Growing up in Perth, Coraline did not have a happy family life. She recalled being sexually abused by her father when she was three, in addition to numerous other physical and emotional abuses throughout her childhood. ‘It made me think desperately I’ve got no one to turn to. There’s no adult in my life I can talk to.’
With her family active in the Presbyterian Church, from a young age Coraline was sent each holidays to a camp run by the Church youth group. ‘I’m sure they used to send me away just to get me out of the house.’ In the mid-1960s, at the age of nine, she and her fellow attendees were travelling by bus to the camp grounds. The adults were sitting at the front while the children sat behind them.
‘As we were going up the hill, the big boys – I’m talking as an eight- or nine-year-old now – were sitting along the back seat. And Danny Collins called me up to come and sit with them. I was very young, innocent and naive. So I went up and he said, “Sit on my lap”. I felt hesitant. But I knew them, they were in the church. They knew me and I knew them.
'So he said “Sit on my lap” and it was right in the middle of the back seat in full view if anyone turned around and looked. He made me sit on his lap – and he’d undone his pants.’
Danny, who was in his mid-teens at the time, then attempted to rape Coraline and force her to masturbate him. ‘I don’t think he actually penetrated but it hurt.
‘I felt horrible. I know I would’ve gone red ‘cause I always blushed. But I was too scared to get away. In the end I got up the courage to escape and go back to my seat. I think I was hoping someone would turn round, and come and rescue me but no one did. I don’t even know if anyone looked.’
Coraline did not tell anyone about the abuse and was terrified for the duration of the camp.
‘There’s a set of little buildings where we would sleep at night. And all the big boys were in this dark green painted corrugated-iron shed up near the road … It must’ve been several times during the whole camp they said, “Come over to our place”.
'If they were on the verandah, they’d call me. I wouldn’t go near it … I was very frightened and I couldn’t sleep at night. I just remember lying on the top bunk each night, terrified they were gonna come through the window.’
Coraline did not tell any of the other girls about her fears and does not know if anyone else was targetted by the ‘big boys’.
‘I was very frightened. I wouldn’t even go and do the activities, or if I did I was scared they’d get me on my own. So I didn’t know who to turn to or where to go …
'So I’d go and sit outside the kitchen door because I knew there were safe mothers in there. Forever afterwards I stayed away from big boys. Like anyone five or six years older frightened me, even up to my mid-20s.’
About a year after the camp, Coraline told her mother about the abuse but no action was ever taken.
‘For some reason I said something to her. I didn’t go into the detail but I told her what he did. And she just looked really shocked. Didn’t say anything. Never said anything again but I know she told my dad, she must have.’
Coraline continued to live out her childhood in an unhappy family life, and credits the support from her grandparents, friends and teachers for helping her survive her teenage years. She left home as soon as she could, got married and started her own family. The incident at the camp was not mentioned again until her 30s, when she disclosed it during a counselling session for an unrelated issue.
These days Coraline no longer has any contact with her parents, and she and her husband work hard to provide a supportive and safe environment for their children. ‘I’m hyper-vigilant about my children and about my grandchildren now … We just wanted to have a family that was always going to be safe. Bring them up, not insulated, but able to handle the world and be resilient.’
‘I know there are good people in the world, so I know that my parents and Danny Collins were bad people who should be held to account. I am not a bad person. I’ve protected and loved my children. It’s made me aware of the damage that can be done to children, and I do everything I can to prevent and repair it in my children.’
Coraline has not sought compensation for the abuse she experienced but has recently reported Danny Collins to the police, and the matter is under investigation. She believes that there should always be ‘a designated safe person at anything that a child attends’, who has responsibility for properly reporting these matters and acting in the child’s best interests. ‘If that had been at that camp or on the bus it wouldn’t have happened.’