Claire was raised in Western Australia in the 1970s, in a staunchly Catholic family. Her father was heavily involved with their local church, so she ‘spent a good deal of time at the church throughout my entire childhood, and predominantly unsupervised’.
Claire’s mother suffered mental health issues and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. ‘I have a vivid memory of me sitting in her lounge chair smoking a cigarette and looking after my younger sister, which is what she did. I was eight.’
She told the Commissioner that her father was ‘physically and emotionally abusive’ towards her, and she was reprimanded daily. ‘I’m the Devil’s child. I’ll go to hell when I die. I’m fat. I’ll amount to nothing. I’m a slut. I’m a whore. I’m a prostitute. That he wished I wasn’t born. He threatened to kill me. To crucify me. I was blamed … for my mother’s mental health issues.’
Claire does not blame her parents for their behaviour, or for what happened to her, and believes that they were both victims of abuse when they were young, just as she was.
‘I was a needy child. I was looking to belong. Looking for acceptance. Looking for love and affection. Which was why I was so vulnerable to predatory men and I was forced to look for validation outside the family.’
Brother Martin had known Claire’s parents since before she was born. ‘From as far back as I remember, Brother Martin always showed me love and affection. He cuddled, hugged and kissed me. He told me he loved me ... He gave me special privileges … He devoted time to me. He made me feel special and important.’
The Brother began sexually abusing Claire when she was three. She remembers vividly what she was wearing when he led her away, saying he wanted to show her something.
‘Brother Martin then took off his rosary bead belt that he wore around his waist. It had large wooden beads with a wooden crucifix. He encouraged me to touch it … and showed me how to rub my hands over it … [in] an up-and-down motion. This is how he introduced me to his penis and how to masturbate him.’
Over the next four years, Brother Martin progressed to showing Claire his penis, which he told her was ‘something special I could play with’, and encouraging her to ‘touch it like I did with the wooden cross. He turned it into a fun game’. He would also place his robe over her and instruct her to perform oral sex on him.
When Claire was given ‘the very special honour’ of representing the church at a religious ceremony, Brother Martin told her that she needed a ‘special blessing’. He took her into his room, laid her on the bed, and inserted a large wooden cross into her vagina. ‘I flinched. I was scared and confused and in pain. He told me it’s what God wanted him to do. I was a sinner. This is how I would be forgiven.’ This is one of many occasions that she remembers experiencing ‘the same soreness and inflammation of my vagina’.
This abuse has significantly affected her life. ‘I loathed myself, hitting myself, and threatening to kill myself. I have suffered from depression … I have struggled with my own self-worth and value and still to this day I think and feel that I am nothing but a failure … I am constantly looking for approval and work myself into the ground doing that. I’m afraid and intimidated by authority.’
Claire explained that ‘I’ve never been able to have a long term relationship with a man. I’m afraid of men. I don’t trust them’. She has never experienced ‘true intimacy or love’.
Sex often makes her cry, ‘like I am reliving the abuse’, and she feels ‘a great deal of shame and seediness when I masturbate’. Even attempting to do pelvic floor exercises reminds her ‘of the tightening up of my vaginal muscles while Brother Martin was shoving the wooden cross in and out of my vagina’.
‘I wonder what would have been my potential if I wasn’t abused. What could I have achieved if I was not burdened or tormented daily by post-traumatic stress? To not wake up in the morning crippled by an inferiority complex, anger, rage, hurt, sensitivity, blame, paranoia … To sit comfortably in the moment, to feel at peace.’
With counselling and natural therapies, Claire is now finding ‘a way to survive’. ‘I feel like I’m not a victim. Even now, I’m not a survivor, I’m a thriver … Every minute I’m getting stronger and it will not define me … No, I can have a happy, fulfilling life, despite that, and that’s where I’m at’.
She believes that ‘we need to stop revering priests and Brothers, putting them on a pedestal, and rid the Church of the power they assume over the community … demystify the issue for children. Priests and Brothers and nuns are just everyday people who have a job to do. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect. It doesn’t even make them good people’.
Claire thinks that the Royal Commission has brought a lot of people ‘out of the woodwork’, because before it was established ‘there wasn’t a forum for them to be able to tell their story at all’. She is concerned about the Commission coming to an end. ‘It just can’t. There has to be an ongoing thing for this, where people can feel safe and supported’.