As a six-year-old child, Cornelia thought it was ‘normal’ for the priest to expose his penis and touch her vagina while she was sitting on his lap.
‘I remember there was someone else in the room and I looked to them for help, but they did nothing. I felt sick and confused, but no one was stopping it, so thought it must be okay. The feeling in the room was very heavy, it happened a number of times with other people in the room. I think one of the priests was Dutch.’ The abuse by the parish priest occurred at the Catholic primary school she attended in regional New South Wales.
For over a decade from the mid-1970s, Cornelia was abused by several men, including her father, the Catholic priests and a visiting teacher.
She kept the abuse to herself as a child, believing that if she spoke out, God would strike her down with lightning.
‘The priests would make those kinds of threats, and I just think it’s the most horrible thing to say to someone because it robs you of your faith. I was about eight years old and I strongly believed. I was told I was going to jail and prepared myself for that. It lasted years, and I was terrified.’
Cornelia only escaped the abuse when she left school at the age of 17, at which point she was actively pursuing ‘risky’ relationships with older men.
‘I looked older and went after men in their 30s mostly. Emotionally I hated men and wanted to hurt them, so that’s what I did for years. I did fall in love when I went to uni, and that relationship lasted two years. I never had children.’
In the mid-1980s, she decided to face her childhood demons and reveal details of the abuse to a priest and her mother. She felt her words fell on deaf ears.
‘My parents were very Catholic, and my mother refused to accept it. That same year I had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide after confronting my father about the sexual abuse. From the reaction I got I thought I must be mad and really expected to be struck down by lightning even though I was 26 years old.’
Cornelia believes her childhood abuse has ‘poisoned’ her sexuality.
‘I never knew what was happening to me until I turned 11 or 12 and we had sex education in school. I thought “Oh my God, that’s what’s been happening to me”, I’d never had a name for it before. I think it would have helped a lot to have known a name for it, to know what it was.’
Despite years of counselling and even shock therapy, she continues to struggle with dark and confusing childhood memories.
‘I often get periods of hopelessness and even last year I wished I could have ended it all but thankfully I feel better this year. I have just entered a new relationship, and have sought counselling over the years, but it can still be a struggle.’