Elisabeth grew up in a small town in New South Wales. Her father drank heavily and would throw his children ‘from one side of the room to the other’. He also sexually abused Elisabeth from an early age, telling her she was a ‘sinner’ and that his actions were her fault. If she refused his sexual demands, he’d threaten to drink a flagon of sherry.
‘He told me he could tip it down the sink if I sat on his knee or he could drink it, the choice was mine. So I sat on his knee’, Elisabeth said. ‘I didn’t know and there was nobody. I didn’t speak very much and I didn’t eat properly, I didn’t sleep and I hid. So I didn’t know. I mean, I knew it wasn’t normal, I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know where to go.’
Elisabeth’s sister was also being abused and disclosed what was happening to their mother who decided to seek the advice of a psychiatrist. Returning from the appointment, Elisabeth’s mother reported the psychiatrist had told her ‘some girls are just dirty little girls’.
In the mid-1970s, Elisabeth was 17 years old and preparing for her wedding when she sought marriage guidance counselling from the local priest, Father Barry Burns. The sessions took the form of ‘sexual instruction’ and involved him plying her with alcohol and abusing her. This occurred over a period of months before and after Elisabeth’s wedding. When questioned about the nature and purpose of what he was doing, Burns said that ‘unless there is penetration, there is no sin’.
‘Where I came from it was amazing’, Elizabeth said, ‘because we had sin and if you made somebody else sin you were responsible for their sin as well. I don’t know whether you get that. I still don’t get it.’
Elisabeth said that ‘somewhere along the line’ things with Burns changed. ‘His persona, his attitude towards me changed and I became, I suppose what you would call a lost cause. It started off, “We’ll have to miss Wednesday, because I’ve got to do …”, whatever. Booking in other things. And then he actually left me with, “Keep going to church and pray to God to help you”. He felt he couldn’t do anymore to help me.’
On the day of her wedding, Elisabeth confided to her sister that she didn’t want to get married. Her sister told her to call the wedding off, but Elisabeth felt it was too late. As she hesitated at the church door, Father Burns saw her from the altar, walked down the aisle and grabbed her by the arm, telling her she had to go through with it.
The marriage didn’t last and when Elisabeth sought an annulment through the local diocese, her private life was exposed as people within the small town were interviewed in a way she found embarrassing. The aunt of Father Burns was involved in the investigation and Elisabeth believed that she ‘messed around’ with the paperwork to remove any record of Elisabeth’s report of the sexual abuse by Burns years earlier.
In her late 20s, Elisabeth sought counselling from a priest in a neighbouring district who told her that she was ‘sexually hung up’, and that he’d help her relax. He then gave her alcohol, got her to shower in front of him and masturbated and ejaculated onto her.
Over many decades, Elisabeth has been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and in and out of mental health facilities. She’s also abused prescription drugs and alcohol. In the early 2000s, she disclosed the sexual abuse by her father to a mental health worker, and with the goal of staying out of hospital, started regular counselling. ‘Everything I’ve done in therapy has been helpful,’ she said.
More recently, Elisabeth told a sexual assault worker about the abuse by Burns. The disclosure had come after she’d been working with the staff member for more than five years. ‘That’s the problem with sin’, she said. ‘Something like that you really don’t want to disclose.’
Elisabeth maintained a strong belief in the Catholic Church and it hurt her when she was forbidden from going to communion because she’d ‘sinned’ by leaving her marriage. She told the Commissioner her great wish is for a sincere apology from the Church for the abuse. She also wants the $600 she paid for the annulment refunded. Another wish is absolution for her ‘sins’ from someone who’s sincere.
‘It’s etched into my soul that I’m going to perish in the fires of Hell’, Elisabeth said. ‘It’s etched in there and I suppose I’m looking for someone who’s going to say, “No”, and I need it to be someone I can believe. So it needs to be someone from back there who’s going to say, “No, you don’t perish for that reason”.
‘I can’t get rid of it, that I’m actually going to perish in the fires of Hell. Well, first of all I’m going to go to purgatory then I’m going to need enough people to pray for me to get me out. I heard they changed the rules, but you do the crime, you pay the time.’