As teenagers, sisters Laurel and Liana were both sexually abused by Father Holmes, a priest at their local Catholic Church. Neither knew about the other’s abuse till they disclosed it to each other when they were in their 50s.
Liana is still a practising Catholic who has found a measure of forgiveness for Father Holmes over the years. But she can’t forgive her and her sister’s loss of trust and innocence. ‘More importantly than even that: he took my sister away from me for many, many years. We … lost each other. We lost that connection’, Liana told the Commissioner.
Laurel, Liana, their mother and their siblings moved from the city to a small coastal town in the mid-1960s. The move was mainly for financial reasons. Their mother had separated from their father, an alcoholic, and planned to establish a business.
The church was very close to the girls’ new home, so although their mother didn’t attend herself she encouraged the girls to go. The girls stood out in the congregation and were quickly noticed by Father Holmes. He introduced himself and soon was invited home for cups of tea.
The girls’ mother was very protective of them and they had very little independence. They described themselves as naive and unworldly. They were not allowed to go anywhere on their own and teenage preoccupations like clothes and make-up didn’t interest them at all. In their mid-teens they didn’t know anything about sex; no one had ever told them.
‘Our life revolved around our mum, and our sister, and our other older brothers and sisters’, said Liana. ‘We lived our life for that.’
Both girls became ardent believers. Going to church was a religious experience and a social one, and an opportunity to enjoy some precious independence. ‘We went to church because we loved it’, Laurel said. They loved prayer, taking communion, singing, and being part of a church youth group. ‘Church was wonderful’, said Liana.
Father Holmes was an important part of the girls’ lives at church and also at home. Over time he became more and more involved with the family. He would be there when they came home from school, he stayed for evening meals and eventually was included in Friday night card games, a regular get-together for the extended family. ‘He really integrated himself into our family as a family member’, Laurel said.
To some extent he also stepped into the role their father’s departure had left vacant.
‘For me to have someone come into our house that was a male that showed he cared – also being a man of God, and my faith being so strong. … He really liked my mum. He wanted to help her and he wanted to help us. And I can say - I just loved him. I loved him like my dad’, Liana recalled.
Father Holmes persuaded the girls’ mother to let them join a local basketball team. They were good at the sport- fast and tall. They played on different teams, which meant they trained at different times. Sometimes their teams played against each other. Their mother found it so difficult choosing which daughter to support that she stayed away altogether.
Taking the girls to and from basketball practice and games allowed Father Holmes time with each of them individually. He began to sexually abuse them.
‘It was very, very subtle to start off with’, Laurel said. ‘Just grabbing you as you ran past and running his hands down your front or back or bottom … As a child it never entered my head that anything wrong was being done. I didn’t like it but I thought, oh, he didn’t mean to do that, that was just an accident.’
His abuse of Liana began with ‘little cuddles’ as she got in and out of the car. ‘I liked those cuddles. I thought they were lovely’, she said. But over time they changed – they were tighter, and lasted longer.
One Friday night Father Holmes arrived a little late for the family card games. He sat on the sofa waiting to join in, and called Liana over to sit in his lap for a cuddle.
‘The next thing I know he’s just touched me on my body, then all of a sudden his hand went down my pants, and he just went further and further and he basically sexually assaulted me. He did things that I’d never ever had anything like that happen before in my life. I’d never kissed a boy. I’d never had a boyfriend. So that happened and I looked over – and I couldn’t scream; I didn’t have a voice. I wanted to. I wanted to say, “Can someone help me”, then he just stopped doing it and he gave me a cuddle and went and played cards with my family.’
Laurel was sexually abused by Father Holmes in the church, in the vestibule where priests got dressed, in the car on the way to and from basketball and in the lounge room at her home. He also took her to his room at the presbytery, seen by another priest who said nothing. ‘To be honest it happened that often and in so many places that over the time you just didn’t do anything or say anything’, she said. ‘I couldn’t even tell him not to do it. He just totally took over my life as my priest.’
One day he took her to a cottage used by visiting nuns and raped her. Afterwards, he called a priest at a church in a nearby town and organised for himself and Laurel to go to confession. Laurel said that going in to confession she thought it might be the place she would find help.
‘When I went into the confessional he asked me what Father Holmes was doing and I told him. His answer was to give me 10 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers, and he told me that I was a disgusting girl and I wasn’t allowed to let [Father Holmes] touch me any more’, Laurel recalled.
‘That’s something I will never get out of my mind – him turning his back on me and not helping me. From that day onwards I never told anyone, till I told Liana.’
Father Holmes’ abuse of Laurel ended that same day, after she tried to throw herself out of the car on the drive home. ‘I thought no one in this world is going to help me. I was going to kill myself. I thought that’s the only way I can stop being hurt.’
And his abuse of Liana also came to an end, as she withdrew and refused to have anything more to do with him.
The revelation many years later that Liana had been sexually assaulted by Father Holmes came as terrible shock to Laurel.
‘That just absolutely broke my heart’, she told the Commissioner. ‘Because Father Holmes had said to me that if I let him do things to me, that he would never touch Liana.’
After their first disclosure, the women didn’t speak of the abuse again, until they saw a program on television about Father Holmes and other victims of his abuse. At that point they decided to come forward with their stories. They contacted the producers of the television program and later the police. Eventually they were part of a case with other victims of Father Holmes’ abuse that saw him convicted and sent to jail.
For Laurel the experience of dealing with the criminal justice system – police, prosecutors, the judge - was very positive. ‘I can’t give enough praise to that side of the system’, she said.
Liana’s experience was mixed. Initial efforts to give her statement to police involved missed appointments, frequent interruptions and a lack of interest from the officer in charge. ‘I just feel at no time was I ever valued, was I ever respected, I felt like I wasn’t important enough for this detective.’ Matters improved when that officer was replaced by one with a very different approach. Liana described him as her ‘knight in shining armour’. He was compassionate, diligent and respectful, she said, and she is in touch with him still.
The women have felt the impact of their abuse in different ways throughout their lives. Lack of self-worth has been an issue for Liana. ‘You just accept the fact that you’re not really important, you’re not a good person because you allowed that [abuse] to happen to you’, she said. She has struggled with alcoholism.
Laurel has suffered anxiety attacks and flashbacks and has felt suicidal. She has also struggled with the loss of her faith. ‘It’s a huge loss’, she told the Commissioner. ‘I loved it. Going to church and saying your prayers and being part of this big group was beautiful … to me, the religion, it – it was just everything.’
Both find enormous comfort in their children, and in Laurel’s case grandchildren as well, and in their extended family. ‘We have an enormous family who are very protective, loving and nurturing and who make us want to live each day to enjoy it’, Laurel said.
Liana said that as satisfying as it was to see Father Holmes jailed, speaking to the Royal Commission felt more significant to her. In time to come the Commission’s work will have outcomes which mean children are listened to, she said.
‘We will have protocols and programs in place for children’, she said. ‘I don’t say that we will ever wipe [sexual abuse] out but I believe that the Royal Commission has been given a gift and it’s how they accept that gift and how they move forward with it that would allow those victims, those survivors and children into the future to live a life that they are entitled to - not that they deserve, but that they’re entitled to. You are entitled to grow up as a child and be kept safe.’