Melissa wasn’t sure exactly when the abuse began, whether it was during her private music lessons with Father Denton or after he called her out of class to perform some trumped-up errand alone with him in the presbytery. Either way, the abuse was ‘pretty consistent and pretty horrific’ and quickly escalated to include penetration. It was, Melissa said, ‘as bad as it gets’.
The abuse began in the late 70s when Melissa was 11 years old, and continued off and on for the next four years until the family moved away. Melissa said that for decades she kept the abuse a secret and denied the catastrophic effect it had on her life. But for all the harm it caused to her mental and physical health, her education, her career and her ability to form relationships, Melissa said that the impact of engaging with the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing redress process was even worse.
‘I consider Towards Healing traumatised me more than the abuse itself. It further compounded any damage that was already done because I was treated so badly.’
Melissa first contacted Towards Healing in the late 2000s. The reason she decided to speak up was because of some physical health problems she’d suffered a few years earlier. The doctor had told her that the problems were caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, and Melissa had scoffed and ignored him. But in time the message sank in and she finally acknowledged the damage within her and decided to take action.
‘I sent an email to as close as I could get to George Pell and said that this guy was a paedophile and he’d ruined my life and that he needed to do something about it … Someone rang me from the Church within 24 hours and they swept me up into this Towards Healing process.’
From start to finish, the process took almost three years. Throughout that time, Melissa said she was confronted by aggressive Church representatives who disbelieved her and delayed the matter at every turn. In hindsight she wishes that she’d avoided the process altogether and simply contacted police. At the time she didn’t feel like she could.
‘I kept having hope that I would find someone that would help, not only me but also get Denton away from kids. So once I was in that process I didn’t want it to stop, I wanted it to keep going so we had some finality … I kept threatening them and saying, “If you don’t get this done I’m going to sue you”, or I’m going to do this. They didn’t care less. They just said to me, “If you go to the police we’re stopping the investigation”.’
Towards the end of the process Melissa was an emotional wreck. She knew that the best thing to do would be to put everything on hold and step back from the process while she got some psychological help, but her lawyer pressed her to settle with the Church. She recalled her last meeting with the Towards Healing representative:
‘It was horrific. He just screamed at me and told me all I wanted was money and that I was a liar and I’d been trouble since day one and all this kind of stuff, at which point in time I had a seizure where I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t communicate and I had to leave. My partner had to take me away. It was after that I signed the document, because I couldn’t deal with them anymore.’
In the end Melissa received a written apology that was mistakenly addressed to someone else, and about $100,000 after legal fees were taken out. She said if she’d been well enough to think properly she never would have taken the money.
‘Because my goal out of all this was, first of all, to get Denton defrocked and off the streets and public awareness about him, and secondly to try and give myself some kind of stability in life. And that was not a hundred thousand, that was send me to uni and buy my books.’
Sometime later, Melissa decided to contact the police. At first she hit a wall of apathy and excuses with the police telling her that the case was too old to pursue. But she persisted, contacted a different station and connected with a ‘fantastic’ detective who worked relentlessly, discovered other victims of Father Denton and charged the priest with multiple counts of child sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, by the time the trial happened, Melissa was an emotional wreck and unable to testify. Denton was convicted of sexually abusing the other victims and sent to jail. Another trial is pending and Melissa said that with the support of her ‘beautiful’ husband she hopes to be strong enough to take the stand this time.
Meanwhile, she would like to see Towards Healing abolished. ‘Because at the end of the day the process is now being used as a weapon to protect the Catholic Church as opposed to helping the victims.’