‘If I didn’t have parents like I do, I don’t know how I would be.’
Chantelle’s recollections of early family life are of being ‘always together’ and having ‘intertwined lives’ with her two sisters, Belinda and Angela.
As the eldest of the three girls, Belinda was protective, and ‘caring and nurturing’ of her sisters.
‘She was just the leader of the pack all the time’, Chantelle said. ‘Confident and funny and quirky, you know. Her troubles started when she was probably 13 so all the time up until then in the neighbourhood, friends, she ruled the roost. Everyone looked up to her.’
In their early teens, both Belinda and Angela were sexually abused by the parish priest who lived in the presbytery adjoining their Catholic school. In the 1990s, Belinda told her parents about the abuse, and her disclosure was followed soon after by Angela’s.
Chantelle has scant memories of the priest except for him shouting at her when she was about four years old. She didn’t cry at the time and wondered if that had been a factor whereby she ‘wasn’t targeted’ by him later.
The effect of the priest’s sexual abuse of Belinda and Angela was devastating for the whole family. Belinda became very unwell and over a period of years was admitted many times to hospital with mental and physical health problems, and for drug rehabilitation. Angela became withdrawn and depressed, and started drinking heavily.
‘I was so young, it was all very scary’, Chantelle said. She recalled once being with her mother and Belinda when they started arguing. ‘Because I’d never seen such family discord, I started crying, then [Belinda] felt bad. Still again, she was caring of me, which was really nice. She was always caring.’
As Belinda’s health deteriorated and her drug use increased, Chantelle found it difficult to be with her.
‘I don’t know if I disconnected from it, but I never really had compassion about it I guess, ‘cause I was always so angry at everything she was doing, ‘cause she was doing horrible things to me and to others, stealing from us, endless, endless stuff.’
At school, Chantelle was struggling and found it hard to study. She was seen as ‘naughty’ by teachers, and was told by one of them, ‘Don’t turn on the waterworks’ when she’d started crying one day. When the headmaster later found out about the difficulties Chantelle had been experiencing at home, he apologised and started crying himself.
Chantelle was disappointed not to do well in her final exams, and afterwards started several courses. She finished one TAFE course and worked part time before being accepted into university. However after Belinda’s death in the late 2000s, it was difficult to continue studying.
One night about a year before Belinda died, Chantelle had rung her.
‘I was just craving, I was thinking you know, I want this sister that I don’t have. But I do have her and I called her myself to reconnect, and was crying to her and said how much I still love her and all that stuff, and I’m so glad that I did ... From then on we had some nice moments together even though we were worlds and worlds apart.’
By that time, Angela’s health had also deteriorated and a sudden accident left her with significant injuries. Chantelle became one of the people providing care for her, and though the relationship was still often strained things had improved between them over the years.
Chantelle was now married and had children who adored Angela. However, it was difficult for Angela to reciprocate their affection, and she’d expressed resentment that Chantelle had needed emotional support and therapy when things appeared so ideal in her life.
Seeing therapists had been a mixed experience for Chantelle. She’d seen several psychologists, one of whom had told her, ‘basically, “Get over it and harden up”, you know’, while another had talked about her own issues. For some years she’d been seeing a psychiatrist and found him to be professional and supportive.
Chantelle told the Commissioner that in comparison to events in her life, other things often seemed ‘trivial’. She found it hard to answer questions from new people about her childhood and upbringing, and in a statement she read, Chantelle wondered what might have been had her sisters not been sexually abused by that priest.
‘In my current world I have nice friends, kind friends, and wholesome friends, but they don’t know the world Belinda was from and henceforth they don’t know the world I’m really from, the world I grew up in. I’m a fraud with a foot in each camp and not really at home anywhere. I put up a huge wall, block people out from getting to know me. I ignore their efforts to connect with texts and phone calls despite enjoying their company and thinking it would be good to get to know them. Despite my best intentions my wall works against them and I block them out.’
If anyone asked about her older sister, ‘I trail off not knowing what to say, panicking, trying to come up with a suitable response. How odd they must think my brief answer is. I always try hard to get better. It takes effort and learning and hard work’.
She sometimes dreams of Belinda ‘earlier in life, glowing from the inside out’, and tells her that she loves her, but then wakes ‘disappointed and heartbroken’. She also dreams of Angela.
‘In reality I feel guilty for living my life. For having my beautiful children and even my physical abilities while Angela has none of these. I feel guilty for not appreciating my abilities more and making the most of myself. I feel guilty for feeling depressed because I have every opportunity in life while she hasn’t. I feel guilty that she is on the outside of society and people feel uncomfortable by her presence. I feel sad she has no friends other than her carers. I feel awful that she is incapable of caring for a family and will therefore never experience having a child of her own despite wanting it so desperately.’
It also saddened Chantelle that her husband and children never knew ‘the greatest loves of my life’.
‘The cliché, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” has always stayed with me. I could never understand it, but just recently this is how I feel about Belinda. I’m grateful to have at least had her, to have had the joy of a shared childhood with her. I have so many fond memories of her and she made an indelible impression upon my soul and I am better for having had her. I idolised her and looked up to her in all.
‘I use the vast love I have for her to mother my own children the way I wish I could bring the child version of Belinda into my arms, make her feel safe and secure and protect her from evil in the world. She made me a better person. I’m thankful for her life and the wonder she made me feel, but I am so sorry it was so awful for her. I hate to think of how she felt. I know how awful I felt and I didn’t suffer the abuse she did.’