When asked what impact the abuse had on her life, Mel said, ‘Partly I would say, because this is how I work, that it’s of no consequence whatsoever and I’m completely fine. But the psychiatrist I see said I was one of the most damaged people he had seen’.
Mel was sexually abused by Catholic priest, Father Hardy, who regularly visited her family home in Sydney throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He abused her on many occasions, starting when she was about 11 and continuing until her mid-20s.
Mel said that when she was a child the abuse seemed like a normal part of the day-to-day awfulness of life, so it never occurred to her report it to anyone.
‘My family were quite neglectful and physically abusive so everything was just all in together, sort of thing … I didn’t realise being molested was bad. I just thought it’s like when I was a young kid and would be belted a lot by our parents – that was just one of the things that happened.’
Even though she suffered severe mental health problems, leading to suicide attempts and hospitalisation, Mel still had trouble acknowledging how much the abuse had affected her. She was so disconnected from the reality of what had happened that she even got Father Hardy to perform the service at her wedding.
‘I cannot understand why I would have wanted that … I didn’t seem to have any consistent story of anything. I know lots of things happened but I didn’t react as though anything was happening.’
It’s only recently that she’s been able to change her perspective a little.
‘I didn’t realise, I suppose until I started to see the psychiatrist, that it has ongoing impact. Because I like to think that if something’s in the past then it’s over and it has no consequences. But it does.’
After many sessions with her psychiatrist, Mel reached a point where she wanted to take legal action against Father Hardy. She decided that the ‘fair’ thing to do would be to first contact him, so in the late 2000s she rang him up. ‘I said to him that he owed me an apology for what he did and he said he had no idea what I was talking about.’
Mel then reported Father Hardy to police. She told them about the time he raped her when she was about 20, but she didn’t mention any of the other abuse. ‘I didn’t think the teenage stuff counted. I didn’t realise that that was that bad. And even now I sort of think, it’s a bit like, well, I should have just put up with it. I mean, I did put up with it.’
The police told her that because she was the only person to make a complaint against Father Hardy they were unable to pursue the matter. Finally Mel approached the Catholic Church through its Towards Healing process. This turned out to be a painful ordeal.
‘I got letters from their solicitors. They were really awful. They were suggesting nothing had happened. They were incredibly distressing … They didn’t give a damn. It was almost like it was designed to make me stop.’
In the end the Church agreed to contribute to the cost of Mel’s counselling sessions. When it comes to the practical application of this promise, however, the Church has been evasive, forcing Mel to chase them up with numerous phone calls and emails every month. ‘It’s almost like I’m doing something wrong and I’m making a fuss about nothing and they’ve got to put up with me asking for this money. It’s the opposite of pastoral.’
Despite all these difficulties, Mel has managed to complete her uni degree, maintain a part-time job and raise two kids. Above all, she said, it’s her kids that keep her going.
‘I very frequently feel suicidal. I think I’m quite fortunate because I have no religious beliefs now, so it’s not like I think if I kill myself I will go to Heaven and I’ll be happy. I think if I kill myself I’ll be dead. So the only chance I have of things being better is if I stay alive. And also I have children. I don’t think anyone would care if I was dead or not but I think my children would care, and I don’t think that’s a reasonable thing for me to do to them. If I didn’t have them I would kill myself.’