Cathy's story

When choosing a movie, Cathy is more cautious than most, knowing certain scenes or events could trigger flashbacks to painful memories of childhood abuse in rural New South Wales.

‘I remember watching a film where some boys were trapped in a chicken coop and later killed. Something about their inability to fight back really resonated with me, I was very affected by it.’

Cathy told the Commissioner that from the age of three until she was eight she was regularly molested and sometimes digitally raped by Father Ryan, a parish priest and close family friend.

‘He was very opportunistic, and would find ways to get me alone. We’d be in his car and he’d start saying and doing things, and even as a really little girl I knew the only power I had was not to feel, so I cut that part of myself off and would just stare out the window.’

Cathy told of finding courage to reveal the secret to her mother, but instead of setting off alarm bells, her words fell on deaf ears.

‘My mother told me I was a bad girl for making up stories and accusing Father Ryan of hurting me. He was really like a brother to my mum, and at that point, somewhere inside me my candle was snuffed out.’

Nearly 30 years later, Cathy wrote a letter to the Church detailing the abuse she’d experienced, in the hope of receiving acknowledgment and even an apology.

‘After I sent the letter, Father Ryan turned up at my house looking really uncomfortable. I was absolutely petrified, and he said, “How do you know, you were so young?” and I told him the memories were surfacing.’

The priest’s admission during the confrontation not only shocked Cathy, but also confirmed that despite nearly 30 years having passed, her memories were real.

‘He said, “When I was changing your nappy I put my finger in your vagina and I know I shouldn’t have done it, that it was wrong”, then he asked if I needed money and if he could help. The next week I received a cheque in the mail for $800, and I felt like I was being paid off to keep quiet.’

Cathy said she later returned the cheque with a note suggesting the money might be better used for priests imprisoned in their own fear and shame.

In the early 1990s, Cathy approached the Church to bring her case to their attention, and remembers concerns expressed only for Father Ryan’s wellbeing.

‘Father Ryan was still an active parish priest, and once I had to stand by and watch him christen my goddaughter which was just an awful experience. The Church focused on the fact that my abuse happened so long ago. I was urged to maintain my silence and warned that if I spoke up, it could ruin Father Ryan’s life. What about my life?’

‘I’ve been so careful to protect my children from abuse. I know its effect, and used to feel as though I was betraying my pain by being kind to others, and it’s taken a lot of work to change that line of thinking. I’ve done a lot of therapy and have my art as well which has helped me cope through the years to rid my body of that toxicity. It’s been a battle.’

By telling her story, Cathy hopes to generate greater community awareness of abuse and its effects, to ensure children living in Australia are better protected.

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