‘We were the perfect prey – so trusting and the Church knowingly sent him to us, and he has harmed our family in a way that we can never recover from.’
In the 1980s, when Mirabella was 12, she and three of her brothers were taken away for a week by the previously friendly and affectionate Father Percy Garrison. He sexually abused them all.
That irreparable damage triggered one brother’s suicide, several suicide attempts by another brother, the near-breakdown of their mother, who still blames herself, and more than 30 years of ‘pain’ for Mirabella.
Mirabella ‘also felt responsible for really not standing up for my brothers [at the time] … so I felt that really it was my obligation to be a voice for my brother Marius who has passed on’.
‘I feel guilty because I didn’t help my brothers. I didn’t even know that they needed my help, and I don’t know how I could have helped them if I had known, but I still feel guilty. I feel guilty because I “got off” lighter than they did.’
During the holiday at Garrison’s house in the country, the children – conditioned to feel ‘comfortable and special’ with him – slept on three mattresses in one room. Because there were four children, the priest said one of them had to sleep with him in the other bedroom. They took turns.
During the holiday Garrison changed from the jovial priest who had impressed their single mother with a hamper of food when they met as new parishioners, to a strict, serious man.
Always the ‘good girl’, Mirabella, ‘felt harassed every day’ when Garrison kissed her on the mouth every time he walked into a room with ‘sloppy and open-mouthed kisses’ – like ‘a salivating leech’.
‘I remember thinking … it was because he was a priest and he didn’t know how to kiss properly … they’re supposed to be celibate … how disgusting it was and it was longer than normal … but I couldn’t push him away or anything ... You didn’t know that you could ever say no.’
Garrison barged in on her once after she showered and watched her dry herself. He also ‘fixated’ on her in her bikini when swimming, Mirabella recalled.
Mirabella remembered her brothers did not want to sleep in Garrison’s room but never said why. Sometimes they would emerge from his room with a $5 note to show at the breakfast table, again without explanation.
When it came to Mirabella’s turn to sleep with Garrison she cried all day until he relented and deposited her at a parishioner’s home for several nights. This left her brothers alone with him.
About a decade later Marius committed suicide in his 20s after confiding in a relative that Garrison had molested him. But the relative never passed that on to Mirabella’s immediate family.
During high school Mirabella’s other brothers were asked if any student had secrets to divulge. One brother, Mitchell, told a teacher that he ‘didn’t like priests’ because of what Garrison had done to him.
Their mother was informed and she questioned her children. The younger boys told her what the priest had done but Marius denied anything had happened.
When Mirabella told her mother about the ‘holiday’, she realised Garrison watching her in the shower was not accidental and recalled her odd ‘feeling’ about his bedroom.
Until her brothers made police statements in the 1990s ‘none of us had ever spoken about it’, she said.
‘We didn’t know anything was happening to each other or had happened to each other’, Mirabella said tearfully. However, she does remember ‘all of us hated going to mass’, particularly Marius.
Mirabella did not make a police statement for nearly 20 years after her brothers. ‘I just thought that – well, obviously because I wasn’t raped … I didn’t think there was really that much to say.’
Mirabella approached police two years ago, not long after another relative told the family that Marius had taken his own life two decades earlier due to Garrison’s sexual abuse.
‘He [the relative] was the first one to really shed light to all of our family … he hadn’t told us [earlier] because he thought we all knew’ from the relative Marius had originally confided in.
Garrison eventually pleaded guilty to multiple charges. This included indecent assault on Mirabella and charges in relation to her other brothers – a powerful moment for her family, she agreed.
Her brothers had their own private sessions with the Royal Commission. There was also ‘some closure’ from the sentencing judge, to whom Mirabella read a victim impact statement, because he specifically mentioned Marius in his remarks.
‘It was like it was recognised that there is actually another victim here who can’t speak for himself.’
Mirabella’s private session was also ‘giving us a platform to project our voice … as opposed to just some tiny little sitting with Towards Healing people who I completely felt uncomfortable with’ last year.
The ‘cold’ woman who interviewed Mirabella told her, erroneously, that Garrison’s kissing – which had a huge impact that has ‘affected forever’ her marriage – was not a crime.
‘I felt like I was having to prove to her that … this just wasn’t a little thing … this is a thing that’s affected me.’
Mirabella distrusts all priests and is triggered with memories when she sees men with beards, like Garrison had at the time. She wants the Church legally accountable for its actions, an apology from both Garrison and the bishop who moved him around, as well as compensation for the direct and indirect pain of ‘anguish and heartache’ in relation to her deceased brother.
She also wants the removal from authority of any leader involved in shifting paedophiles from parish to parish. She wants retrospective prosecution – as an accomplice – of any clergy who failed to report obvious child abuse. Celibacy, she said, should be removed from priestly vows.
In addition, a Working with Children certificate should be mandatory for all priests, brothers and nuns.
Education similar to the Stranger Danger campaign should be recommended so it’s clear that known abuse is both reportable and unable to be ignored by the clergy.
‘It must be clear that children can report abuse … It is an issue and they need to know how to report it.’
Mirabella would also ‘appreciate counselling’ as she seeks compensation through a civil class action.
The police, she said, were ‘fantastic’ and she was happy with the empathy of the prosecution and sentencing judge ‘painful … as it was’. She would like to thank former police officer Peter Fox and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for their contributions.
‘I want the Catholic Church to realise they can never, ever afford to let this happen again. Absolutely not.’