One Christmas in the late 1990s, Pamela decided to tell her parents about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
‘I told my mum and dad’, she said. ‘And I heard my dad say words I’d never heard him use before. And my husband said to him, “What’s wrong?” And he said, “Well, Peter told us the same bloody story two days before Christmas Eve”.’
Peter was Pamela’s brother. He died in the mid-2000s, a decade after disclosing the abuse to his parents. Pamela came to the Royal Commission to tell his story and to speak on her own behalf.
The story began at a Catholic primary school in Sydney in the late 1950s. Both Pamela and her brother were sexually abused by a Catholic priest who worked with the school. At the time, neither sibling knew of the other’s experiences.
In fact, for most of her life, Pamela had little conscious awareness that she’d been abused herself. From the age of seven she suppressed all memories of what the priest did to her. It was only in her nightmares that the memories occasionally surfaced.
‘I’d always had nightmares that we couldn’t explain … And I was always walking down a dark hallway, and when the door opened the nightmare would stop and I’d wake up screaming.’
Then, when Pamela was in her 40s, suddenly and without warning, the memories came back.
‘I woke up about four o’clock in the morning and I realised I’d gone through the open door and seen what happened.’
What Pamela saw was Father Thomas Rodwell molesting her and forcing her to touch his penis. She heard his voice, telling her that he was ‘showing me a special type of God’s love. And that I had to keep it secret, and that if I told anyone all my family and I would go to Hell’.
After she got over her initial shock, Pamela discussed the abuse with her parents and her brother. Peter revealed that he had suffered more abuse after leaving primary school. At age 12 he was raped by a Catholic Brother and then bashed by the school principal for complaining about it.
By this time, Pamela had abandoned all faith in the Catholic Church and joined a different denomination of Christian Church. She disclosed the abuse to some friends there and they helped her to report her abuse to the Catholic Church through its Towards Healing process.
Some months later, Pamela went along to a Towards Healing session with her husband, Geoff. They expected a compassionate reception, much like they’d received at their own church. ‘How naive we were’, Pamela said.
At the session Pamela was interviewed by a senior clergyman named Father John Gordon. He was antagonistic from the get-go.
‘He said, “I read your story coming up on the train”. It was in a folder. And he picked it up like this, he said, “If this is true” – and then he threw it at me across the desk – he said, “I feel sorry for you”. But he said, “I knew of that priest and he was nothing but a gentleman”.’
As the meeting progressed, Father Gordon became increasingly aggressive to the point where he said to Pamela’s husband, ‘How do I know you didn’t make all this up with your wife so that you can defraud the Catholic Church?’
After that, the session quickly ended. Father Gordon’s final comment was, ‘We will get back to you but there’s very little money left in Sydney and it won’t be a lot’.
Months later Pamela got a call from the Church, telling her that they would not be paying her any compensation at all, because they had no money. Later, with this news fresh in her mind, Pamela saw on TV that the Church was planning to spend a huge sum replacing the spires on one of Sydney’s cathedrals.
Angry and exhausted, Pamela decided to drop the whole matter. ‘I just let it go. I spent the next two years in bed with depression.’
Pamela stopped going to her church. Her friends tried to support her, encouraging her to come back, but after all she’d been through Pamela no longer saw her church in the same positive light.
‘When I was around men of God or I was in a Christian setting I felt sick and I felt like I was being raped.’
This went on for years until one night at a meeting someone said to Pamela, ‘“Why don’t you stay for church. I said, “I can’t. I’ll have a panic attack”. And two or three people said, “We’ll sit with you”. And I didn’t have a panic attack. And I haven’t had one in that situation since.’
Strengthened by her faith and the support of her community, Pamela went back to Towards Healing to try again. Father Gordon was gone and the process was now being run by a layman named Nathan West.
West was nice, Pamela said, and behaved ‘like a gentleman’ but when Pamela’s lawyer sent him a breakdown of how much compensation Pamela deserved, West treated it ‘like a joke’. He told her that there was a ‘cap’ on the amount of money the Church could issue, and that ‘there was no compensation for pain and suffering and no compensation for loss of abilities to earn income’.
Later, Pamela saw Cardinal Pell on TV saying that there was no upper limit on payments in Sydney, completely contradicting what West had told her.
‘It just tied us up’, Pamela said. ‘We felt helpless, we felt damaged, we felt used, deceived. And the cheque came and it was only $36,000 … That’s what a life’s worth according to the Catholic Church.’