Della was born as the result of her mother having an affair with a man who briefly visited Australia from overseas. Della never met him. She grew up with her siblings, her mother and stepfather in a small town in New South Wales, and was treated very badly. ‘My mother used to say that she’d wanted an affair, not a child – “You’re not meant to be here” – so therefore I was to be punished.’
It was the 1950s, and the town where the family lived was fairly remote. Rather than going to church, they were regularly visited by Della’s uncle, Father Tomy, who held private masses with them, took confession and gave religious instruction. Afterwards, he’d spend time with the family to share a meal, have a beer, and watch sport on TV.
Father Tomy also used these visits as an opportunity to sexually assault Della. The abuse began when she was a very young child, she believes, and continued until she was about 11 and finally able to fight him off. ‘He called it putting his lolly in my bottom’, she recalled.
Father Tomy told Della that she was special and she’d been ‘chosen’ to be a nun. ‘So I needed lots of confessions to keep me pure, lots of instruction to prepare me for my vocation, and I needed lots of blessings.’
What this actually meant was many episodes of abuse. Most painful for Della is that her mother was complicit in Father Tomy’s assaults.
‘I think the worst thing was my mother was in the next room, and ignoring my calls for help. I did fight, I did run away, I did hide. I climbed out windows, down trees … I was always found, I was always dragged back and told what an ungrateful wretch I was, because I was being singled out and given special attention.’
When she was about eight Della confided in a next door neighbour about what was happening. He responded by also molesting her. ‘He said, “If a priest can do it, I can do it too”. Later, she sought out another neighbour, but he also responded by molesting her. She asked a local family if she could live with them, but they didn’t believe what she told them about her experiences.
Della became so desperate that she tried to kill herself. She had lapsed into unconsciousness when she was found by her stepfather. After that, ‘I stopped fighting. I went somewhere in my mind’, Della told the Commissioner.
Some time later, Della’s mother told her that she also had been abused by her brother, Father Tomy, and that it began when she was very young. He did it, she said, because he had been abused himself as a child at his Catholic school. ‘She said, “You’ll get used to it. It’ll get easier as you get older”.’
At about the age of 11, Della became strong enough to resist Father Tomy. But it wasn’t the end of abuse in her life. She suffered a great deal at the hands of her mother and stepfather, who victimised and bullied her. She was gang-raped as a 20-year-old, and became pregnant as a result. Her mother and stepfather refused to support her as did the Church. In due course, Della gave the newborn baby up for adoption.
She had another pregnancy and several unsatisfactory relationships. ‘It was kind of like the lights are on but there’s no one home. I went through the motions’, Della said. She moved interstate but returned home in her early 30s when she had a breakdown. Once again, her mother and stepfather failed her.
‘Where was my head? It’s sort of like, why would you want to go home? It’s like the scenario – go back for some more hurt and more pain and more rejection and more betrayal. Like yes, that’s all I deserve.’
Years at an ashram followed, and further sexual harassment.
‘It’s almost like I’ve got a sign flashing – abuse me or use me or control me or manipulate me … So even though I’m putting out warmth and affection and respect, and trying not to be judgemental, I still attract these scenarios’, Della told the Commissioner. ‘You start doubting yourself. What’s in me that’s attracting people’s responses? I feel like somehow I’m to blame, that I’m the villain here.’
In her mid-30s, after her family acted to have her scheduled as an involuntary patient to a mental health facility, Della broke off all contact with them. She said that these days she has significant health issues that make day to day life very difficult. She is seeing a counsellor, and as part of that process is recovering long-buried and deeply disturbing memories. She has not reported her abuse to the Church or to police. Because she lacked evidence of specific dates and places, she felt she wouldn’t be believed. Additionally, Father Tomy and her other abusers have all died. ‘I thought, they’re all gone, I’ll feel better’, she said.
Growing up, Della tried unsuccessfully on numerous occasions to get an adult to help her. Without that support, she’d managed her life by depending on herself. ‘It’s that self-reliance. No one else can do it.’ But looking back she believes being able to access other support might have helped.
‘If I’d had the kid’s helpline then I would have been onto it like a shot. I would have said “Get me out of here”.’