‘Sometimes it’s like you’ve got a brand on your head and people know that they can try things on you that they normally wouldn’t try on someone else … There’s something we do that indicates that we’re fair game.’
Michelle believes that her ‘brand’ was burned into her forehead at a very young age. She was born in Western Australia in the early 1960s and sexually abused by her grandfather from age two. At age six she was sexually abused by a Catholic priest named Father Mahony.
After what she’d been through with her grandfather, six-year-old Michelle knew there was no way she could report what Mahony was doing. In a written statement she said:
‘At an early time in my life after I had been abused by my grandfather, my mother found blood stains on my underwear and confronted him about it. My mother was punished by my father for her actions as he believed his father’s denials; I watched my father beat her to within an inch of her life. It was horrifying.
‘Based on this experience I believed unequivocally that it was dangerous to speak out about what men did to little girls. I could not bear seeing my mother being punished again so I decided it best to suffer in silence.’
Mahony’s standard practice was to take Michelle on ‘joy rides’ in his car, always, ‘to isolated spots out of town such as the town rock and water catchment area’. There he would remove her underwear, lay her across the back seat and molest her.
‘These experiences seemed surreal’, Michelle said, ‘and I often felt as though I was removed from my body, watching down from above as he abused me. To cope I would focus on the landscape and sounds close by, such as the birds or wind through the trees’.
Around this time Michelle also had to suffer the attentions of Jim, a 19-year-old boy with a mental disability who frequently wandered the school grounds. He would grab Michelle by the shoulders and tongue kiss her. Mahony saw this happening one day and invited Jim along on one of his car trips. When they reached an isolated spot, Mahony encouraged Jim to molest Michelle, which he did.
‘Father Mahony would tell Jim that it was perfectly normal to love a person and want to do such things. He did tell Jim, however, that it was a private thing to do and must not be done in front of others as they may get upset. I often relive this speech given by Father Mahony, it seemed like he was trying to convince himself as well as Jim and I that what he was doing was acceptable.’
The consequences of the abuse on Michelle’s life have been catastrophic. She said she’s lived with a ‘chronic state of impending doom’ ever since Mahony abused her. She has suffered anxiety, self-loathing, guilt, shame, paranoia and fear of intimacy.
‘I have never been able to fully enjoy intimacy with my husband. I cry after sexual intercourse spontaneously. My deep uncontrollable weeping is heartbreaking for my husband …
‘The consequences of the sexual abuse by Father Mahony have permeated through to my children who carry the legacy of his abuse through their own suffering … I feel like my whole life has been a battle and I am exhausted in every sense; physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.’
From an early age, Michelle realised that she needed to get some psychological help. Unfortunately, her first experience with a psychologist was so damaging it sparked chronic panic attacks.
The psychologist told Michelle that she was overreacting, and that in many cultures around the world incest was a normal part of play. And when Michelle disclosed – for the first time ever – that she’d been attacked by multiple abusers, the psychologist refused to believe her.
It was many years before Michelle spoke to another psychologist. Eventually she found one she could trust, and the sessions they’ve had together have been an enormous help.
Michelle has also met with a lawyer. At the time of speaking to the Royal Commission, she was pursuing legal action against the Catholic Church. It’s been a tough road but Michelle has ‘an innately strong core’ and is determined to hold the Church to account.
‘It’s a bloody epidemic. It’s a disgraceful, shameful epidemic. And they need to have this clearly recorded historically that this has happened. So if that’s what I can do I’d be prepared to do that.’