‘When the abuse started I cannot be exactly sure, but I do remember two very distinctive occasions. Due to the shock and horror of what I experienced, it is highly possible that there were many more occasions. My mind blanked out parts of my life at that stage due to stress and trauma. So the exact time I cannot remember, but I reported it in Year 7 at school when I was 11 or 12. The abuse therefore happened before this age.
‘The two abuse events that I remember happened in my family home. Brother David had been grooming me and my family. He visited the home, and was very warm and friendly towards me. I liked him and admired him as a man of the cloth … On one occasion my abuse was in the TV room, and one in the swimming pool.’
Helene’s mother welcomed priests and brothers from the Catholic community into the family's home, and there was an open invitation to use the swimming pool.
Being abused by David in her own home eroded Helene’s sense of trust and safety forever.
‘I think what happens to someone who has that violation at such a young age is it does deeply affect your sense of safety … I do suffer quite a lot from anxiety now and have all my life, because, you know, I was never safe.
'If you’re not safe at home, then where are you safe? And also a man of God. It’s like where are you, who are you safe with?’
In the mid 1970s, Helene told a senior girl she trusted what trainee Marist Brother David had done to her several years earlier. The girl then told a teacher who, in turn, disclosed the abuse to the principal, Sister Catherine. Helene was called to the office and asked by Catherine, ‘What’s all this about you and Brother David?’. When Helene recounted that David had fondled her genitals, the nun ‘said nothing’.
Helene told the Commissioner she was shocked, embarrassed and confused by the lack of response by both the school and her parents who, she found out years later, were contacted and informed about the abuse.
Soon after the disclosure David called Helene aside one Sunday morning after church service and asked her to go for a walk. Helene said she was terrified he was going to abuse her again.
‘I walked with him through the gardens of the church grounds to a bench where we sat. He told me he was sorry for what had happened and said, “Don’t think about it now but when you are in your 20s, try and understand”. I was relieved he wasn’t going to touch me and quietly answered, “Okay”.’ Within a short time, David was posted overseas.
Despite the number of people who knew about the abuse, no one reported it to NSW Police or offered Helene support. What became clear to her was that she was being blamed for sending David away. The nuns became increasingly hostile and eventually expelled her.
‘The stress of the abuse being revealed was overwhelming for me as a child. With no one to talk to, I internalised the pain. I never spoke to anyone again as I had trusted the girl with my secret and she told – and look what happened.
'It destroyed my life. The strange thing was that everyone seemed to pretend it never happened. My parents never spoke of it … I felt so dismissed and dirty.’
To cope, Helene began drinking from her parents’ bar and smoking marijuana that was supplied by a boy she knew. In her late teens and early 20s, she increased her drug use and ‘became sexually promiscuous with few boundaries’. If a man asked her for sex she was too scared to refuse, and she was date raped and abused on numerous occasions.
At 35, Helene married a man who was ‘an abuser’. She said she was pushed, shoved, controlled and beaten. Apprehended Violence Orders against her husband provided little protection. He eventually left her with their two small children.
Helene said that it remained a challenge still for her to moderate her drinking, and she had noticed increasing anxiety as she got older. For decades she’d had low self-esteem and keeping a job was made more difficult being a single mother. However, she had recently started studying for a qualification that would allow her to work with disadvantaged children and families.
Lately, she’d become aware that her anger and disappointment had more to do with the way the school and her parents responded than it did to do with the perpetrator. She’d never sought compensation from the Marist Brothers nor the Catholic Church. ‘It hadn’t even entered my head’, Helene said.
‘Forty years down the track I can actually see how a violation of a child under age like that can just, if it’s not dealt with … I didn’t have that experience, but if a child had the opportunity to be counselled and cared for, maybe they wouldn’t end up where I am today. I don’t know. But a child that’s not cared for, you live a whole life filled with this shame and guilt.
‘The only thing that’s got me through … is even after all of this, I’ve become a Christian. So my anger’s not towards God. I have a lovely faith. I go to a church, a Christian church. It’s saved me that I have a personal relationship with God and I know that he’s just as angry with this lot as well.’