Kristin’s family, who lived in rural Victoria, only went to church occasionally. However most of the kids were sent to the local Catholic primary school, which was a couple of streets away from the local church. Kristin remembers that during school term, the children went to mass every first Friday of the month. Confession was always the Thursday before.
Father Donovan was the priest there, back in the 1950s. The neighborhood kids called him Father Donny but little Kristin only vaguely knew who he was. When she was seven years old she began going to confession. The confessional was one room back then and quite private. It was not divided into two yet. That happened later on.
Kristin’s memory of one particular confession is very clear. She was still only seven. ‘It’s like a moving picture I can see’, she told the Commissioner. She remembers the leadlight windows and the sacristy. ‘I can see myself wearing a navy uniform so it would have been in the colder months.’
When she went into the confessional, Father Donovan complained that he had cold hands. She remembers the fact that her school uniform was dirty and that Father Donovan commented on it. He then put his hands into her pants and fingered her genitals. Kristin can’t remember her reaction and she can’t remember any immediate impact. In fact she promptly buried the incident.
Kristin, who was a quiet and fearful child, was enduring other forms of abuse as well. Her father belted her at home and she was regularly caned at school. Her father also beat up her mother. So in the general scheme of things, ‘there were probably worse things happening at home’.
Later in life, Kristin was quite promiscuous. She had one marriage, which later failed, and has several children. But she kept her faith and continues to go to the same church even now. She even became a sacristan, looking after the various items in the sacristy.
Then one day several years ago, she noticed that the wall dividing the confessional had been removed. It was now a single room again - exactly as it was on the day Father Donovan abused her. The memory of his sexual abuse came back to her later that day, when she was back at home.
For a little while she did nothing about it. Then she told her doctor about the abuse and he recommended she ring the police. She did so and they referred her to SANO, the Victorian sexual abuse taskforce. Kristin’s still considering whether to make a report or not. Father Donovan is long dead, as is the bishop from that diocese. ‘Those things were washed away, too, in the past.’
Her doctor also recommended that she get counselling but Kristin didn’t take that advice. It hadn’t helped with other issues in her life. But she does acknowledge that there are times when she withdraws from life. ‘That seems to happen ... I kind of step off the planet every now and again.’
Not long after she regained her memory, but before she’d disclosed the abuse, Kristin’s local priest had a debriefing session after mass, because there’d been so much in the news about sexual abuse in the Church.
Kristin believes that people would disclose sexual abuse now. ‘Also priests are more careful too, because they’ve brought out these behaviour codes.’ There are other measures in place, such as glass doors on the confessionals. ‘These days it’s a different situation altogether, I think … Everybody worries about when they’re touching children.’
Kristin told the Commission there’s also been child sexual abuse within her own family. As a direct result of that experience, she had an important recommendation to make to the Commission - priests should be made to report to the police any confessions about child sexual abuse that they heard in confession.