Gwynn and her siblings grew up in a ‘pretty good family unit’ in country Victoria. Her father’s horticulture work was unstable at times, and his mental health was often a series of ‘highs and lows’, so she remembers that ‘there were periods of unemployment and periods of time when Mum struggled to ensure that we were fed and clothed’. However, in the mid-1960s, ‘things settled down’ when they moved to a town in eastern Victoria where her father managed to get permanent work.
Despite the fact that Gwynn’s mother had grown up in a family of faith, and had once been a Sunday school teacher, living in isolated farming areas meant that they were ‘not a churchgoing family’. However, once they had moved into a town, Gwynn’s mother welcomed the opportunity to send her children to the nearby Methodist Church.
One day, when Gwynn was in Sunday school, Todd Mossop, the minister, came into the room. He was tall, in his 40s, and wearing robes. To Gwynn, who was not yet 10, he came across as ‘a fairly authoritative and imposing sort of a person’.
‘He spoke to one of the ladies, and she indicated to me I had to go with him. I thought instantly I was in trouble. Because I was a bit of a ratbag kid … we were free range kids … we were feral in a way … I thought, “Geez, what have I done wrong? What have I done?”’
Gwynn followed the minister into the church. ‘I remember feeling a little overawed at the whole thing because it was a large space and it was deadly quiet … And then he sat on a pew … he was speaking to me, but I don’t recall what he was saying. And then he invited me to sit on his knee, and I thought, “Well, this a bit weird, but whatever”. And then he said to relax and lay back and he would cradle me. And I’m still thinking, “This is weird, but anyway, whatever”.
‘And then he kissed me … I just remember this wet kiss and feeling like I couldn’t breathe … It was like, you know, you’re swimming and you’re underwater and trying to get up for air. That’s what I felt like. And then with that horror of not being able to breathe, I realised he had his hand up my dress, and he was not wanting to penetrate, but he was rubbing …
‘He released the kiss and I was able to gasp. And I remember not knowing whether to fight this guy or whether to comply and then get away as quick as I could … Then he encouraged me to keep quiet … I don’t recall threats, but I understood that I had to keep quiet.
‘I went back into the room … and I’m sure that the staff must have thought that was a miracle, because I was so very quiet. I was seriously digesting it ... I’m thinking, “Did I do something wrong?” I know something wrong happened, but I wasn’t sure who was wrong. Because he couldn’t be wrong. He’s a godly man.’
Gwynn refused to go to Sunday school after that. ‘I just said I didn’t like it, I don’t want to go. It was stupid, the kids were awful. You know, the usual excuses. But in the end, I said to her that I didn’t like him.’
Some years later, when Gwynn was in her mid-teens, she decided to tell her mother the whole story. She had become aware that Todd Mossop was not trusted by the women in the community, and felt that, given their suspicions, she could speak up. Her mother, who was a modest woman who avoided conflict, simply said, ‘Well, he got moved on’. Gwynn took this as meaning, ‘enough said’.
Because of her experience of child sexual abuse, Gwynn developed ‘quite an aggressive style, particularly with blokes’, and would ‘deliberately be obnoxious’. ‘That was my way of making sure they never came near me’, she said.
As a parent, Gwynn was protective, and always on the lookout for ‘red flags’. She ‘lurked’ behind her children as they learned to come and go independently, and reported a teacher for asking one of her children to meet him at school on a weekend. She also instilled her children with a ‘general knowledge’ about child sexual abuse. ‘I didn’t want paranoia, and I wanted them to be free, but likewise to have the confidence that if something happens, it’s not their fault … Even if they couldn’t tell us, tell someone.’
Gwynn never reported Todd Mossop to the Church or to the police. Her ‘empathy’ for his children, and protectiveness towards her own, made her decide otherwise. However, in the early 2000s, a TV program prompted her to write down her story. ‘I didn’t want everyone to think that this was only done by single men. This was done also by married men with children.’ She never sent it to the Uniting Church, but is considering doing so now.
Gwynn would like to see churches design their spaces so that they are not ‘private’ and soundproof ‘dead zones’. ‘It would be more appropriate to have some glass where you can see through things, where it’s not so easy to shut a door.’ She would also like to see churches place limits on ‘how much time someone can be with someone else alone’.
Gwynn’s experience gave her a determination to be ‘above reproach’ whenever children are in her care. ‘It certainly made me realise a) the responsibility you carry, and b) that if you do anything inappropriate, you got to live with it for the rest of your life. And I was determined that that was not going to be something I had to live with.’