‘I’m in mourning, grieving for what was stolen from me, what was lost. I was a schoolgirl enjoying learning and planning my future with uni and perhaps a profession. Everything that was important was stolen, destroyed … Instead I was sent home in disgrace, shattered spiritually, psychologically, emotionally. And what’s unfortunate – the ripples from that continue.’
Joann left the family farm in the mid-1950s to attend high school in central New South Wales. She boarded at a hostel run by the Anglican Church where the town’s assistant priest, Bob McLaren, was in charge along with his wife, Lotti. McLaren was ‘handsome, charismatic and charming’ and in his mid-20s when 14-year-old Joann came into his care.
‘From the beginning I was uneasy about Padre McLaren’s behaviour’, Joann said. ‘He insisted on coming too close to me and said, “I am a touchy person”.’ Joann was quickly singled out as McLaren’s ‘favourite’. He would leave chocolate on her bed, give her gifts of money and flatter her at every opportunity. McLaren also wove their mutual faith into the relationship, in one instance telling Joann to think of him at particular times, which is when he would be praying for the two of them.
McLaren began bringing Joann into his private rooms and telling her about problems with his marriage. He told her that he loved her more than Lotti. The abuse began with a kiss.
McLaren then saw Joann alone many times, whenever Lotti was away. He would ask her to strip naked and lie on his bed. He introduced her to books on sexual techniques.
McLaren first began intercourse with Joann when she was 15, after telling her that it was God’s will they be together as man and wife. The abuse continued for nearly two years, whenever an opportunity arose. Joann recalls one morning when McLaren pulled her roughly into his front room for sex. ‘I must have looked puzzled or confused – Padre McLaren said, “It’s all right, she’s not here, she’s in hospital, she’s had the baby, a boy. No bother – and it should have been you!”’
Joann has kept the scores of letters McLaren wrote to her over this time. They are full of sexually explicit material mixed with promises about their future together, the will of God, and McLaren’s need for a baby with her.
The abuse ended with Joann’s betrayal by Bob McLaren. He concocted a story that she had been having sex with local boys in their cars, and she was expelled from school. Joann returned to the family farm in shame and confusion. Her parents were devastated and her mother became ill with worry.
McLaren did not leave Joann alone, however. She received a letter from him saying that he was ‘sorting things out’. Joann believed his earlier promises still held: that he would leave his wife and come to marry her and take her away. But McLaren did not appear. Joann waited. Years passed.
Eventually, she married a local farmer. ‘Unfortunately, I had been too damaged by the abuse and exploitation, the lies and false promises. I made an unwise and disastrous decision.’ Her husband began bashing her three months into the marriage, during Joann’s first pregnancy. Joann put up with the violence, believing it was punishment for her time with McLaren.
‘Later on, I couldn’t leave because I believed my husband’s threats of violence: “If you piss off, I’ll come after you and kill you”.’
In 1976 Joann contacted McLaren in desperation, hoping he would help her find a women’s shelter or somewhere else to live. McLaren, now a bishop, told Joann he had been missing her for the last 20 years and he wanted to resume their relationship. Joann agreed.
For the next two decades their lives were interwoven. Joann left her husband and found a house with some of her children. McLaren would come and stay regularly. His wife became aware of the affair and McLaren broke things off for a while.
But in the mid-80s he came to live with Joann for months, until church officials intervened and brought him back to his own family. Joann had fallen pregnant to McLaren at this time, but lost the baby.
In the early 90s, McLaren again tried to resume the affair, sending her personal items ahead of a permanent move. Shortly after, he changed his mind, declaring he was ‘too old’ for Joann.
‘That made me realise that in fact I must have been too young for him then, when I was a schoolgirl. I was distraught, I realised that I had always been used.’
Joann finally disclosed her abuse to the Anglican Church. She found supporters but also, at the highest level, resistance. A mediation session went badly. Joann was looking for an admission of responsibility from him for the early abuse, but he refused to give it. An archbishop wrote to her and implied she was lying. All this only made Joann more determined.
‘The Church could’ve begun my healing but they just exacerbated my wounds.’
Joann’s interaction with the Anglican Church continued into the new century. ‘The more they tried to stop me the more determined I became.’ Eventually, she went public. The story of her life, blighted from childhood by an abusive relationship, has had repercussions within the Church and at the highest level of government.
‘I believe I’ve got some peculiar kind of Stockholm syndrome because I’m waiting for things to happen so that when McLaren comes back and makes it all right. And so the house I bought I bought with him in mind. I’d buy some music – I think, “I wonder if he’ll like it?” That connection was made when I was a child … I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of it until he dies.’