‘On the school grounds there was a church, a beautiful church. Sometimes I would see nuns walking around, so I felt safe. I went into the church because it was so beautiful.’
Gabriella’s mother believed that Catholic education was the best on offer. In the mid-1970s, when Gabriella was 11, she was placed in a Catholic primary school in a small town in Queensland. She doesn’t remember if she had a choice in the move, but she found the transition from a state school to a private school difficult.
To get to school Gabriella had to catch the bus, which she hated. It was a long journey, and she was timid and didn’t like being with strangers.
Her father worked near the school but went to work very early. After several weeks of catching the bus Gabriella decided she couldn’t do it anymore and asked her father for a lift. Every morning she would arrive a long time before school started, but at least she wasn’t riding the bus.
One morning she arrived earlier than usual. She put her bag on a hook outside her classroom and walked around. She had never been in the school’s church before and she loved the windows so she went inside.
‘There appeared Father Bolton, he was up on the altar. I came in and I was standing there, and I don’t remember words … But he was talking to me, asking if I knew about confessions … Well, I don’t know the Catholic religion, I never knew it.’
Father Bolton took her into the confessional, but on the same side as him.
‘He sat me on his lap and put his hands down my pants. He started fingering me and he had a hard-on … I don’t remember any words, it’s all blocked out now. I just remember it hurt … He took my innocence away.’
Gabriella ran to her classroom and never went back to the church again. She went out of her way to avoid Bolton if she saw him on school grounds. She didn’t tell anyone about the abuse, because she didn’t understand what had happened.
Several months later Gabriella encountered Bolton again. She and her classmates were on a school camp with the older students when she saw him standing by the pool.
‘I was thinking, “What is he doing here?” … All us girls were in the pool. There were teenage girls there because they looked after the younger girls in the camp. There was never any nuns around. But he was there, standing in his boardies … with his hands on his hips. He was scanning the pool, he was smiling.’
Bolton dived in and swam straight for Gabriella. He grabbed her by her pants and again sexually abused her. She froze: she remembers thinking, “Surely, someone can see this”. She didn’t know what to do.
After that, Gabriella started chewing her hair and neglecting personal hygiene. She just didn’t care about herself anymore. She withdrew and struggled to have conversations when she was called on in class.
When she was 16 she dropped out of school. She started experimenting with drugs and alcohol and participated in risky sexual behaviour. She got into several violent relationships. She said she blamed herself for the abuse.
‘I just wanted to be dead … I was hurting inside, I was dying inside.’
Throughout her adulthood, Gabriella has had suicidal thoughts and chronic depression. She has had relationship and intimacy issues and says she hated her mother for sending her to the school. Gabriella has had difficulty finding full-time employment.
She first told her siblings about the abuse when she was in her 20s. In the early 2010s she told her parents and her father was supportive, but her mother didn’t say a word.
‘I never got a response from her, ever. If my daughter came to me now, I’d go, “Baby I’m sorry”. I’d grab her and hold her and say, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you”. My mum has never ever said that.’
At the time of her private session, Gabriella was waiting for a settlement conference with the Catholic Church. She would like an apology because they knew about Bolton but turned a blind eye to his behaviour. She expressed an interest in reporting him to police.
She has found strength from her children, her current partner and her siblings. She has been sober for many years and regularly sees a counsellor and is relieved that she can now talk about her abuse.
‘I can’t run away anymore.’