The parish church and school were central to the lives of Helen and her Catholic parents. ‘There was always priests and nuns around’, she said as she remembered attending Sunday school, convent schools, and mass every week.
In the early 1970s, her family moved from New South Wales to Queensland. To ensure that she received a good education, Helen’s mother enrolled her in a Catholic primary school which was associated with a church run by the Marist Fathers. Helen’s father was physically abusive, and ‘the nuns weren’t the nicest of people either’.
Just after Helen’s confirmation, a priest took her behind the altar and into a backroom. He locked the door and raped her. Her memory of the assault is vivid.
‘He was on top of me. He had his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t yell, and he was just holding me down so I couldn’t do anything … I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t do anything. I tried to fight back and I couldn’t fight back.’
Helen’s best friend was in the room during the rape. ‘I could hear my friend in the corner crying too’, she said.
Helen remembers blood running down her legs, and having to clean herself up. She remembers the priest’s cross, and his threats that she would not reach heaven if she told anyone. However, his name and face have been blocked out.
The sacred status of priests within the Catholic community made it impossible for her to tell her family or teachers about the abuse.
‘When you’ve been brought up Catholic, the priest is up there like with God’, she said. ‘You don’t say anything bad against the priest, and they’re quite good at manipulating young minds, to be truthful.’
The assaults came to an end a year later when Helen’s family moved to a new suburb. However, the impact of the assaults have been numerous and lifelong.
‘After the first rape happened, I turned to food and I just started eating all the time’, she said. ‘I just wanted to be fat so I wasn’t attractive to anyone. I didn’t want anyone to touch me or anything.’
Alongside her eating disorder, Helen developed cognitive and concentration problems, and became a regular truant. As a young women she turned to drugs and sex, suffered from depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and lost her faith in the Catholic Church. To this day, she cannot sleep with the door open.
‘Every night when I go to bed I have to close the bedroom door. It’s got to be closed, ‘cause otherwise I’m always frightened that the priest is going to come and rape me. Every friggin’ night of my life.’
Helen ‘kept this quiet for many years’ until circumstances compelled her to tell someone. When she told her elderly mother it was to explain why she will not attend her Catholic funeral or walk into a Catholic church. When she told her long-term partner, it was to explain the moods and behaviour which had been affecting their relationship.
Today, Helen lives overseas with her mother and supportive same-sex partner, and has a good and stable relationship with both. Encouraged by her partner, she recently sought help from mental health experts, and has been seeing a caseworker weekly for the last year.
She does manual work and is good with her hands, but still struggles with cognitive problems. ‘I’ve got a brain there but it just doesn’t work sometimes’, she said.
Seeking closure, Helen has put the matter in the hands of lawyers and is waiting to be contacted by the police. She would like to see the Catholic Church brought to account because, in her words, ‘they screwed up a lot of lives, those priests’.