Joan's story

‘My mum is still a very strong practising Catholic. She said it’s all best forgotten.’

In the mid-1980s, when she was 21, Joan disclosed to her mother that she’d been sexually abused as a seven-year-old by parish priest, Father John Hughes. Her mother regretted that Joan hadn’t told her at the time, but said it was all in the past and she shouldn’t think about it. Hughes had been a frequent and welcome guest in the family home and had often taken Joan out on excursions, giving her rosary beads and other gifts, ‘like I was a girlfriend’.

‘The more religious your parents are, the harder it is to tell them something. I don’t think she would have believed me.’

Joan told the Commissioner that she was sexually abused by Hughes over three years in the early 1970s. Hughes would tell her to sit on his lap, then cover her lips with his face while he fondled her genitals. By the age of 10, Joan was doing her best to avoid him, but one day her mother instructed her to visit Hughes who’d broken his leg and was confined to the presbytery.

Other priests in the residence had become used to Joan’s presence and didn’t question why a small child would be called into their colleague’s bedroom. Joan was told by Hughes to sit on his bed. ‘Then he pulled the covers over and said, “Hop into bed with me and give me a cuddle”, and I said, “No”. I wasn’t going to get into bed with him because I realised by then what was happening.’

Joan continued her efforts to avoid Hughes. Moving from primary to secondary school she was no longer called from the classroom to help with tasks around the church as she had been for three years. She’d been told that because she was special and gifted she could miss classes and help the priests. ‘Reward for my great reading ability.’

After leaving school, Joan married and had two children, and became a teacher. ‘Part of the reason I wanted to be a teacher is I thought it would be good for kids to have someone they could trust.’

She worked in social justice and friends appreciated her awareness and protective behaviour of others. Running parallel with this perception, Joan said, was her deep distrust of people. She had difficulty setting personal boundaries and had stayed in a violent marriage for years before finding the courage to leave. She was now struggling to bring up the children on one income and was uncertain of her job after learning her position was ‘declared excess’, and that she might be made redundant.

Joan had been told by her mother that Hughes was deceased. Were he alive, Joan doubted that she’d report him to Victoria Police. She’d had previous negative experiences with the criminal justice system.

‘It’s a male system. It’s not set up for women and children. I’ve been to a rape trial where the guy got away with it and I thought, well if he can get away with that, what’s the point in ever going to court? It’s a lot of energy and time and I think the victims get treated like crap, like shit basically. I don’t think there’s anything that would make you want to come forward because firstly you have to provide so much evidence and even then they can still twist it round and make it that it’s somehow your fault. It seems to be very much a male domain.’

What would help in court cases, she said, would be separating the alleged offender from the person making the complaint. She knew of one lawyer who’d succeeded in getting children’s drawings permitted as evidence in cases where sexual abuse had been alleged.

In her own home, Joan said there was a rule for play and other contact where if someone said, ‘No’ or ‘Stop’, their instruction was to be followed without question. She regretted that she’d felt uncomfortable being intimate with her children. ‘I was worried about touching my children. I didn’t want them to feel bad.’

In school and other settings, she hoped that adults nowadays who occupied positions like that of her primary teacher or the other priests in the presbytery would no longer allow an unaccompanied child to be left alone with an adult.

Joan’s first disclosure of the abuse had been as a child to her best friend, Maria. She’d also been able to warn Maria against having further contact with a neighbour who’d started to touch her. ‘I said, “Don’t let him do it, and stay away from him”, because I realised he was doing the same as Hughes.’

Over the years, Joan had spoken with friends about being sexually abused, but she wasn’t confident about speaking with a counsellor, unless that person had experienced sexual abuse themselves. She found it most helpful talking to a friend who had himself been abused while a member of the Scouts because she felt like he ‘gets it’.

‘I get more out of talking to someone who’s been through it.’

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