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Cornelia Elizabeth's story

Cornelia grew up with her mum and siblings in suburban Hobart after her parents separated. It was the 1960s and there wasn’t much help for single parents, and her mother struggled to provide for them all.

The Anglican church they attended, where Cornelia also went to Sunday school, was just across the road from their house. The parish priest, Reverend Monaghan, lived there with his wife and children. Mrs Monaghan ‘was particularly kind to our family because of the circumstances’.

The church gardens were very beautiful, and when Cornelia was around four years old she spent a lot of time in the grounds to escape her difficult home life. Reverend Monaghan sexually abused her there a number of times.

‘Suddenly he would appear out of nowhere. And he would come up to me, kneel down, put his arm around me ... Run his hand up my leg, and his fingers would go into my pants, and he would fondle me.’

Cornelia would freeze. ‘I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. And it was terrifying. And I can’t remember how many times that actually happened outside of the church ... I can’t recall what he was actually saying to me. But I certainly stopped playing in the gardens.’

Not long after these incidents Cornelia was baptised with her younger siblings. During this service Reverend Monaghan managed to sexually assault her again. Cornelia is still shocked that he did this right in front of her mother and other parishioners – ‘he’s obviously very practised at what he was doing’. Fortunately, Cornelia soon moved out of the area, and never saw the priest after this.

Cornelia recognised how Reverend Monaghan took advantage of her vulnerability as a young child with a troubled home life. ‘I’ve quite often said, why me? But I sort of think about it and, well, I was at risk. Our family situation, the era, my mother being divorced ... I was at risk, and I was chosen. And I’m glad we moved, because I believe he was, now in retrospect, he was grooming me [for further abuse] ... And that would have continued on.’

Prior to this abuse Cornelia had been well-behaved and a conscientious student – ‘I was an articulate kid, I was smart’. Afterwards she started ‘having issues’, especially with anger. She thinks that even if anyone had noticed her changes in behaviour they would probably have just put these down to her home circumstances.

When she was 12 she took an overdose of her mother’s tranquilisers and was taken to hospital. She was sent her to see a male psychiatrist but felt very uncomfortable about speaking to a man, so for the next year she sat there and said nothing during their sessions.

In her 20s Cornelia moved away from the area, and tried to block the abuse out of her mind. ‘I think it’s something you sort of bury inside you ... It’s not spoken about in the community ... It certainly was the era of children not being believed in a big way.’

In the late 1990s Cornelia’s mum became very ill, and the family all got together – ‘I had cut myself off from the family for a long time’. Cornelia took this opportunity to tell her sister about the abuse, and her sister was supportive. She did not disclose to anyone else.

Soon after this Cornelia started seeing many media reports about child sexual abuse, and decided to telephone the Church to report her experiences. She spoke to a sympathetic lady who promised to look further into the matter.

This lady rang back a while later and told Cornelia that Reverend Monaghan had retired in the 1970s and was now deceased, so there would be little point in reporting the abuse to police. She also mentioned compensation, and said that if Cornelia wanted to pursue this she would need to make a statutory declaration. Cornelia ‘was very appalled by that’ as she worried that whoever she got to sign her declaration might read its contents.

Overall, she found this engagement impersonal and clinical. The Church did not offer any support, counselling, or apology.

The lady then told Cornelia she was leaving her role, and that a man would take over. Cornelia did not want to deal with a man, so disengaged from this process. ‘How insensitive, how inappropriate, to not have in place both females and males ... I was just really pissed off ... I thought well they’ve effectively pushed me out of the picture’.

After this contact with the Church, Cornelia experienced a major depressive episode and it took some years for her to recover. Cornelia would now like to approach the Church again regarding compensation and redress, and would like to receive an apology. She has information about accessing free legal advice regarding her options.

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