When Gail was in her mid-teens, notorious paedophile Robert Blayney arrived in her small Victorian town to take up a post as the local Catholic priest. He stayed several years before the bishop shipped him off to the next unsuspecting town.
Life rolled on in Gail’s community. People organised their school fetes and cheered for their football team and filled the pews at church on Sunday. But beneath it all something had cracked. The town had suffered what Gail would later describe as ‘an atrocity’. At the time she had no idea that anything awful had happened. She was just a typical teenager, wrapped-up in her own issues, oblivious to the dozens of people around her who were nursing secret wounds.
Almost 20 years later the truth came out. Gail’s brother Michael told her that as a child he’d been groomed by Blayney and then molested and raped.
‘I still did not believe it’, Gail to the Commissioner. ‘I couldn’t. Just could not get my head around it … I think we were very naive in our little country school, and I really didn’t think anything like that was possible.’
Plus, Michael had been on a ‘rollercoaster of destruction’ from an early age, so Gail wrote off these claims about the priest as the latest example of his irrational behaviour. A short while later she ran into Michael’s social worker.
‘I said to her, “Look, Michael’s gone completely off his head. He’s told me that a priest has interfered with him”. And she said, “You better sit down. It’s true”. And my whole world just – I could not believe that a human being, a priest of all people, could do that to a dear little boy.’
Gail learned that Michael had disclosed the abuse to the social worker some months earlier. He had also made a statement to police, joining with some of Blayney’s other victims. As a result, some months after Gail learned about the abuse, Blayney was charged, convicted and sent to jail.
Gail believes her brother was proud to have been part of the action that ultimately stopped Blayney from abusing more children. But the court case couldn’t undo any of the harm he’d already suffered.
In his 20s Michael developed an addiction to alcohol, marijuana and prescription pills, mixing them with his anti-psychotic medication. Gail feared for him constantly.
‘Every day I thought it could be the day that I get the phone call that he’s dead. That he’d either take his own life or that he’d die from an accidental overdose.’
In his 30s, Michael fell seriously ill and died a few years later. Gail believes that if Michael’s stamina had not been worn away by years of psychological trauma, he would have been able to overcome the illness and survive.
‘I attribute it all to the abuse, because he was just a beautiful, normal boy … This priest, I believe he killed him. It was a slow death, but he was going to die, and if this priest hadn’t have come to our town my brother would still be alive and probably have a good job, family – just would have had a normal childhood.’
Gail believes that her brother’s experience was not unique and that Blayney’s abuse was so widespread he effectively wounded the entire community. ‘There’s a lot of divorces’, she told the Commissioner. ‘A lot of lonely lives, living on their own.’
‘It’s directly because of Blayney that the Catholic community has diminished here. There’s no other way. And I think that the generation that he abused could possibly have been the up and coming Catholics in the community, so we’ve lost not only our faith but our means of socialising too, because it was a big part of our life.’
The one consolation for Gail and her community is that the atrocity they suffered is no longer secret. Though there are still some in town who keep their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge what happened, most people are keen to get the truth out in the open.
‘I think they [the Church] thought it was all going to go away, and they probably – up until very recently they probably thought, “Oh, we’ve won”. And then next thing, people start coming forward. And then: “Please explain. You must have known about that priest, he left in the middle of the night, what’s going on?”
‘They mustn’t have realised that they were doing more harm. I think they thought we were going to be dumb forever, but we’re not really. We’re more intelligent now. We’re more educated.’
Watching these positive changes unfold has been a bittersweet experience for Gail.
‘I just wish Michael was here to see that it came to this level, because I think he was so alone.’