‘I think that most of the current priests would have known for a long time about things that have been going on, and they just have not stood up for justice and truth and the right thing.’
Debbie, by contrast, has been trying to do the right thing for decades. She first took action in the early 1980s while working as a teacher at a Catholic primary school. After noticing ‘sexualised behaviour’ among the year 5 and 6 boys she became concerned and raised the matter with the principal, Sister Margaret.
Sister Margaret suggested that the boys’ behaviour was probably just sexual curiosity and the early onset of puberty. But she didn’t completely dismiss Debbie’s concerns, confiding some of her own worries about the behaviour of one of the teachers, Father Clements, who often took boys alone with him into the presbytery. She had implored him many times to stop but he ignored her.
‘She was powerless’, Debbie told the Commissioner. ‘She didn’t know what to do. She had nowhere to go with it. She didn’t know exactly what was going on but she didn’t like it.’
Not long after this meeting, Father Clements left the parish, ostensibly because he had suffered a death in the family and needed some time off. Years later, Clements was revealed to be a serial paedophile whom the bishop had shunted to another parish to avoid a scandal.
By the 1990s Debbie had pieced together a hidden history of the primary school, revealing a culture of widespread child sexual abuse that many clergy members knew of and covered up. Outraged, she began corresponding with clergy at all levels, voicing her concerns. She received only a handful of responses, all of which were feeble and dismissive.
Undeterred, she met with the Church’s Special Issues Committee, which, to her surprise, turned out to be one uniformed policeman and one priest.
‘I said, “Would you consider coming to the parish and just being with families, so you can listen to them and help them?” “Oh no, if they need to see us they come here”, that was their response.’
So Debbie tried another approach. During a meeting at her own diocese, she suggested the Church hold an annual liturgy to recognise the problem of child sexual abuse. She received a letter back from the diocesan priests saying, ‘Whilst they were all very concerned about the issue I was raising they’d decided they would not take that idea to the bishop’.
As if this weren’t frustrating enough, Debbie also had to mingle with a congregation that was growing increasingly churlish in its attitude towards victims of child sexual abuse.
‘It’s common even up until this date to hear Catholics saying such things as, “They’re only wanting money” or “Why don’t you just move on?”’
Debbie’s own attitudes – and even her personality – have changed after so many years of conflict and frustration.
‘It’s affected my ability to trust, especially authority or authority figures. I don’t believe everything that I’m told. I’m quite cynical. I try not to be … I used to be a real group person, community groups and things. Now I would rather not because I find engaging with a lot of the conversations on community issues and things, a lot of it’s the same sort of rhetoric: all talk and no action, bulldust and trying to put something over. People are – their consciousness is so fogged.’
She’s also become hyper-vigilant about child safety, leaping to suspicion at the sight of any adult man in the company of a child. On top of all this, she has lost her faith – though she’s not sorry about it.
‘I don’t feel badly about that. I feel like I’ve come through some sort of a big wall to a deeper understanding and consciousness about everything, really.’