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Cynthia's story

‘I was in fifth class and I was 10. I was preparing for my confirmation so I have a timeframe … I was asking the nun who’d been my kindergarten teacher to be my sponsor at my confirmation and she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to be there, and by the time I actually was confirmed, my attitude to it had completely changed and I didn’t care that she actually was there. My dates suggest around June or just before that. I was confirmed on the fourth of June, so perhaps in May.’

One evening in the 1980s, Cynthia was with her father and other men as they sorted and counted money from the church’s weekly takings. It was a job she enjoyed and did regularly so when Father Hughes-Jones suggested she go with him and watch television, she didn’t want to.

‘It was the last thing I wanted to do in terms of, I’ve come here to do this with Dad. I liked it and the men would joke around with each other and I just loved it, being there with them. I remember thinking to go and watch TV would be just boring and I could do that at home, plus also kind of awkward. But he insisted, so I went.’

Cynthia was led through the presbytery lounge room past another priest, Father Healy, who was watching television and then taken to the upstairs bedroom of Father Hughes-Jones. There, the priest knelt down beside Cynthia, put his hands down her pants and fondled her, before putting her on the bed and raping her.

‘I was lying in shock and I didn’t really understand what had happened’, Cynthia said. Hughes-Jones left the room and Father Healy came in. ‘He helped me put my clothes on, took me into the bathroom, helped me wipe myself and he told me that Father Hughes-Jones had not been able to help it, [and] I was a very bad girl, and if I was to tell anyone they’d know and they’d hate me.’

When Father Healy took Cynthia downstairs, she began to cry. Her father asked what was wrong but she said, ‘Nothing’. That evening both parents tried to get Cynthia to tell them what was wrong, but again she said, ‘Nothing’.

‘I remember thinking to myself that night, what was that?’ she said. ‘And making the effort to just not think about it. I thought to myself, “Don’t think about it and it will go away”.’

Afraid that her mother would see her blood-stained underpants, Cynthia took them to school the next day and disposed of them in a public waste bin.

Cynthia told the Commissioner she thought her efforts at blocking out the assault had been successful, but in the 1990s her sister, Debbie, returned to their small town in New South Wales and started having nightmares about being sexually abused by Hughes-Jones. Cynthia, who’d never left town, then ‘recalled the events of the rape’.

Through a succession of sessions with a local massage therapist and breathing exercises, Cynthia’s memories of abuse became clearer. She also remembered an evening meeting at their family home in which Hughes-Jones had gone into the bedroom of Debbie, then aged three, and stayed in there with the door closed. When the priest next visited them for dinner, Cynthia’s sister spat a mouthful of peas in his face.

Cynthia’s parents were ‘devastated’ when they learned of the abuse, and believed both daughters’ stories. Cynthia’s father took her to confront Hughes-Jones. The priest initially stated that ‘if that’s what you think is right, then I understand your position’, and later denied knowledge of what they were talking about.

Cynthia’s father then reported it to the bishop who agreed to a meeting with the family. Two people given the task of assessing the abuse claims, conducted separate short interviews with Cynthia and Debbie.

The bishop’s conclusion at the completion of the ‘investigation’ was that the girls’ allegations weren’t true. He cited the unlikely risk Hughes-Jones would have taken in abusing them in the circumstances described; that the priest was of good character and had never been the subject of other complaints; and the manner in which Cynthia had remembered events – through massage and breathing exercises – was doubtful.

The rejection letter from the bishop arrived in the late 1990s, a year after the meeting. In the early 2000s, Cynthia and Debbie found out Hughes-Jones was living in a remote New South Wales town and drove there to confront him. He refused to speak to them.

Realising the presbytery was in the grounds of a school, they went to speak to the principal, warning her not to let Hughes-Jones be alone with children. She listened to them and then contacted the bishop. He in turn rang Cynthia and arranged another meeting.

‘We met outside the jail and he had just visited a paedophile priest in jail, one of his “brothers” who he had extreme compassion for’, Cynthia said. ‘He’s known as some kind of champion of the sexual abuse victims in the Church and it’s such a load of rubbish. To look back now and think that we met there and that all we talked about was this poor brother in the jail … It’s so manipulative of, like [they] wear cassocks and we have to be forgiving. It’s just such crap.’

In the mid-2010s, Cynthia made a statement to New South Wales Police outlining in detail the abuse by Hughes-Jones, and at the time of speaking with the Royal Commission, the matter was being investigated.

Cynthia said when she disclosed the abuse to her husband, he was relieved. He’d been worried over their years of marriage thinking ‘there was something wrong with us’, and now saw reasons for past problems. The couple’s two daughters had grown up to be healthy and happy young women. They’d gone to a Catholic school, but Cynthia said she ‘made sure my girls understood that the priests were dangerous and they were never to go near the presbytery’.

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