As a child, Romana loved attending church.
‘I liked mass ‘cause it was in Latin and I liked the feel of mass at that time … In Lent I went every day and really liked getting up at six o’clock in the morning and going and being in that environment.’
From a young age, Romana was sexually and physically abused by her father, to the degree she experienced ‘grievous bodily harm’. When she was around seven years old, in the mid-1960s, Romana’s father committed suicide, so her mother moved the children to Sydney where she started attending the local Catholic school run by nuns.
Attached to the school was a church from which two priests, Father Mullally and Father Calibri, ministered. Romana had not been attending the school for very long when one of the nuns requested she go to the presbytery. ‘If a nun told you what to do you just did it …
‘I just remember going in and there were two priests … I had my back to them washing up and one of them came behind me and sexually molested me … I think he was masturbating but I couldn’t see, so I couldn’t say for sure … I have no idea who it was.’
After that incident, Romana lost all interest in going to church. Because her mother had never intervened when she was being abused by her father, she did not disclose the priest’s abuse. ‘My mother chose not to see.’ And because the abuse Romana experienced at the hands of her father was so traumatising, she has always regarded the priest’s assault, although terrible, as much less impactful. ‘I’m a survivor of incest from my father ... And after that I was sexually molested by a priest.
‘I think that that experience probably was connected with me stopping my spiritual connection … I think something got on top of the abuse from my father and then having a priest, another male, and a nun take you there. Why would a nun take a child to wash up? Surely they must know.’
Romana has never reported the abuse to police because she doesn’t know which priest was the perpetrator. However, many years later, she decided to approach Towards Healing.
‘My motivation for ringing Towards Healing was just to check out whether they may have any information and whether they would be willing to take my information to add to something else if one of the priests at that time around those years had other incidences reported.’
When Romana spoke with a representative from Towards Healing, she found them ‘unhelpful would be too light a word, really.
‘They suggested, from my memory, that someone would meet me in a hotel room … They sent me information and then I decided that I wasn’t prepared to meet with somebody who might have their particular view.’
By this stage, Romana had gained tertiary qualifications in counselling and was not prepared to meet with an unqualified person who would be biased in favour of the Church. Towards Healing did not give her any information about other reports of either Mullally or Calibri, and she found their attitude off-putting.
‘I just decided that I would leave it at that point … The process put me off continuing.’
As an adult, Romana experiences numerous mental health complaints as a result of the sexual abuse and is a recipient of the disability support pension.
‘I’m so grateful for that because you have to eat, and when I can’t work. So that’s a consequence really of the abuse too, is that I’m textbook really. You know, like abuse, PTSD, depression, bipolar. Hopefully that’s it.’
Romana has sought therapy but because she can’t find a suitable counsellor in her area, she visits a psychiatrist instead, which is expensive.
‘I’m a single woman, I didn’t have children and that’s a consequence … I don’t think I’m suicidal but I said to a friend of mine “If you ever hear that I’ve jumped off a bridge, it’s just ‘cause I’ve had enough and I’m too tired” … I’m all right but there is a little bit of that.’
Romana is considering approaching Towards Healing again to report the priests. She believes there should be better education and resources for teachers and government support providers in order to stop the sexual abuse of children before it occurs. She is often triggered by reports in the media of abuse, particularly if it relates to the Catholic Church.
‘I have such a reaction to George Pell when he’s being interviewed … I think he just gets to sideswipe. And there’s stuff that I think he hasn’t answered well enough.’