Marie attended a Catholic girls’ high school in Sydney and was sexually abused by one of her teachers, Mr Lee, in the 1970s when she was 16 years old.
Lee had a private office away from the school, and he’d invite Marie there, making her promise to keep it a secret. ‘He started off playing games with me and after a while we were having intercourse.’
Marie told the Commissioner she later became aware one of her classmates, Maryann, was also being sexually abused by Lee. She thought other girls were too. The nuns at the school also seemed to be aware of Lee’s behaviour. ‘Sister Clarice warned us about being in the [class] room, and Sister Philomena questioned Maryann several times. Sister Mary used to pull us aside and ask how we were.’
Marie said both she and Maryann stopped contact with Lee when they found out about each other’s experience. ‘He started ringing us up. By then the sex had become very rough and coercive.’
In the 2000s, Marie chose to participate in the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing program. Her initial contact was positive. ‘I felt acknowledged’, she said. ‘The woman was lovely. I made a statement and was given booklets. I didn’t really know, though, what the process would be.’
Marie wanted the Church to acknowledge it had failed her in its duty of care. She said at some stage in the Towards Healing process the issue of compensation was raised and when Marie expressed interest in seeking further information, the approach changed. ‘Everything went downhill. It became very business-like and contact with me ceased for months on end. They said you couldn’t get an apology until the compensation had been worked out. They also said I could go to the police, but that if I did, I couldn’t go any further with Towards Healing.’
Marie didn’t take up their offer of counselling, because it was with someone affiliated with the Catholic Church, and ‘It all felt too close’.
Some months later, an assessor for Towards Healing contacted Marie and asked her to make a statement. He asked for primary evidence of the abuse, and Marie presented several diaries she’d kept from when she was 16. Maryann and Marie’s sister were interviewed, as were three nuns from the school. Lee was also interviewed. He denied the abuse.
Marie said the assessor’s report stated: ‘The Church will be at high risk of other girls coming forward’. He later noted, ‘On the balance of probabilities, the complaint did occur’.
Some months after that, Towards Healing requested Marie undergo a psychiatric assessment. She didn’t know why. The psychiatrist she saw wanted to know details of the abuse, and Marie found this distressing. ‘It was so cold, and very odd. I felt like I was having to prove that it happened. It was like a judgment.’
Two years after she’d first contacted Towards Healing, a mediation session was organised. ‘More people got involved, people I hadn’t met before, and I still didn’t know what the process was.’ Marie engaged a lawyer to assist in negotiations; however he had no experience with Towards Healing and she thought he was out of his depth.
Marie presented the victim impact statement she’d been asked to write. ‘I felt like it fell into a black hole in the middle of the table, and that’s where it stayed.’ The issue of how much money she should be paid couldn’t be decided. ‘They’d say things like, “It’s not worth that”.’ A payment of $55,000 was eventually agreed, including $5,000 for her lawyer.
Marie didn’t think Towards Healing’s written apology was sincere. ‘They said they were sorry it happened, but they were hollow words. They didn’t mean anything.’ When she told them she wasn’t happy with it, they suggested she write her own for them to consider.
At the end of the process Marie signed a confidentiality agreement.
‘In hindsight if I’d known what was involved in Towards Healing, I wouldn’t have done it. They’re good wordsmiths. You can play a lot with words, but you need a separate system for justice, not within the system that caused the injustice. You have to have an independent body.’