Kaarin's story

In the mid-1970s, Kaarin went into Grade 3 at a Catholic primary school in Sydney’s western suburbs. In a statement provided to the Royal Commission she wrote of its ‘culture of physical punishment and ritual humiliation’, particularly by the principal, Sister Teresa.

‘I got a lot of caning while I was at that school … I didn’t even know what I was doing, really ... There wasn’t a lot of discussion. It was just like, you lined up outside her office and went in, and she whacked you twice, and then you went to class and said your prayers.

‘I’d see kids that were in kindergarten lining up to get the cane. I was horrified that they would hit someone that young.’

At one point, Kaarin and some friends tried to tell the parish priest about the punishments. ‘We thought he would be able to do something about it, as he was “the father” – the one looking over the school.’

The priest, however, wasn’t interested. He berated the children and sent them away. ‘I remember feeling hurt, shamed and in dismay – we thought he cared. We were wrong.’

During that year, Kaarin was befriended by the school’s handyman, Lester.

‘He had this system. I call it a “system” but that’s because I know about grooming now. He’d give children – girls – cards, and then he’d give them a ring ... and the ring would have your initial on it. So I had that, and other girls had that ... He was very friendly.’

One day, Lester invited Kaarin to sit in his car, which was parked near the playground. ‘We were chatting. I remember enjoying chatting to him. I guess he must have been familiar to me by then.’

Lester then reached over, put his hand inside Kaarin’s underpants and touched her genitals. ‘I don’t remember anything after that – it is as if I went blank.’

The next thing she remembers is seeing her sister through the window. ‘That’s my memory of her waiting outside the car but at a distance, and her gesturing to me because the playground was empty …

‘I don’t remember getting out of the car but I remember walking across the empty yard, and not being able to say anything ... And I never told anybody about it until I was an adult.’

After the treatment she’d received from Sister Teresa and the priest, there was no one Kaarin could talk to at the school. And she never felt like she could tell her mother. ‘I was in a car with this guy. You know, like, I wasn’t with other kids in the playground, I chose to have a conversation with a guy in a car, even though it was on the school property. So I suppose, even at that young age, I thought that I shouldn’t have been there, and it wouldn’t have happened, and so I did feel responsible.’

Later that year, Kaarin was one of a group of girls called to Sister Teresa’s office. Another student had reported Lester, and the principal asked if they knew anything about it.

‘I did not say anything and neither did any of the other girls … I mean, every time I was called to that office I was in trouble. And it felt like we were in trouble …

‘They said … I know the last thing they said was, “We would like you to avoid him now”, or something like that. So it felt like it was our responsibility to keep out of his way.’

When Kaarin left at the end of Grade 6, Lester was still working at the school.

‘I think that he felt quite confident in his position there. I do have another memory of him having a friend, seemed like he had a friend come to the school … I do remember him calling me over to this guy … and I heard him say, “This is one of them”, something like that ... So he felt confident enough to have a friend come in and brag about it.’

Kaarin said the impact of the sexual abuse was immediate. She dreaded going to school and felt like throwing up every morning. As she got older, she tried to cope with anxiety, panic attacks and depression. After suffering a breakdown in her early 30s, she disclosed the abuse to a counsellor.

‘I probably spent nearly 20 years of my life self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, and I managed to have relationships while I was doing that. So since not medicating myself and having had years of therapy I still don’t really have … I don’t have a relationship. I’m not married, I don’t have kids, and I did specifically go to therapy about trust.

‘Definitely something happened in that moment because I didn’t have an idea that people, especially adults, weren’t trustworthy. I wanted to engage with him, I wanted to have a conversation, it was fun, it was connection, and then it was like someone ripping my head off … I suddenly went from being connected to a feeling of alone in the world … It was defining.’

Kaarin said she had often thought about reporting the abuse to the Catholic Church, but wasn’t confident it would do any good. After thinking about it again recently, she decided to speak with the Royal Commission instead. She has also contacted the free legal service, knowmore, to find out more about compensation.

Her recommendation to the Commission was simple: ‘Just more care, and places where at least somebody cares enough to have children come and talk to them.

‘It seems so basic but just more care and compassion.’

In her 40s Kaarin began working with young people at risk, ‘which is not easy, but I understand why I do it. I did feel like it was my way of resolving it, by looking after kids, and now I think, I don’t have to do that anymore, I can just look after myself. So I’m kind of like, “I’m just going to look after myself now” …

‘I’m at this stage where, if I just have a body which isn’t, like, anxious, I’ll be happy.’

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