‘Even today I don’t believe there’s safe processes in place – like there’ll be some child today in a Catholic school in Australia taken to the presbytery at lunchtime, I’m convinced of it. And we won’t hear about it for 30 years’, Sabine told the Commissioner.
Sabine was one of those children and so was her brother, David. Growing up in northern Queensland in the 1980s, they were sexually abused by their local priest, as was their mother, Joan.
Sabine’s father abandoned the family when Sabine was two months old, leaving Joan to raise three young children on her own. With no family to turn to and, at the time, no government support for single mothers available, Joan struggled to manage.
‘She was completely vulnerable’, Sabine said. ‘What women did then was either go to family or the Church – and so the Church just had this ready body of vulnerable women and young children who had no other option but prostitution, really, or charity.’
As a devout Catholic, Joan accepted the support offered by her local priest, Father McManus. He became part of family life, visiting for cups of tea, taking family prayers and generally helping out. When Sabine was seven or eight, he began sexually abusing her. The first incident took place one evening at family prayers.
Sabine was sitting on Father McManus’s lap and the rest of the family was sitting around the table, she recalled in a statement written for the Royal Commission. As the family prayed, Father McManus moved his hands inside the pants of her pyjamas, fondling and digitally penetrating her. This lasted for the duration of the prayer session.
‘At the time I thought it must have been okay for him to do this’, Sabine said in her statement, ‘as my mum was right across the table from us … and it was a priest doing it’.
Later that night when Sabine was in bed, she heard a commotion in the room next door and her mother’s voice. She was pleading with Father McManus, asking him to leave. Years later Sabine found out that Father McManus had sexually assaulted her mother and was trying to rape her.
‘That was a night I have never been able to forget’, Sabine said.
Father McManus’s abuse of Sabine continued for the next 18 months or so. It took place on outings he organised, at Sabine’s home and in confession. Sabine didn’t speak of it to anyone because she thought it was her fault. Adding to her confusion was the way the abuse felt. ‘Part of the worst part of it was that he would stimulate me in kind of like an orgasmy type way. I’d rather he just punched me, or tore me, or something’, she said.
When Sabine was 11, she went to sex education sessions at her school. It was after one of these that she realised for the first time that what Father McManus had done to her was sexual abuse. Self-loathing hit, she said. That night, or close to it, she tried to take her own life. When she went to bed, she put a plastic bag over her head. ‘I was utterly determined not to wake up the next morning.’
Sabine has suffered from depression and episodes of severe mental illness since that time. ‘The feelings of shame that the abuse left me with have impacted on me all my life’, she said. Ongoing counselling helped her, once she found the right counsellor – not the one she saw when she was 21, who told her that the ‘funny feelings’ she was having about sex with her boyfriend were probably because she was too young to be having sex at all. She has had a successful career and is married with two children.
Sabine’s brother David was not able to deal so well with the sexual abuse he suffered. In the late 90s he killed himself, after threatening to kill his mother Joan as well. His death came the weekend after Sabine told him that she too had been abused by Father McManus. It was the first time she’d spoken of it to him, though she had known about his abuse for some years.
‘I think that tipped him over the edge. He was in a bad way. I was trying to let him know he wasn’t alone, you know.’
David had been to counselling as well, but hadn’t carried on with it. He was angry and held Joan responsible for what had happened to him. He’d first told her about the abuse two years before his death and she’d followed up by making a formal complaint to the Church about Father McManus’s sexual assaults on her. As a result Father McManus was sent to Sydney for treatment and Joan was assured he would not return. But he did and moved into a house very close to David’s – one of the factors that contributed to David’s torment. Soon after David confronted him one day, Father McManus left the country.
In the late 2000s, Sabine approached Towards Healing. She had recently told her husband about her abuse and this felt like the logical next step. It was a pointless, fruitless, stressful process, she said. She had two lengthy interviews with Church officials but then heard nothing. She tried to get transcripts of the interviews but got no response.
‘It was just like I’d dropped off the edge of the cliff’, she said.
She then reported her and David’s abuse to the police. Again, she didn’t get any help. The abuse had happened too long ago, Father McManus had left the country, the abuse wasn’t serious enough – ‘Look, we get far worse cases’, she was told.
‘It was very belittling.’
In the end, she said, ‘I did kind of feel like there was just really nothing they could do’.
Sabine firmly believes that legislation is needed to ensure the Church pays proper compensation to abuse victims. ‘Part of that is to drive change, because I think the biggest driver of change for the Catholic Church is the financial impost … I think that’s where it hurts the most’, she said. ‘It’s not the only way but I do think it’s the most effective.’
She also wanted to urge victims to seek proper ongoing counselling. Without intervention, the effects of the trauma can impact on up to four generations, she observed. ‘It’s this constant trauma but there’s ways of coping and still living a great life and stopping it for the next generation.’
Her own life proves that’s so, she said.
‘My life hasn’t been a failure. It’s so hard not to let it define your life, but I’ve somehow managed … It stops with me. And to really change the stigma of the shame of that happening takes people who have a successful life standing up and saying “It happened to me but I’m here now”.’