Michaela's story

Michaela was raised in a devout Christian home. She went to services and Sunday school, and enjoyed taking an active role in the local Baptist church. But Michaela’s home was also a place of fear, with a violent older brother who abused her both physically and sexually.

As she approached her teens Michaela was asked to join the youth group by its leader, Fred Norra. ‘I was in a very vulnerable stage in my life where I wasn’t happy in the situation I was in, and as far as I was concerned any escape would be a great one.’

Plus, she knew Fred was a Christian, with a wife and children. ‘He wouldn’t do anything wrong. I’d be safer, essentially, with him.’

Over the next few months, Fred began to get more friendly towards Michaela. On her birthday, Fred and his family took Michaela out and bought her presents. ‘He was holding my hand everywhere, very close. I found myself in the position where I didn’t feel I could take my hand away because he was buying me lots of gifts.

‘That’s probably where it started to get really confusing for me.’

Fred paid increasing amounts of attention to Michaela. He’d make suggestive comments about her clothes, often hold her hand and give her back rubs. ‘He would just constantly be on me’, she remembered.

Once Fred picked dirt from under Michaela’s fingernails, saying, ‘Only naughty girls wear nail polish to cover the dirt that they have underneath’.

The most traumatic incident occurred one night after youth group. Fred had offered to give Michaela and some of the other kids a lift, but when the meeting was over, it was just the two of them. Michaela had no other way of getting home so she went with him.

On the way, Fred started stroking Michaela’s leg. ‘I kept resisting and he’d give me what I called a “horse bite” where he squeezes my knee, and it started to hurt. So every time I resisted he kept squeezing my knee and let me know, “go with it”.

‘He started stroking my leg and each time he got higher. I kept pulling away and I kept getting a horse bite. I went home and straight away told my mum.’

Michaela’s mother went to the church and told them what Fred had done to her daughter. ‘The church essentially didn’t want a bar of her.’

They said, because the abuse was minor, there was no point in Michaela’s mother going to the police. And if the police couldn’t do anything, she could not expect the church to do anything either.

Soon after, Michaela’s family left the church that had been a major part of their life for more than a decade.

Michaela blocked out the abuse for many years, but in her 20s she began to struggle with strong thoughts of suicide. Fortunately, her family got her to a doctor, where she received medication and counselling. Michaela grew stronger, and she decided to get some answers.

Michaela met the Baptists’ complaints’ officer but got nowhere. ‘She really didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to hear about it, didn’t want to do anything about it. As far as she was concerned, it was dealt with years ago and there’s no point me bringing it up now.’

But Michaela wasn’t going to be put off. She discovered Fred Norra was now working for a Presbyterian church, so she went to them and told her story.

‘They seemed to be more willing to hear me out. They kept asking me for more and more information, so it seemed like I was getting somewhere a bit better.’

But after meeting Norra, the Presbyterians informed Michaela that everything that was said was confidential, and she’d be told nothing. Michaela felt let down all over again but she still wasn’t going to give up.

She went back to the Baptists and asked to see the notes from the original meeting they had with her mother. It took a year and a half, and Michaela was only granted access to them when the Church became aware she was about to speak to the Royal Commission.

‘This has probably been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with because I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what was in the notes.’ Michaela said it was clear that Norra had been warned about her allegations. ‘He came to that meeting fully prepared and knew exactly what they were going to ask him and he already had answers.’

Norra denied almost everything, only admitting to minor things like holding Michaela’s hand because she ‘needed help crossing the road’.

And to her shock, she learnt that the Church offered Norra counselling, something Michaela and her family never received.

‘They said they offered some counselling to my family, which was never offered. They also said that they were going to write a letter to my family letting them know the outcome. They never did.’

All the Church said was that Norra was ‘dealt with in the appropriate manner’. They have never explained to Michaela what that means. Norra is still involved in church youth organisations.

The abuse has taken a terrible toll on Michaela. ‘The things that he said and did made me feel like I was a dirty, easy girl. As a woman now, that affects you in a big way.’

She has severe issues with her hands, and in times of stress picks at them until they bleed. Perhaps most distressing for Michaela, she can’t hold her husband’s hand.

She’s on medication and has regular sessions with a psychologist, who believes Michaela may also be suffering from dissociative identity disorder.

‘I think the biggest loss in all of this is, I no longer believe in the institution of a Church. I had it so certain back then. For me, going to church and Sunday school, it was an escape from my own life and it bought me a sense of peace, a place to belong. And all of that got taken away.

‘And I get angry that he’s still in the Church. He’s still got his faith all sorted out. And I get angry ’cause he’s taken so much from me. And the joy of things like just holding my husband’s hand. And not being able to do that … it’s the simplest of things and yet it’s the hardest, hardest thing for me to do.’

But Michaela is a fighter. ‘I have to live with what happened with me. And I just kept reminding myself that I need to make sure that I’ve gone down every possible avenue, if not for myself but in case there may be another one or there has been another one.’

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