‘It took her about a week to tell us the full extent of the sexual abuse that happened to her.’
Irene and her husband David were horrified when their teenage daughter Rachel told them what her step-grandfather, Will O’Brien, had been doing to her for years in the mid-2000s.
Rachel’s older sister Dianne had also been targeted. ‘But Dianne was wise enough to know what was going on’, Irene told the Commissioner. ‘She said no to him.’
Dianne, however, had been physically and emotionally abused by her grandmother. Irene believes her mother sensed O’Brien’s interest in the girls and ‘took it out on them’.
‘There were things happening in my mum’s home that we just weren’t aware of.’
Irene and David spoke to the Commission after several frustrating years of inaction from both their church and the police over Will O’Brien’s activities.
O’Brien is Irene’s stepfather and a deacon in their Seventh Day Adventist church in Victoria. When their daughters told them about the abuse, Irene and David first approached a Centre Against Sexual Assault. CASA advised them to contact the police immediately.
Irene and David decided to confront O’Brien before they talked to police. ‘We just landed on their doorstep. They were not shocked, they were not shocked at all. Will’s first response was, “If they say that I did it I must’ve done it”.’
Irene’s mother did not appear surprised. ‘She said to him, “Do you know what they’re talking about?” and he said, “Yes I do”.’
After that O’Brien refused to say more, replying only with a ‘no comment’.
Irene and David then met with the pastor at their church. ‘He asked us what the nature of the abuse was, whether it was just touchy-feel or was it further. And we said it wasn’t just touchy-feel … there was penetration.’
‘He didn’t act too surprised. He knew that [O’Brien] was “very friendly” with young girls.’
Irene and David left the meeting feeling upset and went home. ‘Our nerves were that shot at that time.’
O’Brien kept his position at the church, and Irene and David stopped attending. ‘We were sort of left alone. No one came, no phone calls. That was a really, really hard time.’
Irene reported her stepfather to the police sexual assault unit, and statements were taken. The police spoke to the girls, and then they interviewed O’Brien.
He denied everything. The officer spoke to Irene afterwards, saying he believed the girls’ story. ‘He said in his experience of interviewing paedophiles that there was no doubt in his mind that he’s lying.’
However, after reviewing the material the police told Irene there was not enough evidence to charge O’Brien with child sexual assault.
The family was by then struggling to cope with the impacts of the abuse and the failure of action against O’Brien. ‘We lost our church family, we lost our extended family. Yeah, it was really difficult.’
Rachel and Dianne began to self-harm. They had suicidal thoughts and started using antidepressants. Irene found a psychologist and they were all helped by the sessions. Rachel and Dianne are now doing much better, but the trauma has delayed their education and held back their careers.
In recent years Irene became aware her stepfather was still working with teenagers at the church, and that he and her mother were also looking after a young female relative at home. Again Irene contacted the police and reports she was spoken to rudely. The police again claimed there was nothing they could do, and it was up to the Seventh Day Adventist Church to handle.
Irene approached the Church and spoke to a woman who looked after child safety issues. The woman thanked Irene and said she would meet with the local pastor and O’Brien. To Irene’s knowledge the meeting never happened.
‘Now my view is she’s not there to protect our children at all. She’s there to protect the Church’s name.’
Irene and David and their daughters are not interested in compensation or apologies. They would like to see O’Brien forced to acknowledge what he has done, and not be in a position to do it again.
David spoke finally for them all. ‘We want closure, the family wants closure, so that we can know that there is a system that we stand for that does work, not for certain crimes, but for all crimes. Paedophilia is probably one of the lowest crimes I can imagine, considering the effects, and the ripple effects it had on the family. We’re all connected as a unit and we’re all hurting, and the hurt is indescribable.’