‘I actually felt sorry for them you know. I felt pity for them when I was a kid. I thought they were lonely. That’s how I rationalised it myself. I didn’t see it as something that was wrong.’
As a 10-year-old, Claire used to wait for her brother outside his Marist Brothers school so they could walk home together. Over a period of months in the late 1950s, Claire was befriended by Brother Herbert who encouraged her interest in sports and would take her to the equipment room so she could pump up her netball.
‘Over a time and I don’t know if it was three months or nine months, I don’t really remember, but he started to cuddle me – hug me is probably the word – and then he started to kiss me, not incredibly passionately, not tongue kissing or anything like that, but I could feel him trembling. But I actually felt quite powerful. It was not an experience that made me feel scared at all. I felt quite powerful. He would then take me to the tuckshop and I could have whatever I wanted. I felt special I suppose, although I never used that word.’
Claire told the Commissioner she knew she shouldn’t speak to others about what Brother Herbert was doing, but she had no real frame of reference for the behaviour either. ‘I saw that I was with somebody who was very powerful and I felt that I had control over that person in that I had a secret about him, rather than he had a secret about me. That’s what I mean about being powerful.’
During that same year, the principal of the Sydney school, Brother Walter, asked Claire to his office. Once inside, he sat her on the desk and started kissing her in similar ways to Brother Herbert. This occurred on numerous occasions and each time he’d also offer her the choice of the tuckshop afterwards. ‘Whether there was collaboration between those two, I don’t know.’ She felt more afraid of Brother Walter who was ‘harder’ and ‘more intimidating’.
One afternoon, Claire’s brother came looking for her and found Brother Herbert kissing her. The Brother appeared flustered but made no comment and that night Claire’s brother told their father what had happened. Claire was told by her parents not to go near the school again. She doubted whether they made any approach to the Brothers. ‘I don’t think my parents would have wanted to make trouble’, she said. ‘They would have wanted to manage it in the family.’
No report was ever made to NSW Police and Claire has never sought compensation or redress from the Catholic Church or Marist Brothers.
In later life, Claire occasionally represented victims of sexual assault in her role as a lawyer, and she came to recognise that what happened to her was probably grooming behaviour. ‘It’s very interesting that I feel relieved in talking about it because I always felt I should say something but I didn’t really have a story as such; I just had what I’ve told you.’
She thought it probable that the two Marist Brothers acted against other children. ‘They may fit in with other situations where there were people that didn’t have a brother like I did, or the circumstance that, “There but for the grace of god”.’
In her work, Claire had seen the lasting effects child sexual assault had on victims and she supported better and more consistent systems of redress.
‘I actually think there should be compensation. I think apologies are fine if you even get them. I think the way the Catholic Church has behaved is absolutely disgraceful and I think that’s an institutional response, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect a lot of the good people who are in those institutions. I got a marvellous education from the Mercy nuns. They were like any group of people, there were good and bad ones, but you get that in any school.
‘But the way the Catholic Church has responded and danced around their liability and all the rest of it I think is a disgrace. I think some people should be criminally responsible. I think they have hidden these paedophiles and just moved them on somewhere else …
‘Saying sorry’s one thing but you’ve got to actually pay for what you do that’s wrong.
It’s compensable under the law; why would these people be exempt? If they’d broken your leg they’d have to pay so [they should] if they break your spirit or your mind, or stop you being able to form relationships.’
Claire also advocated better ways of recognising and preventing offender behaviour.
‘I think it’s one thing to say that people are sick but I think we have difficulty in incorporating those behaviours into our range of human behaviour, but clearly they are there and we need to look at a way to fix it, like we look at a way to fix domestic violence. It’s the same sort of thing in the sense that it used to be very hidden and it was in your own home …
‘I think one of the great things this Commission is doing is putting it up in the headlines because the scale of it, the damage that’s done from it, is so horrific. I mean the economic argument from it is the strongest argument isn’t it?’