Okay, I’m cleansed now. Whatever I did in the past doesn’t matter”, and down the track they can do it all again and get absolved again. I just think that they can’t hide behind that, what they call the secrecy of the confessional. That has to go. I’d be happy for the Church as an institution to go but I know that’s not going to happen. But there has to be, it has to become more secular. You can’t hide behind that anymore.’