In the late 1980s, Catheryn’s mother was a housekeeper at the local Catholic Church presbytery and would often take Catheryn, then a pre-schooler, with her to work. Father Barry Harper was the parish priest, and over a period of years he sexually abused Catheryn as well as her sisters and other girls in their New South Wales region.
Harper often went with Catheryn’s family on outings and he became a regular visitor to their home.
‘They’re probably my earliest memories of the abuse, when we’re in swimwear’, Catheryn said. ‘Other than that, over that period of time it sort of took place in our family home. There was several times when he would be there nightly, for several nights in a row some weeks.’
Harper would play games with the children and invite them to sit on his knee while he told stories. ‘He was very clever in intriguing children into what he wanted to do.’
The abuse continued until Catheryn was about 11 years old. ‘I eventually started getting to an age where I was more aware I guess, and started to be more stand-offish in my approach with him. Obviously I got to an age where I was not going to sit on his knee and things, so his ability to coax me into those situations became less I guess.’
When Catheryn was still young, Harper ‘moved his stuff out of the presbytery with a wheelbarrow in a hurry one afternoon and was just gone’. It later transpired that he’d been moved between parishes throughout Australia and overseas whenever his sexual offending was made known to the Catholic Church hierarchy.
‘Clearly people knew, and that was probably the most violating thing about it, is here’s all these Catholic children who put these people in a position of trust and it was badly betrayed.’
For years, Harper kept in contact with the family and at one stage sent $1,000 in the post, something that was thought strange at the time, and in retrospect, seemed to Catheryn as an act to assuage his guilt.
Catheryn didn’t tell her parents about the abuse when it was happening. In the early 2000s news of Harper’s offending was published in the media and Catheryn was asked directly by her mother if she’d abused by Harper. She answered that she had and it then became clear that several of her siblings had also been abused.
‘I’ve probably seen Mum’s decline a bit you know since it all happened’, Catheryn said. ‘She’s not what she was. Even anxiety, depression, you know, emotionally will burst into tears. She’s a mess and that’s hard to watch.’
Catheryn described the disabling effect the abuse has had on her own development. During overnight excursions in high school she’d ‘be a hysterical mess two hours into it because I just couldn’t be left alone. The abuse would take place when Mum would leave the room. I also had a lot of trouble going to school as a youngster, like Mum leaving me’. Until quite a late age, Catheryn continued to sleep in the same bed with her mother.
By the time Catheryn reported the abuse to NSW Police in the mid-2000s, Harper had died, and she regrets that he was never held to account for his crimes.
She eventually took civil action against the Catholic Church, in a process that was ‘horrendous’, and received $330,000.
In a meeting with the bishop, Catheryn indicated that she wanted to contact people who might have been abused by Harper in the other parishes, and asked the bishop for his support.
‘His response to me that day was, “Thank you Catheryn. I shall take what you’ve given me today and think about it in the shower this evening”. I’m not sure he would say that to a child … he may think he’s being funny but … it’s a kind of an area you wouldn’t even try and crack a joke in, to be honest. I mean, I know he put out in a newsletter recently [with] “the usual suspects”, referring to a group of victims who are very proactive in what they do. That’s what he referred to them as - the usual suspects. I mean it’s just distasteful.’
Catheryn has had some counselling over the years, and is contemplating having more therapy, this time with her husband, in order to deal with issues in their marriage.
She recommended the early education of children, and the discussion of ‘safe touching’ while they were in primary schools.
‘Kids aren’t taught things like that so as much as you know it’s wrong within yourself as a child, what are your avenues if something like that does happen to you? Why aren’t there people proactively in Catholic primary schools, in all primary schools … that come in and educate kids and things like that. “If this does happen, this is what you do”, ‘cause I find here in Australia it’s been kept under the carpet for too long and kids don’t have that level of awareness.’
For Catheryn, ‘one of the most devastating parts’ of the abuse was that she could no longer go to church.
‘Jesus left many years ago and this wasn’t his teaching. Jesus didn’t abuse children. I think I’ve had to make peace with that in the way of saying, well, these people use their positions of power to manipulate and commit crimes. Can I go to church and feel good? No. Do I try from time to time? Yeah, but it just opens up old wounds and that’s hard. But there’s times I’d like to go to church or in my life, when life gets tough and you don’t feel you can turn that direction because they betrayed you, that’s hard, you know - to be raised in the Catholic faith and say, that’s where I can get help or peace [but] know that caused you greater pain than most things in life.’