Petrina always had doubts about the two abusive experiences she suffered when she was a child. The doctor who abused her was a figure of authority, so surely he wouldn’t do the wrong thing. And she was 16 when the groovy priest in her Catholic youth group in Victoria abused her, so surely it didn’t count.
But when Petrina started getting counselling for what she called her two dark secrets, ‘It felt like bees being released’.
As an 11-year-old, Petrina was very tall for her age so she and her mother consulted a specialist, Dr Adams, to make sure there were no problems. At one of her appointments Dr Adams had Petrina lie on an examination table behind a screen where her mother couldn’t see her. Petrina remembers the doctor examined her prepubescent breasts and then digitally penetrated her, pressing up against her as he did. Petrina thought this it was very strange and she felt very embarrassed.
She didn’t tell her mother, or anyone. Dr Adams later resolved via x-ray that there were no problems with Petrina’s height. Petrina wondered why he’d needed to examine her that way.
Years later when Petrina was in her 30s she read a newspaper story about Adams’s treatments being linked to outbreaks of cancer. There was a litany of complaints from his patients.
‘It was like a horror story, and it triggered that memory because I’d sort of locked it out.’
She remembers his office very clearly, even down to the 50s curtains.
‘I’d always had the premise that it was part of the exam. I had no knowledge. I thought he was checking something to do with the cervix or something.’
Petrina could not talk to anyone in her family – her father, depressed and shut down from his war experiences, was violent to her mother and brother. It was this culture of violence that led her to become close friends with the priest in her Catholic youth group. Bob Young was the priest at the parish and ministered to the schools as well.
Bob would make Petrina feel special and listened to her talk about her family problems with great sympathy. They’d sit for hours in his car out the front of her house. He’d give her rides on his motorbike.
‘He was a groovy priest … teenagers were a bit boring compared to him.’
One year she went camping with her friends and father and Bob Young came for a night or two. After dinner she and Bob went for a walk.
They sat in a secluded spot. ‘He fingered me and he had what I now know was an orgasm. At the time I didn’t know what was going on with him.’ Bob left the next day and she never saw or heard from him again. Again, she didn’t tell anyone about it.
Petrina feels betrayed by her mother, who knew about her intense friendship with Bob Young but did nothing. ‘My mother was mute … it was almost like [the behaviour] was condoned.’ She spoke to her recently about the abuse. Her mother told her to forget about it.
Petrina is sure these experiences drew her to bad partners, which led to sexual infection, difficulty in conceiving, struggles with weight and mood swings. She never feels good enough and feels disconnected from her thoughts and feelings.
She’s bitter about the mixed messages her Catholic instruction gave her.
‘We were shown abortion videos and told men are undesirable, all this evil stuff going on about having sexual relationships with boys or men, and then being preyed upon by the priest and it condoned by the nuns, it’s very warped … so how are we to judge? ... being told you have to trust others and all of that.’
Petrina now has a successful, creative career as an artist. She has found a way of having a good life.
She recommended to the Commission that all adults who go on school excursions and school camps, whether they’re parents, caterers or teachers, be thoroughly investigated and checked.
Petrina also thinks that schools should include a section on child sexual abuse in all sex education lessons.
‘If you want to save money in institutions later on, like jail and trauma places, the money would be better spent teaching children how to look after themselves.’
‘And the Church? I reckon they should just close it down … Sell off the real estate … it’s the Church I’m appalled with, really appalled with.’