For much of her life Lynne believed that she was responsible for the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, and that if she mentioned it to anyone she’d be sent to hell. These were deeply-held feelings, instilled in her when she was seven.
It was the late 1940s and Lynne was attending a Catholic boarding school in Victoria. Her first encounter with her abuser, Father Butler, came one day while she and the other school girls were gardening. Lynne recalled:
‘He said, “Oh, there’s some weeding needs doing there”. And I looked up and his penis hit me in the face. And I didn’t know what the penis was. I didn’t even know what it was called.’
Before Butler could try anything else, Lynne invented an excuse about needing to go to the lavatory and escaped with a friend. Though she didn’t understand Butler’s behaviour, she was frightened by the encounter and sensed that it was wrong. Those feelings intensified a month later when Father Butler again approached her and the other girls while they were playing in the yard.
‘He said, “Do you know you girls are little flowers? And what sort of a flower would you like to be?” God, at seven the only flowers I knew were weeds and a rose. We all looked quite dumbly at him and he said, “Well, I’ll show you where the little girls’ flowers are, and then I’ll show you the stem”.’
Butler got the girls to bend over and pull their underwear down. Then he touched one of the girls. Lynne isn’t sure if he touched her too.
‘There would have only been six of us. He went through at least three of us. If I had been one of those three, I don’t remember, because I think I blocked most of it out.’
In the following months Butler continued to abuse Lynne and the other girls. One time he lay in their cubby house and pretended to be sick, asking them to rub his belly. He encouraged one girl to rub ‘further down’. Another time he arrived in class to hand out sweets, telling the girls they had to find them in his pockets. The pockets, Lynne recalled, had holes in them.
On two occasions he cornered Lynne alone: once in the toilets when he tried to get her to play with his penis, and once in the shed where he pushed her to the wall and rubbed himself against her. Both times, Lynne suspects, the abuse would have escalated to even worse things if other kids hadn’t called out for her, startling the priest.
Lynne repeatedly tried to tell the nuns what was going on. At first she didn’t have the language to express herself, baffling the teachers with her talk of ‘flowers’ and ‘stems’. Later, when she found the right words and put the truth squarely to two of the nuns, they lashed out at her.
‘Both of them said, “If you ever, ever, ever tell anyone you’ll go to hell, the everlasting fires of hell. And don’t think God won’t know, because he sees everything and he hears everything”.’
This threat carved its way deep into Lynne’s mind, warping her perspective on the abuse. As a young woman she seethed with anger – and felt guilty about it.
‘My only thoughts were that I was going to kill him and kill the two nuns. I had so much anger in me. And I just thought, “God’s going to really punish me if I go further with this”.’
All through her 20s, Lynne maintained her faith, never turning her back on the Church. So when the Church turned its back on her she was heartbroken. During confession one day she said to the priest, ‘“I’ve just been divorced”. And I was ready to say “and”, and he said, “You’re excommunicated”. And that did it for me. That absolutely did it. That was the door slamming right on my face and all the pieces of wood just tearing me.’
But as she stepped out from the shelter of the Church, Lynne was surprised to find that God did not strike her down and hell did not swallow her up. What happened was that she began to hear other people’s stories – those of other survivors like her. Inspired, she started to tell her own story. She also formed a new relationship which continues to this day.
‘This man has taught me how to love’, she told the Commissioner. ‘And be loved.’
In time Lynne returned to the Church, bringing much hard-won compassion and wisdom with her. She’s not afraid to stand up for victims of child sexual abuse when the need arises. As a result, her reputation as a survivor has spread through the local parish. One day on the way into the church she noticed two ladies pointing at her and whispering.
‘Going, “She’s the one”. And I’m right over here, so I walked over and I said, “Do I know you ladies?” And they said, “Oh no”. And then one of them said, “Are you the lady who was, you know, by a priest?” And I said, “Oh, you mean – ” and my voice rose, “Oh, you mean was I molested by a priest? Yes, that’s me. And my name’s Lynne and if you want to talk to me, you can talk to me, but don’t point. Pointing at me makes me to blame”.’