Clea came to the Royal Commission for herself and her brother William, to talk about being sexually abused by Christian Brothers in Sydney’s south west in the early 1960s.
She spoke with the Commissioner and also read from a prepared statement.
‘My mother was a devout Catholic and her aim was to educate her children in the Catholic faith, which is “the one true faith”. They talk about terrorism, and Catholics have “the one true faith”. I just think it’s amazing … there’s so much damage caused by this “one true faith”.’
When Clea’s brother was about to start at his new primary school, a Christian Brother came to their house. He offered to take both children to the school and show them around.
‘I don’t understand why my parents allowed us to go with Brother Prewitt unaccompanied at such a young age. Except that there was absolute trust in the Catholic Church and clergy … They were like gods.
‘When we were at the school premises … Brother Prewitt separated me from my brother and sexually assaulted me. I was approximately six or seven years old …
‘It wasn’t something that I can recall thinking was okay, it was just something terrifying …
‘We attended the school on a number of occasions and these events were repeated. He also visited us in our home … and I recall that he assaulted me in my home as well. I believe that these events happened over a number of months.
‘My recollection is that I was frozen in terms of being able to tell my parents what had happened to me. And I was also made to promise not to tell my parents and to keep a secret.’
Clea said that William was later sexually abused by another Christian Brother, ‘and he was spiritually and emotionally abused by others throughout his school years’.
She also spoke of the impacts throughout her life of the abuse she suffered.
‘It’s the wrecking of a child’s self, the feelings of safety in the world. And the feelings of terror and anger, which basically all get suppressed. Damage to the core beliefs about myself, being a bad, dirty, shameful person. A person who’s not allowed to tell, and that bad things will happen to them. A person who must protect their parents and make sure nothing bad happens to them. A person full of shame and a person out of control at times.
‘I believe I’ve become a person full of responsibility for other people, with an over-sense of responsibility for taking care of people. Partly I think it’s a good thing. In my work I’ve always tried to look for the people who don’t have a voice and I’ve felt committed to that. But probably over-committed and worked myself to exhaustion.
‘I’ve had times of total dissociation of feelings, feelings of numbness and blocking out. Fear of reprisal, fear of not being believed, there’s still fear that somehow the Church or the Christian Brothers will come back and say “Hey, that’s not true” or “That didn’t happen” or “That wasn’t that bad”.
‘I’ve had addictions, including work, alcohol. I’ve felt hopeless and helpless. I’ve felt spiritually bereft, basically. Having to set aside the grief and anger of losing the God of my childhood. And that God was supposed to be a God of love.
‘I couldn’t relate sexually to men … I have a fantastic, long-term partnership with a woman. I did choose not to have children because I don’t believe you can keep children safe in the world. I just don’t feel that I could ever have kept a child safe, and that it would be too much of a burden on any child. I still don’t think you can keep a child safe.’
In the early 2010s Clea had counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, and other ongoing effects of the abuse. She has also done some training and volunteer work with trauma survivors, which she’s found very helpful for her own healing.
Just before her private session, Clea and William discovered that Prewitt had been named publicly as an alleged perpetrator of child sexual abuse. She read from the record:
‘“Brother Prewitt received a canonical warning and a censure in relation to a complaint that involved a girl” … and then again, he was mentioned again … so how many more people are there?
‘They were obviously just moving these blokes around ... What, he got a warning? What, from the pope saying he was a bad boy?
‘Why did they keep them? How could they do it?’
Clea hasn’t made a claim for compensation but was considering it. However, she said that the financial aspect was less important than receiving proper acknowledgement of the abuse and an apology from the Church.
Coming to the Commission was ‘a really hard process’ for her.
‘This private session is the first time that I’ve reported details of the abuse. I’m a very private person and, to be honest, my brother knows, my therapist knows, my partner knows but I’m not a person who speaks publicly about this. It’s about the sense of shame, which I’m working a lot on because I shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
‘I live a fulfilling life. I’m 61 and I don’t believe I should be affected by something that happened when I was six. And I want to move towards that and I believe that I will. And I’m appreciative of the Commission for doing this because one thing I think is that it can help people to move forward …
‘Part of me would like to see it as a way for people to come out of this, with some hope of flourishing. And repairing. Not survivors gathering together to share their morbid stories but more some sort of, I don’t know, celebration of being somewhere else. And just supporting each other and being with each other and what I call flourishing rather than surviving …
‘And I’ve used this to push myself here, and with the help of counselling and support to actually come here to do this. Even though part of me thinks “Why are you wasting your time with this because it’s so hurtful and depressing?” But here I am. And you’re listening.’