Despite the abuse she suffered as a child, Penny maintains her Catholic faith. She told the Commissioner she wants to be a force operating from the ‘inside out’ to help make changes in the Church.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Penny’s family was actively involved with the local Catholic church. Penny’s father, Michael Wallace, served there as an acolyte. But Michael’s standing in the church often worked to hide what he was doing in the family home. He physically and sexually assaulted Penny from when she was about seven until she was 15.
Penny described her father as an opportunist. When her mother was out of the house he would seize his chance, exposing himself, touching her and forcing her to touch him. He was also a violent man who, ‘ruled the house by anger, fear and violence’.
Over the years, the abuse took its toll on Penny.
‘On a school retreat when I was 16, in year 11, one of the questions was, “What do you think you’ll be doing in five years’ time, or how do you see yourself?” The first thing that came to my mind was, “I’ll probably be dead by then”. It was just that sense of, “I can’t tell anyone and it’s never going to get any better, it’s never going to go away. I’m completely trapped and there’s just no point in living”.’
Around this time Penny came under the guidance of a church-group mentor named Janet. Penny said that Janet must have noticed something odd in her behaviour because one day she asked Penny directly if she had been abused. Penny said yes.
After that, Janet told her husband and the couple confronted Penny’s father, who broke down in tears and admitted to the abuse. When the couple left, Penny’s father discussed the matter with his wife who then spoke to Penny.
‘I think I was expecting Mum to be upset or outraged or something, but her response was, “Oh well, he’s admitted what he’s done and it only happened once or twice, it was a long time ago and he’s been to reconciliation and God has forgiven him, so we need to forgive him too”.’
By this time the physical abuse had ended but Penny said the ‘psychological abuse and manipulation’ was still happening and continues to this day.
Penny now lives in a different state and avoids all contact with her father. She has built a successful career in education and enjoys a supportive family life with her husband and kids.
For a long time, she was reluctant to talk about the abuse, let alone report it to police.
‘In my mind it was never an option. Even up to now the mantra in my head is “I can’t tell”. If I tell, Dad goes to jail, the family falls apart and it’s all my fault.’ Then a few years back she realised that her sisters were occasionally relying on their father to look after their young children.
‘I couldn’t forgive myself if I found out afterwards that something had happened to them.’
Penny told her sisters about the abuse. Sometime after that she spoke to police. The matter is now under investigation.
Penny suspects that her younger sister, Lily, was also abused by Michael, though Lily denies it. On top of that, Penny is certain that her father had other victims as well. Several people who were involved with the Wallace family while growing up have openly accused Michael of raping them.
Recently, Penny has spent a lot of time looking back on what happened, trying to figure out how it could have been prevented, and how other abuse can be prevented in future. She is particularly focused on the issue of confession and mandatory reporting.
When Penny was about eight or nine, her father confessed the abuse to his parish priest. And yet nothing was done. She sees this as one of the key problems with the Catholic system.
‘To protect a young child should be at the heart of our faith, it should be at the heart of who we are. And someone like my father, that his privacy, or protecting his secrecy is more important than my rights, or the children following after me, is ridiculous.’
She said that, in reality, there are many ways for priests to take action without breaking any vows, principles, or compromising ‘the sanctity of the confessional’.
‘If priests were bound by mandatory reporting as well, they have the freedom to say – like when you go in to see a psychologist or a counsellor they say, “Everything you tell me is confidential unless there’s a threat to yourself or others”. I don’t understand why they can’t do the same thing.’