As parents who now recognise they were groomed, Mitch and Kath feel guilty about the sexual abuse of their then 11-year-old daughter, May, by the Reverend Paul Fellini.
The Anglican priest, married with children, had been in the parish in a regional rural city for at least a decade at the time. He had groomed many parishioners including regular church attendees Mitch and Kath.
Kath was often told confidential information about other parishioners by the priest which made her feel special.
In the late 2000s Kath travelled long distances between home and the nearest capital city when several family members fell ill. Her youngest daughter began spending more time at the church, involved with a youth arts program.
During that year Fellini began grooming May. He invited her to the church for practices and while there were times when nothing happened, on up to five occasions he touched her breasts over her clothes while hugging her from behind when they were alone in the church.
Mitch said that when they learned May had been alone with the priest on occasions, Kath thought Fellini ‘might have been a bit of an idiot but he’s not a sexual offender’ and deemed it better not to ‘cause a ruckus’.
On other occasions Fellini would piggyback May and her friends around the church on his back, which she thought was ‘a bit off’, according to documents before the Royal Commission.
Kath said that ‘unbeknownst to us he put her in the car and took her into town’ which kept May in a constant state of hypervigilance wondering if he would ‘do it’ that day.
Once May reached puberty Fellini ‘kept grooming her but he didn’t actually touch her any more’, Kath said. From girls she later learned were targeted, Kath believes that Fellini was interested in pre-pubescent girls who were thin and had yet to develop breasts.
‘She [May] thinks it was probably for about six to eight months the actual sexual touching went on and then after that he just messed with her mind. I think that’s where the damage has been done.’
Soon after the abuse began, May began wetting her bed again, her parents remember.
Four years later the local bishop told parishioners that a girl had alleged Fellini had sexually abused her. Pending a trial, the priest was temporarily suspended. However, he was permitted to remain in his house adjoining the church and use his church-owned car, computer and phone and retain his keys to the church.
Throughout the pre-trial period the local bishop updated parishioners on the progress of the case. However, it was later learned the information was provided to the bishop by Fellini himself. At the same time the bishop was advising parishioners not to ‘gossip’, which led to confusion over the exact nature of the alleged abuse.
During this period Kath, Mitch and many other parishioners were vocally supportive of Fellini. In that climate Kath said she had asked May, ‘he didn’t do anything to you, did he?’
And May had replied, ‘No’.
In the late 2010s Mitch, Kath and other parishioners were told the case had been thrown out as the victim had fabricated the allegations. Fellini resumed his duties but left the parish the same year.
Later Kath learned they had been ‘fed a litany of lies’ from Fellini via the bishop and she now believes the manner in which she asked May about the priest dissuaded any disclosure then.
It was not until the next year when she was 17 that May told Mitch and Kath one day that the priest was not ‘innocent’ of the previous allegations and disclosed her own abuse.
Kath learned from police that the first girl’s case had been suspended after she had a breakdown and it was feared she might suicide.
‘There’s no collaborative process going on between the church and the police or the DPP,’ she told the Royal Commission. ‘Everybody works in silos.’
May’s allegations were eventually referred to police and, with additional allegations by another girl, Felicity, Fellini was charged in relation to indecency with a child.
During the District Court trial both Mitch and Kath felt there had been apprehended bias by the judge against the prosecution. A family member also observed familiarity between the judge and the defence lawyer immediately after the trial.
The prosecutor, child protection witness and a church observer were also critical of the conduct of the trial, according to Kath.
Due to the sudden reassignment of May’s case, the prosecutor, they said, was handed the brief only a week before the trial. Apart from an hour the day before the trial started, there was none of the promised communication between the family and the DPP.
They were both acting as their 19-year-old daughter’s advocate, Kath said, because despite counselling, ‘she’s just not in a place to be able to do that’.
After Fellini’s acquittal, Mitch and Kath’s report to the Anglican Church’s Professional Standards Committee was investigated and a final report is pending.
Meanwhile, May has suffered anxiety, depression, panic attacks, experimented with drugs and has self-harmed numerous times. Her school performance declined. She sees a clinical psychologist regularly.
Her parents feel significant guilt at being groomed themselves and not providing a safe environment for May to disclose earlier.
Among recommendations to the Royal Commission they think grooming crimes – in the states where they apply – should in future include parents as well as children. Parents also need instruction on the nature of a reportable offence and reminding that abuse is a process with lasting impact, rather than an incident.
The DPP needs better resourcing to run sex abuse cases and children need to be taught better protective behaviours to empower them about grooming and abuse.
‘There’s no forensic evidence or witnesses in most cases and it’s the child’s word against the perpetrator who is in a powerful position’, said Mitch.
At the moment, Kath said, the onus of responsibility with the Church is left to the individual. She pointed out that adults, who themselves fear going to the bishop about any issue, still don’t understand why children can’t report abuse.