When Renee first met Father Bob McNally in the 1970s he was unlike any priest she had ever known. In his late 20s, he was young, ‘gorgeous,’ and even drove a sports car. Her family were devout Catholics, and heavily involved in the Church community. McNally was a regular dinner guest at their home in western Sydney, sharing meals with Renee, her parents, and brothers.
He was often accompanied by a young woman who was around 19 years old. She was from a strict family who would not allow her to go out with other men, but had put trust in McNally as he was a priest. Renee believes she later became pregnant to him.
Renee was in her mid-teens when she went overseas to stay with a family she knew, and with whom McNally was also friends. After a while she became homesick, and when McNally arrived from Australia to visit the family she was pleased to see him.
After a while, McNally asked her to cuddle him, and she did so. He then asked her to remove her slacks, and had sexual intercourse with her. This was Renee’s first sexual activity of this kind, and he repeated it the next night. McNally told her not to tell anyone about what had happened, as it was a secret between them. His visit to the family ended soon afterwards.
Renee said that as a result of this sexual abuse by McNally, she entered into other sexual relationships earlier than she otherwise would have.
‘I can look back and wonder if my virginity hadn’t gone to him, the priest, whether I would have gotten into the relationship with Darren so young ... Okay, well, my virginity’s gone, you know, it doesn’t really matter.’ She soon became pregnant to another man, and married to him.
She refused to have McNally officiate at her wedding, but did not feel she could tell her family why. This marriage was short-lived, and when Renee tried to remarry in the Church a decade later she was refused permission. The decision caused her to reflect on the sexual abuse.
It was then Renee disclosed it to her mother, and the whole family came to know about it. She was amazed by their response: ‘Mum and Dad were absolutely devastated, you know, they thought it was all their fault’.
As much as knowing what had happened ‘answered a few questions’ for Renee’s mother about some of McNally’s past behaviour, it was hard for her parents to discover that someone who had been part of the family’s life for so long had broken their trust.
Renee contacted Towards Healing, to provide collaboration for any other McNally victims who may have come forward. She was visited by a woman from the local Church community, and offered counselling (which she declined).
McNally had left the priesthood and the country, so the Church was unable to question him about what had happened. They also told her that as the sexual activity took place overseas there was nothing else they could do for her. Renee did not report the incidents to police, or seek legal advice regarding compensation.
Renee is aware the Church knew about McNally’s predatory sexual behaviour while in the priesthood. He was moved around frequently, including assignment to a rural girls’ boarding school.
The Church should look at how priests are selected, screened and monitored, Renee believes. ‘I feel sorry for him … he should never have been a priest. He was just the wrong personality for it, because yes, he was a very attentive man, he loved women ... How he ended up a priest I don’t know.’ She suggested that the vow of celibacy for priests be removed, and they be allowed to marry.
Renee enjoys her relationships with her children and grandchildren. She thinks it is sad that kids have to be educated about preventing abuse, as this leads to a loss of innocence about the world. ‘It makes the world a scary place. The world is not a scary place. It’s got to go back to the priests, it comes from them. It shouldn’t be the children that have to protect themselves. It just shouldn’t even be in the priest’s head.’
Although Renee has struggled with alcoholism and personal relationships, she believes that things happen for a reason. ‘It’s the emotion that we put on them, that’s what says whether they’re going to leave us in the gutter or send us skyrocketing up into something beautiful. ... If I was still a mess, and didn’t trust people, and my life was in ruins because of something that someone did to me 31 years ago, that person still has the power.’