Eleanor lived the first 10 years of her life just like a ‘normal 1950s girl in a country town’. She played sport, rode horses and went to mass every Sunday. Then one day a new young priest arrived in her small New South Wales town.
His name was Father McDonagh and he was a charismatic, ‘groovy’ man who quickly took an interest in Eleanor and her family, insinuating himself into their home by befriending Eleanor’s lonely mother.
Pretty soon he became a regular fixture, taking his place on the couch after dinner while the kids watched TV. It became normal practice at these times for him to sit with his arm around Eleanor. Nobody thought there was anything bad about this. On the contrary, Eleanor was thrilled to be receiving this and other forms of attention from the young priest.
‘I just thought he was wonderful – this person who gave me all this attention, presents; lots of presents. Always telling me stories, taking me on drives to the river.’
After gaining the family’s trust, Father McDonagh manoeuvred himself into a position where he could have private access to Eleanor. He began visiting her in her room just after she’d gone to bed. Again, no one in the family suspected that there was anything wrong with this. ‘It was dark’, Eleanor told the Commissioner. ‘And I guess they thought he was saying prayers.’
In fact, during these night time visits Father McDonagh was sexually abusing Eleanor. It became a regular pattern. Eleanor kept the abuse secret for several months then one day confided in her older sister, Tracy.
Tracy, who appeared at the Royal Commission session alongside Eleanor, vividly recalled the moment. ‘I was like, “This is terrible”. I know I said something like that. “We’ve got to tell Mum and Dad”. And Eleanor was just, “Oh no, you mustn’t. You mustn’t do that”. Like, really, really strongly: “Please don’t, please don’t”. Which makes me suspect that he had groomed her in some way around that.’
Tracy kept the secret, and Eleanor didn’t mention the abuse to anyone else. Father McDonagh continued to assault her for the next two years until he moved away. Eleanor was left nursing a mess of deep psychological wounds that have influenced her life ever since.
‘Lost all sense of trust in myself and self-confidence. Lost motivation to do anything really – to have a go at school. Just lost interest in life … And I think it had a big effect on me sexually. I was coerced easily into, you know – I was not assertive enough.’
She fell into a dysfunctional relationship with her first boyfriend and with the boyfriend after that. She’s been with her current partner for many years. ‘So something works. But he’s got an angry side and he drinks too much. So you can call it an abusive relationship in a way, and that’s what I’ve gotten myself into all along.’
At age 40 Eleanor read a book that inspired her to confront her past. ‘I read the stuff about, “If you have been sexually abused you need to do something more than just what I’m suggesting in this book. You need counselling”. And it was only really then that it clicked that, “Oh that’s really what happened to me”. That brought a lot of stuff up for me then.’
Eleanor disclosed the abuse to her mother, which was ‘very emotional and hard’. She then approached the Catholic Church and had a meeting with the bishop in a nearby town. He asked her many confronting, personal questions, including whether she’d been penetrated. Then, after she’d poured out her story, he told her that she was in the wrong diocese and would have to go through the whole process again with another bishop.
‘I don’t know how I did anything more after that because it really upset me. I just felt betrayed, really. I felt a lot of shame and guilt all over again. Really embarrassed and felt that I was a burden to everyone. I just felt shocking. I almost didn’t go through with anything else. Maybe that was the plan.’
In time Eleanor rallied herself and drove to the city where she met with a bishop and a lay representative from the Church’s Professional Standards Committee. Tracy came with her and asked about compensation. The representative told her that the Church didn’t do compensation but could provide some funds to pay for counselling, travel expenses and a holiday. Eleanor wasn’t interested.
In the end she felt that the process offered little more than pain and hassle. At the close of the meeting the bishop and his offsider asked her to join them in a prayer. On reflection Eleanor believes they didn’t so much ‘ask’ as ‘impose’. For her, this summed up the Church’s approach to dealing with survivors of child sexual abuse.
‘To me the whole process of Towards Healing seems to be about getting you back into the Church. It’s not about helping you to deal with the problems that they’ve caused.’