‘The Donati thing, I will never, ever forget it. Never. I try and push it to the back of my mind … but it still comes back. And it’s still affected my faith. I’ve lost my faith.’
Rhonda can’t remember a lot of her childhood in the 1940s and 50s in regional Victoria. She does remember turbulent times as her parents fought a lot. Her father was an angry man and her mother left the household when Rhonda was seven. She did continue to see her mother but not a lot. Her father restricted access.
Rhonda and her sister became boarders at their school during the week and would spend weekends at home. Rhonda was scared of the nuns and wasn’t happy at boarding school. ‘I used to wet the bed every night.’
Priests would often walk past Rhonda’s family house on their way to the local hospital. Her father was very much involved in the Church and one day a priest, Father Donati, was speaking with him at the front door. When her father left to go to the church, Donati came in to the house. He kissed Rhonda passionately on the lips. On his way out he did it again and told her ‘This is our little secret’.
Rhonda can’t recall doing this but understands she told her grandmother who was upstairs. Her grandmother must have told her father because he went to speak with another priest.
Around the same time, Donati was one of the priests that would hear confession for Rhonda’s school. She remembers that, for some reason, she was always in the line for him. Inside the confessional he used to make her go around the screen and sit on his lap. ‘And then he would put his arms around me. And I was just rigid. I remember his face being close to me.’
Donati was removed from the parish. Rhonda’s father understood he was sent to a monastery ‘where bad priests go’.
Rhonda became terrified of priests. During home visits she would hide under her bed. ‘Even as a teenager I couldn’t have a conversation. I was scared.’
She also had trouble having conversations with men. Rhonda has had two long-term marriages which have ended. The first occurred after she got pregnant as a teenager. Her husband became violent. In her second marriage ‘I sort of lost my independence and let him take over my life. Looking back now, I should have stood up for my children more than what I did … I had trouble standing up to a man’.
However, Rhonda thrived in her work. Her career spanned a number of decades and she loved it. She would still be doing it now if she wasn’t prevented by health issues.
Rhonda didn’t discuss the abuse with anyone until the 1990s when she was talking to a colleague who, she discovered, was also a victim of Donati. Rhonda learned that the priest was practising at another parish and still had access to children.
Rhonda reported the abuse to Broken Rites who encouraged her to go to the police. She and her sister were interviewed by police who took them seriously. When doing a re-enactment ‘I just burst into tears sitting on my husband’s knee, imagining that it was Donati … It was hard. It was so hard’.
Broken Rites also encouraged Rhonda to contact the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). When she did so, Rhonda discovered that they had no record of the statements the police had sent them. She believes this was part of a cover-up to protect Donati.
Rhonda and her sister, Julie, met with the monsignor of the archdiocese, who was sympathetic and also confirmed that Father Donati was in charge of a parish. Rhonda later learned that he was abusing children there as well.
‘We asked to see Donati. So we went up. [The monsignor] was there. Donati was sitting there. Now, they had a legal person there. We didn’t have a legal person. Dad came with us. And he [Donati] just more or less said “Well, if I did it, the Devil must have made me do it”.’
Then the monsignor asked the sisters what they wanted to happen. ‘I said “Well, firstly, we want him out”. And they said “Well, can we retire him at Christmas? … And we said “No”. “Can we retire him through ill health?” And we said “No” … I remember Julie thumping her fist on the desk and saying “We were only children!”’
Eventually, Donati admitted the abuse to police, but he died shortly before criminal proceedings began against him. At his funeral and also at his retirement, senior clergymen said they were ‘immensely proud’ of him. ‘They sent him out in a blaze of glory.’
Rhonda went ahead with redress and was awarded a payment of $25,000 from the Church in the late 90s. She wasn’t happy with it and has recently contacted new lawyers to have her case looked at again.
She gets very angry when she sees the Church’s public response to child sexual abuse. On Cardinal George Pell, she said ‘He didn’t care about any of it. None of it …
‘I tried to go back to mass one morning and I felt absolutely nothing.’