Now in her late 40s, Nicole has had treatment for a range of mental health issues over the years but had never disclosed the child sexual abuse that lay behind them. Contacting the Royal Commission proved a trigger for change. Booking her private session with the Commissioner led her to report her abuse to police and to approach a specialist counselling service.
The counselling had already resulted in new insights, she said. She listed them: ‘That [the abuse] is significant, that it has to be dealt with – I believe that it can be dealt with, with support. That I can form relationships and trust people – it’s not true what I think, that everyone’s untrustworthy, and I have to be on my own all the time and second guess people and stuff. That I possibly could have a relationship one day.’
Nicole grew up in a wealthy suburb of Sydney. Her family attended the local Presbyterian Church and were active members of the church community.
In the late 1970s a new student minister was appointed at the church. Cole Guthrie’s responsibilities included occasional preaching, overseeing the youth group and mentoring the children and young people of the church.
Nicole, who was 11 at the time, saw Guthrie often. With both her parents often at church for meetings and other commitments, she spent a lot of time waiting around for them on her own. ‘[Cole] just would happen to be at the church and I’d be outside weeding or whatever I was supposed to be doing … Cole had access to me three or four times a week – he became my best friend’, she said.
Nicole’s parents trusted Cole to look after her and mentor her. They were ‘thankful for what they assumed was his attention to my spiritual growth’, she said in a written statement. But over the next year and a half Cole sexually abused Nicole, in a process that began with grooming and ended with attempted rape.
Guthrie organised for Nicole to attend youth group, though strictly speaking she was two years too young to belong. This special privilege became one she was anxious not to lose, so she did her best to please him. But he paid her more and more unwelcome and inappropriate attention. He took her to his house for visits. He played tickling and wrestling games with her and he talked to her about sex.
‘We got naked and he explained different parts of human anatomy and invited me to touch him’, she said. He told her he was a doctor. ‘I’m just telling you about the parts of your body and showing you mine’, he said. He implied that they would marry one day, and this made sense to her.
‘Because I’d been at church, you know, I was pretty strict about the religious side of things. I knew that any sort of touching, he‘d have to marry me, he’d have to love me. So I also thought that down the track we would get married.’
But she was still confused and distressed by what was happening. She worried that it was sinful. Guthrie convinced her that he was the victim: ‘I felt responsible for causing him to sin whether in thought or action’, she said.
The abuse turned to oral sex and experimenting with different sexual positions and then one afternoon Guthrie attempted full intercourse.
‘After that I didn’t trust him at all because he’d said he’d never do that. So I avoided him completely. I stopped going to church, because I didn’t feel comfortable … I would have been about 12 and a half.’
Sometime later she told her father what had happened. He responded with resounding inaction. He said he couldn’t support her going to the police because it would ruin her life – the Church would defend any action against Guthrie, and Nicole would be discredited in the process.
Nicole then told the minister at the church – ‘You have to forgive’, he told her – and others in the Church hierarchy. One told her she was evil and warned against ruining Guthrie’s reputation. Another never spoke to her again.
Guthrie was eventually transferred to another church, his reputation intact. Nicole dropped out of school at 14, developed anorexia and by the time she was 17 had attempted suicide twice. She went on to further study and then university where she gained a professional qualification. Problems with authority made it hard for her to keep a job and she now has her own business. She was a heavy drinker throughout her 20s.
‘Until I gave up alcohol I had lots of really bad relationships. And then when I gave up alcohol I stopped having any relationships’, she said.
Her mental health is fragile and she’s been diagnosed at different times with depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, adjustment disorder and PTSD.
Lately though she has reconnected with her family and discovered that throughout the time she was being abused by Guthrie, he was telling lies about her to her parents. ‘I had no idea Cole was discrediting me. By talking about it you find out why they made the decisions they made’, she said.
‘I’m even going to the Presbyterian Church with [my father]. I hadn’t been to church for ages.’
But she was disturbed to see that Sunday school was being taught by just one man. ‘I don’t know why that hasn’t changed.’ She thought there should be two teachers at all times, as part of child-safe practices that have theoretically been put in place.
Nicole had been in touch with Breaking the Silence, the protocol for dealing with sexual abuse within the Presbyterian Church. She had been assured that Cole Guthrie had been removed from his parish. She wasn’t told about her right to pursue redress.
Nicole’s faith remains unshaken. ‘I’m a very spiritual person’, she said.
‘God has still been helpful to me. I still pray. But [the abuse] did take my access to God away, and my belief in churches. It totally destroyed my belief in churches.’