Merilyn and her younger brother were raised by their mother, a single parent. Even though the family wasn’t Catholic, in the mid 1980s they went on a camp organised by Father Carson, a priest in their Sydney neighbourhood. After a few days, Merilyn’s mother and brother returned home leaving then 10-year-old Merilyn to stay with two other girls in Father Carson’s caravan. During the night, Merilyn woke to find Carson had moved from his single bed into the double bed that the girls were sharing.
‘I woke up and he was in bed with us and he was abusing me basically.’
Merilyn said she couldn’t understand why she and the other girls had been left alone with Carson. In hindsight she thought he targeted families like hers and the girls’ where there was a single parent or the family was ‘unstable’ in some way. At some point after the abuse occurred, Carson ‘was moved away’, and up until and after his death in the late 2000s, he was respected and held in high regard. Nevertheless, there was talk in the community that suggested people knew Carson was ‘doing the wrong thing’. Girls spoke amongst themselves and recounted stories about him so that ‘it just became common knowledge not to be too close to him’.
Life after the abuse became difficult for Merilyn. When she was 12 she told her mother about the abuse, but she wasn’t believed. ‘That was when people were talking about him in the community, ‘cause it had happened to other girls. And I told Mum it did happen to me as well but I had so much shame around it, ‘cause I thought it was just me. I remember doing things like stealing round that age and feeling, being shamed because of the stealing.
‘It was very shameful and I felt like I was a shameful person. I thought that it was my own fault in a way.’
Merilyn didn’t tell the school truant officer or counsellor or teacher about the abuse, but said it ‘was just part of a lot of years and years of trouble’. She disdained authority and had ‘a major chip’ on her shoulder. At an early age she started using alcohol and drugs and ‘nearly died a few times with overdoses’. On one occasion she was raped by a friend of her father’s and when she tried to tell her father, ‘he couldn’t hear’ her.
Although she’d seen therapists and counsellors over the years, the main focus had been on treating her addiction behaviours. If she ever talked about the abuse, Merilyn said it ‘was just part of my story’ and wasn’t directly addressed.
At the age of 22, Merilyn decided she ‘didn’t want to be a statistic’ and, ‘wanted something more’. She sought treatment in a Sydney rehabilitation centre that specialised in addictions. ‘That was a long-term rehab’, she said. ‘And then I started to tell my story basically and be validated. I thought I was just a useless junkie. I pretty much hated myself. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been really rocky but I ended up going to TAFE and then I went to university and ended up getting an education. I’d always done well at school when I was younger. Even as a young kid I had a dream about being a writer or something like that. Like, I loved reading books so I ended up getting a degree. I just started finding self-worth in myself. Then I got a master’s degree as well. I found something that I was good at and I enjoyed.’
Now in a stable relationship, Merilyn told the Commissioner that she had two children she always kept a close eye on. If they were playing in the street and went out of her sight it was ‘traumatising’ and she’d imagine ‘paedophiles living next door’.
She was upset that ethics classes at the children’s public school had recently been replaced with school chaplains teaching scripture. Through her life she’d always had difficulty with people or symbols associated with the Catholic Church, but meeting her husband’s mother who was a devout Catholic ‘but spiritual’ had changed her mind.
‘Her way of being allowed me to see that these priests are sick and maybe the system that supports that is sick as well, you know. But just as a human being she was a very spiritual person. I mean it’s done me a lot of damage because I think the Church is a symbol that is so incredibly powerful for me, you know. And I only had contact with the Church for that couple of years really and yet it’s left this massive impact on me.’
Merilyn said she felt like she needed to be forgiven for ‘what I’ve done’. Knowing it wasn’t her fault wasn’t the same as knowing it ‘deep down’, but this was something she was working on.
‘Some people are really elderly and they’ve never spoken to anyone about what’s happened to them, so I’m just really grateful that this is happening now, you know, that we as a nation are talking about it. For me personally, it’s part of, like I said, I don’t take drugs and alcohol and I’m in recovery. I’m in a 12-step fellowship so when you do 12-step you’re dedicated to recovery so you’ve got to face your own demons as part of it.
‘There’s a lot I haven’t looked at. There’s a lot that I’ve shut doors on. That’s the other thing, the kids are a really good reason to see how I could improve.’