Frances was born in a displaced persons’ camp after the Second World War, and moved to Australia when she was very young. Her family became heavily involved in the Eastern European migrant community, and attended a Catholic church in suburban Melbourne.
Frances went to the school next door. In the mid-1950s, when she was nine years old, she undertook religious instruction to receive her first communion.
The lessons took place at a local hall, and she would make her way home through the school grounds afterwards. One day after this class, a priest visiting the parish stopped her and asked for assistance.
Frances didn’t know his name, but came to think of him ‘as the man in the white collar’. He told her a girl had left some shoes in the toilets at the school, and he needed her help to retrieve them. She went into the bathroom.
‘And he came after me. He took my underwear off. He told me to lift my legs to different positions, and asked if I did ballet. He said that I should, because I could move my legs well. And he penetrated his tongue and fingers into my vagina.
‘After he’d finished, he told me to stay in the toilet for half an hour. I’m not sure how long I stayed in there. I was terrified, confused and sore.’
When she got home she told her mother and stepfather about the abuse. Her stepfather put her on the kitchen table, and examined her for signs of sexual assault. He appeared satisfied that the abuse had occurred.
She was instructed never to tell anyone in their community what had happened, as it would bring shame to the family. From this time on, Frances’s stepfather began sexually abusing her.
‘My stepfather had never shown any signs of sexual behaviour or even interest towards me prior to the priest’s sexual abuse. I believe the priest’s sexual abuse gave my stepfather the perception that he had the right to do the same to me, as I had already been damaged.’
At first, he abused Frances in the same way as the priest. He then began raping her.
Her stepfather was a violent alcoholic, and he threatened to hurt family members if she told her mother about the abuse. Frances believes her mother suspected what was happening.
The threats, combined with having few social connections, limited English and no other family in Australia, meant Frances did not tell anyone. The abuse only stopped after she had a breakdown in her early teens and was sent to live with another family.
Her self-esteem shattered, Frances felt like ‘second-hand goods’. In her late teens, she met a man who treated her well and wanted a serious relationship.
‘I rejected him, even though I really liked him, as I was afraid to get close to anyone. I was frightened what happened with the man in the white collar was going to happen to me again.’
Frances later married a violent man. His violence towards her traumatised their children, and she lives with guilt about how her choices affected them.
Frances did not tell anyone about the sexual abuse in her childhood until many years later, when she spoke to a counsellor about her husband’s violence.
She then decided to make a compensation claim for the abuse at the school. First she rang the church where she received her first communion, hoping to find out the date and narrow down the timeframe of the assault. The priest she spoke to asked why she wanted the information, and she told him what had happened.
He advised her to forget it, and said they didn’t have records from that long ago. ‘After I hung up the phone I felt like the man in the white collar was still there. Once more I was silenced.’
Ultimately Frances did receive a settlement, but had to sign a confidentiality agreement. ‘I also now suffer the fact I can’t talk about it openly’, she said.
The Church also paid for some counselling sessions, but Frances was too intimidated to ask for more and so did not continue. She still experiences anxiety and depression, panic attacks and flashbacks, and is on and off medication.
‘The man in the white collar tortured me not only that night, but the torture continued for more than 40 years.’