When Melinda said she hated science and wanted to get out of Mr Drescher’s class, her mother was surprised. For the first term of Year 7 in the early 1970s, Melinda had been enthusiastic about the new school and teacher, but everything changed one afternoon when she was left alone with Drescher and he sexually abused her.
Melinda said that for some time she’d noticed Drescher staring at her in class. Her discomfort was worsened by his public praise of her ability to grasp new concepts. One afternoon he made her stay back and told her he’d noticed her having difficulty with the lesson. He got her to move out of sight of the classroom windows then came up behind and started rubbing her arms and legs. Later, Melinda realised he had an erection but as a 12-year-old she said the thought didn’t enter her mind.
Under the pretence of saying her father was waiting to pick her up, Melinda ran from the classroom. She was upset for days, eventually disclosing to her mother Drescher’s behaviour. Her parents went immediately to the convent and demanded to see the principal, Sister Joan. Melinda wasn’t sure what was said but the next day, Drescher was gone from the school.
Melinda told the Commissioner that from that point on she was singled out by Sister Joan for scorn and ridicule. Other girls’ bad behaviour was attributed to her and she was regularly beaten with a stick which made her think she should have kept quiet about the abuse. ‘I should have just shut up about the whole thing.’
When she was 16, Melinda joined the local Catholic youth group and became its youngest member. Here she met Father Bill Morgan, a young vivacious priest who was popular with everyone. ‘We all adored him. He was a bit irreverent, he was a bit naughty. He didn’t always dress in the garb and even though he was a year younger than my mother, he seemed so much younger and with-it and everything.’
Over many months, Morgan worked to drive doubt and division between Melinda and her parents. Every mention Melinda made of difficulties with her parents’ strictness was emphasised by Morgan who said he could help her. He often brought up the subject of sex and asked for details of intimate contact she’d had with boyfriends, despite her telling him she didn’t have a boyfriend.
One afternoon, Morgan asked Melinda into a sports room near the school. He locked the door and asked her to sit on the bed, then put his arm around her and said it was time she learned to explore her sexuality. ‘He said he could help me, as a priest, to begin to understand sex and how wonderful it was, and how to overcome unnecessary guilt.’
Melinda told the Commissioner that Morgan was suddenly interrupted by a loud thumping on the door and someone yelled that he was wanted urgently in the presbytery. He told her to wait but when he didn’t return, she left.
Looking back, Melinda said she’s sure she would have been raped by Morgan. ‘It would have happened because I know the state of mind I was in and the way he was couching everything was, “I’m going to help you negotiate with your parents” and “This is how we’re going to do it. You’re obviously behind the eight ball when it comes to the sex game”. He’s a priest.’
She knew ‘how lucky’ she was that the person had come to the door because she later learned of many other girls being sexually abused by Morgan, including one who had his baby and another whose abortion was paid for by the church.
For decades following her abuse, Melinda strove to excel in studies and work. ‘I worked very hard to make myself into something else. I studied hard. I never intended going to university but I became driven. I only went to university because I couldn’t cope with everything.’
At various points in her life she drank excessive amounts of alcohol, used drugs, self-harmed and entered violent relationships. She said she thought her abuse was on the ‘lower end of the scale compared with a lot people’, but that it had changed her irrevocably. ‘I’m not the person I was meant to be. I know that.’
Melinda had never reported the abuse to New South Wales Police nor did she intend to. She didn’t know where Drescher was and Morgan was deceased.
She’d only recently told her husband about the abuse and he’d been devastated, but supportive. Until a year ago, she’d continued to have faith in the Catholic Church but said it was lost when she read about Morgan’s abuse of other girls. For decades she’d thought she was the only one who’d been abused by him, but after reading another woman’s account she saw clear and similar patterns of behaviour.
‘You know what frightens me the most is how they operate. It’s the process. It’s a real process. I thought I was a bit special … It’s almost like they read a manual and if the kid says this, you’ve got another two days' work to do. That’s how I feel. Or if that person’s in the way, how can you get them out of the way. I feel like I’m the product of a cult.’