Francesca grew up in the Australian Capital Territory, and her parents separated before she started school. Her mother was left to raise the children alone, and with no government benefits available, worked at least six days a week to make ends meet.
Francesca joined the local YWCA in the early 1960s when she was still in primary school, participating in various activities the organisation provided. During one of their camps, she was sexually abused by a female leader. She remembers previously seeing the woman at the YWCA headquarters, and that ‘she was around me a lot, like I was like the pet or whatever’.
During the camp ‘I was in the top bunk in this room. And it was night-time. And she came in, and went under the blankets, and indecently, inappropriately touched me. I distinctly remember that, and I distinctly remember her face.
‘Because in later years I’ve thought I’ve seen her, like I’ve seen someone who’s looked like her and it’s been a trigger for me. I remember the next day at the camp being really, really upset, and sitting on a rock on my own. I remember going back to school, and telling a friend about what happened’.
Francesca doubts she would have told her mother, as ‘she wasn’t very emotionally available’. She had a sense of guilt and felt ‘different’ after the abuse. In her early teens, she left her mother’s home to live with her dad. When this didn’t work out, she spent some time in girls’ homes, though ‘I wasn’t bad. I was just sad’. The abuse altered her understanding of intimacy, and as an adolescent she became very sexually active.
It was many years before Francesca spoke about the abuse. ‘The longer it goes on, the more reluctant you are to say anything about it, because you think, “well that happened a long time ago”. So you don’t speak out about it. It is not something people speak out about.’
Around 20 years previously she’d contacted police after seeing a television advertisement asking survivors of historical child sexual abuse to come forward. ‘I think that seeing that thing ... was like, “we’re giving you permission to come and report and say something”.’ The police suggested that further action was unlikely as the incident happened so long ago, and she did not know the identity of the person who abused her.
She told the Royal Commission that she had contacted the YWCA within the past decade, and told them that she had been abused at one of their camps. It was suggested that she meet with them in person to discuss this, but she decided against doing so.
Francesca has faced many difficulties since the abuse, including having overdosed and attempted suicide. For a while she moved from job to job, and place to place, struggling ‘with that feeling of being completely alone in the world’.
She found that participating in consensual sexual activity often ‘would trigger me into feeling like I was being abused’. This reaction affected her relationships. ‘Sexually, it had a huge impact, most definitely. And that was a factor that lead to the breakdown of my marriage.’
Although her ex-husband knew about the abuse, and tried to be understanding, she felt that he did not fully comprehend the impacts it had on her. After her marriage ended, she entered another relationship.
‘And then I saw a change. That that person had a very different attitude to my history, and I guess opened up the doors for me to talk about my history. So I did some healing through that relationship.’
Despite the trials she has faced, Francesca raised two children, completed a university degree, and found work in the community sector. She stated that people often had the impression that if someone was ‘coping’, they weren’t suffering, but this was not necessarily the case.
Today, ‘I’ve got to a stable place in my life. But I’m on my own, and I’m sure that is most definitely related to my childhood, and part of it is related to what happened to me at the YWCA. I have very few friends, I don’t socialise, I’m not really connected with my sisters’. Recently she told one sister about the abuse, ‘and she was really shocked. But I don’t know that she “got it”. Some people “get it”, and some people just don’t’.