‘He’d have his finger in my bathers and playing around and it was just, you couldn’t get away, it was just awful. And you couldn’t say anything and you felt, not dirty, you felt kind of used, just like a piece of meat. But there was also this conflict going on in your head. Every time something would happen it would be like, he’s a priest, he’s so close to God, it must be okay, but it doesn’t feel okay.’
Pamela was sexually abused by her parish priest over a period of four years, while she was a student at a small Catholic primary school in regional Western Australia. The abuse happened in the classroom, in the church and on a school trip to a lake.
It was the mid 1960s when Father Garret arrived in the parish and, Pamela said, at first it was great to have someone who seemed to be caring and engaged with the kids and keen to be involved with their parents. ‘Little did we know we were being groomed at the time.’
The abuse started fairly soon after he arrived in the parish. He would tell the nuns at the school to go for a break and he’d take over the class. He asked Pamela to come up to his desk, stand beside him and read something to the class.
‘We were behind the desk and the next thing he’s got his hand on my backside and then his fingers kind of poking around. And I didn’t understand what was going on and I thought “Well, I’ve got to just keep reading” because I didn’t know what else I could do.’
Pamela didn’t tell anyone, but it soon became clear she wasn’t alone as other girls, including her older sister, were talking about Father Garret touching them inappropriately. Garret was careful about who he would abuse, only choosing kids from local families, committed Catholic families such as Pamela’s, and girls from migrant families whose parents spoke very little English.
Pamela said all the parents loved Father Garret and talked about how he cared so much for the kids. He kept close contact with the families and often came to the house for a Sunday roast – a situation that ‘just went on and on’. During this time, she was being violated to some degree every week.
The children had to take turns going alone to the sacristy to help lay out Father Garret’s clothes for the school mass. Pamela used to dread it and would get everything done as quickly as possible so she could leave as soon as he got there.
‘This one particular day – I was 12 – he arrived early. I remember he actually picked me up and had me in his arms and was trying to kiss me. I was squirming and he had basically one finger in my vagina. And I squirmed and I think I peed myself a little bit, which I was quite happy about. And then I ran.
‘I think he somehow knew that we wouldn’t say anything. Because we were all very, very naive. Really naive.’
The final incident happened when Pamela’s mother had to go to an appointment and left all the children in Father Garret’s care. Pamela was worried but thought she would be safe because the others were there. ‘But he lifted up my top and he started playing with my nipple and I remember looking at my brother and sisters and just the horror on their faces and we never said a word about that. Never spoke about it. It was just horrible. I think that’s the one event that really upsets me.’
When she was about 10, she and one of her sisters tried to tell their mother what was going on, but Pamela said her mother was totally ill-equipped to deal with the situation and just made some kind of excuse about him checking they were developing properly.
Eventually, in the early 1970s, some younger girls decided to tell their parents Father Garret had done something to them and together the parents went to the nuns. The nuns said to tell them straight away if anything else happened, which it did two weeks later, and Father Garret was immediately sent away to another parish.
Father Garret continued to move around various parishes in different states and when he died, a number of years later, Pamela said she was happy to hear it.
She got married soon after high school and had children. Her husband was violent and the marriage didn’t last, but she has been with her current husband for 22 years.
She said she’s lived a lot of her life, and particularly her childhood, under a degree of stress. As a child she always had to think about where she was in relation to Garret physically. As an adult this has manifested in a need to have multiple plans for every scenario that might happen. She has a narrow comfort zone, gets nervous and upset if things get out of her control and finds it very hard to be spontaneous.
‘I think what he stole from me was an opportunity to reach my full potential, I think that’s the thing he’s really stolen from me. I don’t know what I’m going to do about that.’
She believes the Church should be made accountable for the things they covered up and allowed to continue. She is exploring the idea of going through redress and may do this together with her sisters.
However, through it all she has managed to maintain a strong Catholic faith and sent her own children to Catholic schools.
‘I kind of somehow understood that it was that man who was the problem and not the faith. I grew up mostly around Catholics and they were really lovely, good people …
‘The Church to a degree was also part of the problem by allowing him to continually be around children, to be a parish priest where there was primary schools and just moving him on. Why they thought that moving him from here to there to there was going to resolve anything, I really don’t understand. They didn’t want to know.’