In the late 1950s, when Gena was nine, she spent a year at a Catholic primary school in Sydney. ‘From what my mother was telling me, I used to love school. But when I went to that school, I started hiding in the wardrobe because I didn’t want to go. And my mother used to take me down and hand me over at the front gate to the priests.’
Twenty five years later, after serious thoughts of self-harm, Gena was referred to a mental healthcare clinic.
‘And it was there that I started to realise that some of the things that I thought were dreams maybe weren’t exactly dreams, maybe they were things that actually happened.’
Gena had often had recurring dreams when she was young. In one a priest was taking her for a walk; in another she was being chased by someone with an axe. ‘I had that all the time that I was at that school. And the day it stopped, my mother tells me, was the day we moved ...’
Soon after being admitted to the clinic, Gena’s husband walked out and she had a breakdown. She then started to recover memories of being sexually abused at the school.
‘What I recall is, sitting on a priest’s knee … and he’s got one arm around me so I’m stuck there, with his other hand up under my bottom and in my vagina. That’s one thing ... I’ve had a problem with intimate kissing and stuff, I really have a difficulty with it, but I couldn’t understand why. And when I was having therapy … I had a pretty horrendous session and I went home and went to sleep. And woke up seeing somebody holding my ears and pulling me towards them.’
Gena is ‘absolutely, positively sure’ her recovered memories are real.
She also recalls one incident that didn’t come back to her in therapy. ‘I did disclose to the nuns. Or a nun, who told me that little girls who tell lies go to hell.
‘So, I never told anybody after that …
‘If that nun had’ve not said what she said to me, then maybe I would’ve gone home and told my mother … and from that point on, I guess it was just like a ball of string. It was all going to happen.’
Gena had therapy for a number of years, until her early 40s. She could never remember the names of any of the priests and approached the school for help. They gave her the contact details of one who’d worked there, and Gena wrote to him.
‘He was really abusive. And told me never to get in touch with him again and how dare I accuse him. And I was particularly careful … when I wrote the letter to him I said “I’m just looking for information, I’m not accusing anybody”. But he took it really badly.’
Gena said she came to the Royal Commission because she needed to tell her story. ‘I’ve made a good life for myself and I’ve worked really hard. But there’s just something that’s not right. It’s missing, and you’re never going to get it back. And it’s that loss.’
When the Commissioner asked if she could describe that loss, Gena used one word: ‘Devastation’.
She is no longer having counselling, and has no interest in going through the Church’s Towards Healing process. ‘I don’t have any faith in them … I don’t think that I can ever reconcile with them. I just think that the damage that has been caused to me is such that they can’t help me. And they wouldn’t help me anyway. They’re all about protecting themselves. And that sounds awful, I know, but that’s how I feel.
‘I would like to see the Catholic Church shown for what they really are. I’m not looking for money, I’m not looking for anything, just for people to recognise that this organisation has hurt a lot of people …
‘I don’t think money’s going to make up for what’s happened. I think if they had’ve put services in place where people could get counselling, indefinitely, because it’s taken a long time. Sixty four years to get to this stage. It’s not going to be fixed in six months. If they had’ve done something like that, then I would believe that they cared enough.
‘But I seriously doubt it … I haven’t seen anything, anywhere, to make me think that they are changing. This is all happening, not at their discretion it’s at somebody else’s. I reckon they’ll be dragged kicking, seriously, because if they cared they would’ve done something before this.’