In the early 1970s, Rachel was 15 and in Year 11 at a government school in Queensland. She was doing well academically and had recently started learning the guitar, but when her father left the family, her guitar lessons could no longer be afforded. So when Rachel’s science teacher (and ex-Christian Brother), Joe O’Neill, offered to give her free lessons, she accepted gratefully.
The lessons were held in O’Neill’s home and initially went as planned. But over several months O’Neill started touching Rachel, using excuses such as having to adjust her guitar strap or help her hold the guitar properly. The inappropriate touching increased and Rachel felt unable to speak up, though she knew what was happening was wrong.
‘I was good, compliant, respectful. I was socially naive … In the absence of my father, I thought he was a kindly male role model and I trusted him.’
One day, O’Neill told Rachel that he’d bought her a present and he produced a packet of condoms. She was confused by the gesture, as she’d had no sexual experience nor interest in boys. O’Neill told Rachel he wanted to see her without her clothes on and forced her into a bedroom and onto the bed. He then climbed on top of her and raped her.
There was a sudden knock at the front door and O’Neill pushed Rachel into a bathroom and told her to put her clothes on. Rachel’s younger brother had come to the house asking where she was; O’Neill answered that she wasn’t there and sent him away.
Rachel said she then walked home and began preparing her brother’s dinner. She was in pain and bleeding. She felt dirty and ashamed. ‘It was just this feeling of being violated. I can remember developing that feeling of self-loathing.’ She felt she was to blame and ‘that feeling of self-loathing has never really gone away’.
Rachel told the Commissioner she couldn’t recall having any further contact with O’Neill, and he left the school a short time later. She didn’t tell anyone about the assault because of her feelings of responsibility, and because she didn’t want to worry her mother who was working hard to bring up three children and pay the mortgage.
‘I didn’t really have an understanding that this was something I could report. My mother was overburdened and stressed, and I thought I’d have to manage it myself, I’ll just soldier on.’
Rachel threw herself into studies, eventually achieving one of the top marks in the state for final exams. Though she wasn’t Catholic, she also started going to mass every morning to ‘settle’ herself.
The impact of the sexual assault on her life had been enormous, Rachel said. ‘I’ve developed anxiety, depression and PTSD, [and] a life long loss of self-esteem.’ She said she felt unable to stand up for herself and, in times of stress, panicked. Her first husband considered the rape a betrayal of him because he said she’d lied in not telling him she wasn’t a virgin when they married.
Though she completed graduate and post-graduate qualifications at university, maintaining consistent employment had been difficult due to her fluctuating physical and psychological health.
Rachel said it was only in recent times that she’d started to view the rape as a crime for which she wasn’t responsible. News of the Royal Commission’s work had encouraged her to seek psychological help and she was considering reporting O’Neill to the police. She hoped societal conditions had changed so that a child nowadays who found themselves in a similar situation would be able to report the abuse to someone of trust.
‘I lacked awareness about the gravity of what had happened, that it was something I was entitled to speak out about it, to make a complaint about, to say, “No, you shouldn’t have done that to me”.
'I guess, too, knowing that you could make a report, and be believed and not be punished or discredited for saying that. That you could trust the system and not be told you were making it all up, that judgemental type of thing. That certainly would have been in my mind at the time.’