Sarah grew up in a large, devout Catholic family in Queensland in the 1970s. Her mother was close friends with Father O’Connor, the local parish priest, and from the time Sarah was seven years old she made regular visits to the presbytery.
‘At first it was all really friendly and really harmless’, Sarah told the Commissioner. ‘I remember thinking he was fantastic, you know. And then he asked if my sister could stay overnight one night, and I remember thinking, “How cool, she’s going to be the first one at school”.’
Sarah begged her mother to let her stay at the presbytery too. Her mother agreed, and a week or so later it was arranged for Sarah to spend the night.
As soon as they were alone together, Father O’Connor took Sarah into a small room and told her to take off all her clothes. He touched her chest briefly before he was interrupted by a phone call and left the room. Sarah said:
‘I was freezing and my clothes were beside me but I was too frightened to put them on because he had told me to take them off. ... When he came back to the room he just asked me to put my clothes back on. It was like a conscience from the phone call had stepped in. So I did, and he didn’t approach me anymore that night. And I never went to stay there again. But from that time on I was repulsed by him.’
In the years that followed, Father O’Connor made frequent visits to Sarah’s home, and during every visit he would touch and tickle her, often putting his hand up her shirt.
When Sarah was about 12 years old her mother approached her and asked if something was going on with Father O’Connor.
‘And I said yes, and I was incredibly embarrassed. And she told me my sister – the same thing had happened to her.’
Sarah said that her mother believed her but, nevertheless, she continued to allow Father O’Connor to visit the house once a week or so for years to come.
‘So she knew, and she never stood in to protect us … I never, ever, once felt protected. And I think for me, the majority of the damage was done for me with my parents, because they knew and they went to protect him, even knowing what he was doing when he came around every week. I don’t understand that. That’s sick. That’s a Catholic sick thing.’
Later in life Sarah confronted her mother about why she had chosen to let the abuse continue.
‘She said to me, “I was molested and I coped with it, and I thought you were a more optimistic person, that you’d be able to handle it too, but obviously you’re not”.’
Sarah put up with Father O’Connor’s behaviour all through her teenage years. Then when she was in her mid-20s, she dropped round to visit her parents and found him there.
‘He came up to hug me and it was the first time I ever said, “No, don’t touch me”. And I walked out the door … My mother rang me that night, angry, and said to me, “We thought you ought to know that we’ve told him to leave and never come back, but I want you to know that that will probably kill him”.’
Sarah believes that her mother’s behaviour affected her deeply and continues to impact upon her relationships.
‘The fact that I was a child and my mother wouldn’t even protect me was the most destructive thing, because every relationship I’ve had it’s like it’s my mother. It’s very destructive. And none of them protect me or stick up for me, they just walk all over me like my mother … I know what he did was wrong but I feel like what my parents did was worse, was more damaging.’
Sarah never reported the abuse to anyone else while it was happening. She said she assumed that nobody would care.
Then in the early 2010s the police contacted her and she learned for the first time that her brothers had also been abused by Father O’Connor. Sarah agreed to help them in a case against the priest.
The officer who ultimately took charge of the matter was Detective Albans, and Sarah said she couldn’t say a bad word about him.
‘He was so softly spoken and there was something about him that was very genuine and very honest and he seemed to care. For the first time, he was the first person who genuinely cared.’
Through Detective Albans, Sarah got in touch with an old friend who had also been abused by Father O’Connor and she joined with him in a class action against the Church.
Sarah said that the police matter and the class action are still ongoing. Her parents have been cooperating with the police.
‘And my dad has since apologised to me. He’s been pretty good. He says Mum’s sorry and apologises through him.’
Sarah told the Commissioner that she’s had an ‘unbelievably’ tough year but she’s glad she came forward to tell her story.
‘I need to deal with this. Because I’m hoping that if I keep taking one day at a time and processing everything, that I’ll come into a better place.’