‘The things we experienced were just actions – the words are what has had a lifelong and devastating affect – around and round were the things spoken going in my head – You’re special/you’re wicked – your parents don’t love you – you’ll go to heaven/ you’ll go to the bad girls home … We believed everything they told us’.
Clare grew up in a large Catholic family in Sydney in the 1950s. She was her grandmother’s favourite and would often stay at her house. Clare’s grandmother was very involved with the local Marist Brothers and liked to entertain priests in her home.
Clare finds it very difficult to talk about her sexual abuse, so when she came to the Royal Commission she brought a handwritten note detailing the abuse and its impact on her.
She wanted the Commissioner to understand how she was groomed by the priest and how it progressed, so she wrote part of the note from the point of view of a four-year-old girl, the age she was when the abuse began.
Clare wrote, ‘She didn’t know how to say the name that Nan called him and he said to just say “Father” – just like her daddy is her father but he is from God.
‘The prayers and talking were first and then a walk out in the yard to feed the horse over the fence and collect the eggs and sit to watch the chickens … Father always had lollies for her but that was a secret – like the tickling games and the raspberries on her tummy – not raspberries like Mummy did and not really her tummy but special like daddies did. But not her daddy – he was away – that was OK because Father was there to do that game that tickled funny and felt sore after sometimes. She knew that it was OK because it was God’s special secret way of telling little girls how much their daddy loved them – so if Daddy did not then he didn’t love her but Father did.’
The priest also abused Clare in the church.
‘Be a good girl don’t make any noise and do as you are told. And she did always do what a grown up tells you – even when Father’s new game made her cough and choke sometimes and was yukky – she was a good girl and so special and beautiful and all the lollies took that taste away – not too many now – can’t have you getting fat – your little body is God’s and you have to keep it beautiful.’
Occasionally, Clare’s brother would come with her and the priest would abuse both of them. He’d threaten the children, if anyone was ever told, they’d be sent to a children’s home and never see their parents again.
Clare wrote, ‘She learnt her lesson and became invisible and never spoke unless spoken to and was good and quiet as a mouse because children should be seen and not heard. Her brother did not stay quiet so he was sent to bed without tea a lot of times’.
As the two grew up they were taken to sports practice, provided free by another Brother from the church. His ‘games were like Father’s but … Brother gave us money as well as lollies’.
Clare said, ‘Now as an adult I know all the technical terms – oral sex, digital and foreign object vaginal and oral penetration – but then they were games and made me feel special and chosen and I can even remember feeling some sensations of pleasure at times. This used to be contributing to my feelings of shame and guilt but now I understand the physical response is not a choice or a sign of permission.’
As Clare got older she became ‘an invisible, people-pleasing good girl – no voice, no opinions, no friends, no warm or loving relationship with my parents … I was a mouse. I wasn’t there. If I’m not there I can’t react to things or have things happen’.
Clare said she’s ‘never felt safe or secure or treasured or special again. I have no social life and no desire to build one – I lie to my kids so they think I am busy with friends and activities so they don’t worry about me’.
Talking about her brother is still very distressing.
‘He never stopped acting up … He first attempted suicide at 13 when I found him unconscious … He begged me not to tell of his treatment for the shame he felt. His life was a round of alcohol and jail and misery until he suicided … I carry that guilt every day.’
She also struggles with the fact that it all happened so long ago. This almost stopped her coming to the Royal Commission.
‘I kept thinking to myself, “Why bother? You’re too old now. It’s done. It’s been in the box and you got on”. But I want to make a difference. And to think that my brother had such a terrible life and he’s got … children who are all without a dad now.’
When she spoke to the Commissioner, Clare was seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants. But the best medicine is her family.
‘I’ve got to the stage where I’m not angry at everybody anymore because not everybody was responsible for it. I just need to find that peace … My only joy in life [is] my grandchildren … And I think more than anything being around the little ones helps.’