Priscilla has bipolar disorder, and attributes her difficulties partly to that. But they are also the result of being sexually abused between the ages of eight and 11 by a local priest. Even worse, the abuse took place in the family living room, and was unknowingly facilitated by her parents.
Born in the mid-1960s, Priscilla grew up in a devoutly Catholic family in Canberra. Her mother, in particular, had been brought up never to challenge the Church and its authority. ‘You respected those people, you respected those institutions, you didn’t question’, Pricilla said. Her parents had a close relationship with Father Kevin Graham, and he was often in their home.
Sometimes Father Graham would stay for dinner, everyone gathered together around the table. There was an established routine for the children: dinner, bath, into pyjamas and then some time spent with their parents and Father Graham before bed. Priscilla and her sisters wore shortie pyjamas, she recalled. When she and her younger sister emerged from the bathroom, Father Graham would grab them and pull them close, sitting one girl on each knee. After this had happened a few times, Pricilla knew to press her arms close to her body and squeeze her legs tightly together: ‘Because his hands would be going up all under your top, down your pants, every crevice of your body.’
The girls tried different strategies to avoid him. They stayed in the bath so long their fingers became crinkly from the water. Their mother would call them, Priscilla said. ‘“Come out of the bath, you girls, we have a visitor, come and spend time with our guest!” … His hand was like a vice. He would grab you and put you on his knee and hold you there and prise your hands and arms away from your body.’
It was ‘bewildering’, Priscilla said.
‘It would be in our lounge room, with all the family sitting round, and I couldn’t believe – I mean, part of me knew that my parents mustn’t have known. Otherwise I’m sure they would have done something. But part of me couldn’t believe – I suppose this is looking back with an adult mind – how they didn’t know.’
Pricilla didn’t discuss the abuse with her younger sister. ‘At that age you didn’t talk about personal things.’ She later discovered that Graham had also abused her older sister, and another girl. In her early 20s, she came across a newspaper article which reported multiple complaints of abuse against him.
‘I couldn’t believe it. I just could not believe it’, she said. She called her parents and told them. ‘My father believed me straight away. He had no doubt. And my mother said, “How dare you say those things – that’s scurrilous, these people say disgraceful things” … I found that really hard.’
In her teens Priscilla developed an eating disorder and became very withdrawn. ‘I struggled a lot with self-loathing and persistent suicidal ideation. From having been a very good student, an A-grade student, I had times where I inexplicably seized up.’ Her bipolar disorder was diagnosed when she was in her early 30s. Her GP referred her to a psychologist who introduced her to cognitive behaviour therapy, which she finds helpful in managing her mental health issues.
She has not reported the abuse to police or the Church, and has not sought any redress.
‘I think the hardest thing was that our mother didn’t believe me’, she said. It was not until the Royal Commission’s work got underway that Priscilla gathered the courage to speak to her mother about Graham again. This time she accepted her story. Pricilla said recognising the culpability of the Church and of priests has been very difficult for her mother.
‘I think she feels just devastated. These were boys she went to school with, friends of boys she went out with’, Priscilla told the Commissioner. ‘I feel angry she wouldn’t believe me over him. But I know that she does now.’