As a child in the 1970s, Fleur wanted to be an altar girl. Her family were devout Catholics, and it was while she was preparing for confession at their local church in Victoria that Fleur came into contact with the parish priest, Father Verhoeven.
From the age of six, Fleur and her friends would often volunteer at the church and presbytery. During this time Verhoeven would routinely molest almost any child he came into contact with, and occasionally their mothers as well.
‘We used to have jobs that we had at school mass where you’d volunteer to go over and set up. And depending on who went over, he’d have a go at pretty much anyone who was there … girls and boys … Even my mum, who was abused as well, and some of her friends and some of my girlfriends.
‘I just thought it was normal … He’d stand us in front of the mirror and put his hand down our school uniform or up the school uniform. And he used to do the same thing to the mothers if he got them out the back of the presbytery as well.’
The abuse continued for approximately two years while Fleur prepared for both confession and first communion. Because Verhoeven targeted all the children and their mothers, Fleur assumed this type of behaviour was normal.
‘He did it to everybody so I didn’t really think anything of it.’
While Fleur naively thought there was nothing wrong with Verhoeven’s behaviour, many of the parishioners contacted the bishop to complain.
‘I’ve got half a dozen parents who contacted [the] bishop and have Father Verhoeven removed and nothing happened. And I’m speaking for those people because none of them have ever got through to have anything done.’
Not long after Verhoeven’s abuse, Fleur was molested by other adults. ‘I certainly didn’t have any idea actually how much I had normalised that sort of touching, because when other people started to do it I didn’t think twice about it … This was the incident that led on for me to probably three other abusers after that, around about the same time.’
One of Fleur’s other abusers was her basketball coach. ‘He used to drive us in the cars home from basketball and go over and talk to us about our parents. And he’d take us one at a time … He just picked different girls each night he was training.’
As an adult, Fleur experienced depression, anxiety and anger. She disclosed the abuse to her husband before they were married but did not discuss it beyond that. ‘That’s the first person I ever told … [He’s] not the biggest conversationalist on that kind of topic.’
About three years before speaking with the Royal Commission, Fleur experienced flashbacks of the abuse which were triggered by her daughter starting school. She tried to discuss it with her parents, but their refusal to talk about it put a strain on her relationship with them.
‘When I told my parents they pretty much said, “Just get over it, Fleur. You’re just gonna have to get on with your life”. That’s probably the hardest part … The conversation over the last three years with Mum and Dad when I actually owned up to what had happened has gone every which way.’
Fleur’s parents, who are still involved with the Church, have since separated. Her mother moved to a different property which was next door to where the basketball coach abused Fleur as a child. ‘The place he used to stay in, the bungalow out the back, is just over the fence from my mum’s place. So when I go to visit Mum I have to try and shut that out.’ Fleur has been advised he was sent to prison for child sex offences but has since been released.
After experiencing a flood of memories of her abuse, Fleur contacted the local Centre Against Sexual Assault for counselling, which was ‘helpful as a starting point’. However when she missed appointments due to the confusion caused by the flashbacks ‘they dropped me off the books and it took another three months to get back on the books’.
She was directed to a service closer to her home but found having to recount her story re-traumatising. After being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by her local GP she was sent ‘to the local counsellor for 10 free visits, which weren’t free at all. They’re about $100 a pop’. Fleur found the cost and time involved prohibitive. This combined with feeling worse after each session meant she had to stop going.
‘It was expensive, and then I was coming home and 24 or 48 hours later I was feeling even worse. And I can’t see the point in spending all that money to then feel like I can’t cope on my own. And I’ve got these kids that I need to be there for. So it made sense to just push it to the side.’
As a result of the abuse, Fleur also developed problems with intimacy.
‘My whole physical relationship with my husband has been non-existent for pretty much most of the marriage, apart from two children. It’s quite worrying, it’s not a healthy relationship at all. And that’s an impact as well. I don’t know how we train our kids to have a healthy relationship when we don’t have one.’
Fleur never reported her abusers to police but now feels ready to do so. She hasn’t sought compensation because she’s concerned it would lead to a dissatisfying and time-consuming ‘paper trail’ when her energy could be directed elsewhere.
‘That’s not what I want my life to be. I want my life to be about helping other people who are going through it and actually having a better story come out of it.’