‘I was no longer playing victim, I suppose. I got angry. I started to rage. I just raged. And I had to go to Sunday School, and I was so incensed that there was no-one to protect me.
‘I just reacted on some primitive level, I don’t know what it was. He pulled me up, and asked me to recite the alphabet or whatever the hell it was, and he had this big stick, this big ruler. It would have been at least two foot, and he would point it, and slap it around the page.
‘He started to touch me, and something in me just – I broke the stick and I hit him. And I kept hitting him. He grabbed the stick and I said to him, “Don’t you ever touch me again or I’ll tell everybody”’.
Father Michaelides was the parish priest at the Greek Orthodox Church Cleo attended with her family. It was a very traditional and patriarchal household, existing almost entirely within the Greek community – no ‘outsiders’ were allowed.
Cleo hadn’t really learned English or had any contact with anyone outside the community before she was sent to school. When she began attending school, it was difficult for her to navigate the different culture there.
‘Really difficult. Starting school was terrible because in those days we were wogs, if I can use that expression. We were the outsiders, we were unknown ... We were different, everything about us was different. The language was different, so I had to learn. So there was a demarcation point from home to school.’
Her parents made her attend the classes Michaelides ran after church each week, starting when she was five years old. ‘I just remember a lot of fear. I remember that he would target me, constantly, sitting me on his knee as early as I can remember, fondling me, touching me. ... I remember thinking, this is so bad, it feels so wrong.’
At first, Michaelides touched Cleo through her clothes, on her legs, thighs, buttocks, and genitals. Soon, he began placing his hands under her clothing, fondling her genitals and bottom.
The abuse became ‘more invasive’ as Cleo got older. Kept back in the church hall after class, ‘I was unable to escape’. He ‘began to penetrate my bottom and my vagina with his fingers, with various objects, and eventually with his penis. He forced me to touch his penis, and he placed his penis in my mouth. He licked my fingers, and also licked me on my body and on my genitals’.
Michaelides told Cleo she was a ‘bad girl’, and that she shouldn’t speak of this to anyone. She tried avoiding Sunday School, but her parents always made her go.
The priest was also abusing Cleo’s older sister, and each would watch the other being touched by him. He also had other victims in their Sunday School class.
When Cleo was 12 years old, she and her sister spoke to their mother about what Michaelides was doing. Their mother believed them immediately, and did not seem surprised or shocked. It was like she knew about the abuse already.
She told Cleo she must be quiet about it, or she would be in trouble. Then she gave her a hiding as punishment. Cleo was made to go back to Sunday School the next week.
Michaelides tried to touch her again, during her reading lesson. This time, she grabbed the wooden ruler he was holding and struck him with it repeatedly.
‘He just looked terrified. I was empowered. I just saw red, I was so angry. I was angry with God, I was angry with my mother, with her betraying me, angry with the Church, angry with him. I wasn’t going to cop it anymore.’
Although Cleo continued attending church and Sunday School, Michaelides never touched her again.
As far as Cleo knows, her mother kept contact with the priest until he died. Cleo was in her teens when this happened, and refused to attend his funeral.
Cleo told the Royal Commission she was a naive child, and was 15 before she even knew where babies came from. She feels the sexual abuse ‘stole her life’, including her faith in God and the Greek Orthodox Church.
She fled the family home when she was 19. Believing she was ‘a nothing and a nobody, trash’, Cleo had abusive relationships with men, and became very sexually active. Her mother always said the abuse showed all she would ever be in her life was a ‘prostitute’.
‘I made that prophecy come true. And that’s what I was for at least ten years of my life’.
In the past few years, Cleo’s life has changed course. Happily married, she has told her husband about the sexual abuse by Michaelides. Becoming a grandmother has inspired her to work on herself, to provide a good example and guidance to her granddaughter.
Cleo recently approached the Church about the abuse, and tried to speak to the Archbishop. When she told his receptionist the reason for her call, the woman was extremely abusive.
Her sister has also been angry at her for taking action. ‘It’s all about cover-up, and shame, and family honour.’ She has not reported the matter to police, as Michaelides is deceased.
Cleo’s legal team is currently pursuing a compensation claim on her behalf, but her lawyer says the Church ‘are being really difficult, very unresponsive’.
Cleo wants the Church to admit and apologise for what happened to her in their care. ‘I need validation. I need an apology. And I need it to become public.’
She would like to see a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to child sexual abuse, and the public denouncement of known paedophiles in the community. Children should be taught how to speak out, and that ‘stranger danger is not just stranger danger, it exists in your own home, in your own community’.
Remembering the ‘fearlessness’ she felt when she lashed out at Michaelides, and her achievements, she knows she is strong enough to keep pursuing justice for herself and other survivors.
‘I have a voice. And if I have to stand against family, and friend, and Church, to speak the truth – then that’s what I am going to do.’