Joni was raped by a Catholic priest in the late 1960s when she was 14 years old. Forty years passed before she was able to talk about it, and Joni took care to explain to the Commissioner why she had kept silent for so long.
‘I did not tell anyone because of the physical and mental abuses I had already received at the hands of the Catholic Sisters across my schooling and because of what I now recognise as the long-term instilled culture of fear that the Church was in control and above the law.’
One of the early incidents of physical and mental abuse occurred when Joni was seven years old. For failing to answer a catechism question correctly she was caned on the hand. On the third stroke she withdrew her hand, and for that she was given an even worse punishment and thrown into a small, pitch black cavity in the classroom wall, known as ‘the black hole’. She said, ‘I was told that the Devil was down the other end of the black hole and he may come for my soul’.
Hours later she was retrieved by one of the boys in the class. When she got home, Joni told her mum what had happened but her mother never did anything about it. As the years passed she told her mother and various teachers at school about other beatings and cruel punishments she suffered, but no one ever tried to help her.
So, by the time she reached 14, Joni was an anxious, withdrawn girl surrounded by untrustworthy adults who didn’t believe a word she said and blamed her for all the misfortunes she endured. Then one day she was summoned to meet a priest.
Joni can’t remember the priest’s name or exactly why he was at the school. All she knows is that one morning the nuns announced that a visiting priest had arrived to interview the girls. They were to answer his questions truthfully and not mention the content of the interview to anyone afterwards.
When her turn came, Joni walked alone into a nearby classroom where the priest was waiting. He opened the ‘interview’ by asking if Joni had a boyfriend and if any boys had ‘petted her’. ‘I said I didn’t know what that meant. I have a dog and I pet my dog and that’s what I was thinking when he asked.’
The priest then said he would show her. He groped Joni. She froze. He then pushed her to the floor and raped her. ‘I don’t know if I fainted but I can’t remember anything until I saw him standing over me. His voice was filled with disgust and he told me to fix myself up and return to class. He reminded me that I shouldn’t say anything about this then added that no one would believe me anyway.’
While hiding in the toilet block later, Joni debated with herself whether to tell anyone what had happened. In the end she decided that there wasn’t any point. She went home, had tea, went to bed, got up and went to school the next day.
‘You just keep going, but somewhere deep inside something’s dying. The little light is getting less and less and then you start hiding things in little places and you lock the key and, because you don’t want to go there, it ceases to exist in some ways. But you wonder why you behave the way you do, you wonder why some things make you angry and some things make you impulsive.’
Joni kept the abuse buried deep for most of her life. After 40 years she dug it up again because she wanted to reclaim her faith. Abuse, she said, ‘takes away something that your spirit so deeply needs. You can get by physically, mentally, logically; you can put all those parts of the puzzle together, but not that spiritual side’.
Joni approached the Anglican Church and ended up speaking to three female priests. She said that the help they’ve given her has been vital to her recovery.
‘I have significantly improved the management of my depression and anxiety because their continued support and love has been untiring, unconditional and clearly set within an environment of the honesty and integrity that is an essential part of each female priest’s personal values system. They live as they believe and because of that I have been able to see that I can do that.’