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Rena's story

Rena’s father was an alcoholic, and subjected the children and their mother to constant emotional and physical abuse.

Many years later one of her brothers, who worked in the justice system, told her that the abuse they suffered was worse than anything he ever saw.

Rena said her mother spoke to their priest about her abusive husband. ‘And of course, he told her that she married him for better, for worse, and so she stuck by that and would never leave him …

‘I think also that she was scared to leave him, because he would have sought us out and possibly killed all of us.’

In the early 70s, in her second year of high school in South Australia, Rena recalled having a ‘really lovely’ class teacher. ‘And I got punishment because I didn’t tolerate authority, which I can understand why. So one of my punishments was to write an essay on anything that I chose … And I chose to write about my family. And I think I did that so he was aware of the situation I was in. But also probably it was a cry for help.’

Rena also remembered another teacher, Colin Franks. ‘There was one incident where I was with my girlfriend. And she was walking down the corridor and – I remember his words exactly – she went past him and his hand was sort of out and then he said, “My left hand brushed against her right breast”. And said that quite openly in the corridor.’

Rena realised that Franks knew about her violent home life. ‘He made some comment. I thought, “Yes, what I’ve put in my letter to my class teacher, you have either read that or you are aware of my situation”.’

One day that year, Franks offered Rena a lift home from school. ‘And then he drove not where I lived … and then stopped the car, and leant over and put his hand down into my shirt and felt my breasts. I felt really uncomfortable. I remember at one stage he did try to get into my pants and I thought, “No, this is wrong”. And shrugged him away and we left …

‘But then I do recall it happened on another occasion, and for the life of me I don’t know why I accepted a lift again. So it happened on two occasions. That was the extent of it, it was just feeling my breasts … I shouldn’t say “just”.’

Rena never reported the abuse. ‘I know I didn’t tell my mum because I wouldn’t want her to have been devastated by that incident. I think I had already told a couple of people about my home situation, and there was no response to it. There was certainly nobody coming forward saying “Perhaps you need to go into welfare” or something like that. And so I felt, if I had spoken to anybody about it, it may well have fallen on deaf ears.’

Until she came to the Royal Commission, Rena had never talked about the sexual abuse.

‘In my mind, I didn’t want anybody to think of me as being “that girl that was molested”. I’ve never spoken to my husband about it, my children or anything, they are not aware that I’m here. Because I don’t want to have that stigma, of being a molested child, attached to me. And I think I’m a stronger person than that. And that I can put that behind me and get on with my life. Which I have done …

‘I think, also, the fact that I was Catholic, and my mum was a very, very strong Catholic. And probably that whole guilt thing … was embedded in me as well ... I suppose I felt guilty in the first place getting into the car. I felt to some part I probably contributed to it. Although, in retrospect, I know I didn’t.’

As she got older, Rena struggled with intimacy and trust. ‘I really had no self-confidence, and felt very unworthy. You know, like, “Why would anybody want to go out with me?”’

Even after getting married, the impact of the physical and sexual abuse was never far away. Rena remembered a moment on her honeymoon, when she and her husband were sightseeing. ‘The two of us were there just by ourselves and I thought, “Well, now I suppose is the time that you’re going to kill me for my money”. I know that sounds really bizarre, doesn’t it?’

Rena said she came to the Royal Commission for several reasons. ‘One is that I thought that if there were any other students from that school who were abused, then my story would collaborate theirs ...

‘And I always believe that, when you verbalise something you do let it go. Like, “the truth will set you free”. And so I feel that this is what it is for me …

‘I suppose the other thing is, I’m at that age where I feel that I can report it with no repercussions for me. The confidence to report it … I suppose, when I was younger, if I knew that there was somebody within the school environment that I could’ve gone to, in absolute confidence, I possibly would have …

‘For me … I didn’t believe that anybody would have done anything about it anyway. And I suppose there was a lot of fear there, because if something was done about it, I didn’t want to finish up going to court. And to be exposed to that, and people to know that …

‘For me it really was about, not destroying myself …

‘We all probably went on to do good things, despite our upbringing. And I often attribute that to, out of adversity you do get strength. And out of adversity you do grow compassion for other people. So, sometimes I think I may never have got to where I was had I not been faced with the adversity …

‘There are parts of me that I think, “perhaps you’re psychologically screwed up because of that”, but overall I think that I’ve overcome it, I’ve overcome the adversity …

‘I think I’ve probably weathered it well.’

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