Sara didn’t even know that she’d been abused until she was in her late fifties. She had always suspected that something was wrong with her, and had even sought treatment to try to figure out what it was, but it was not until the school reunion that the memories emerged, shaken loose by some well-meaning old classmates.
‘They’re all coaxing: “Come on, Sara, you’ve got some stories to tell. I’m sure you’ve got some goss. You’d have something to say”. And I was like, “No, no, no”. And then when it all kind of died down, out of the blue I just stood up and said, “Who remembers Dominic Oteri?” And you could have heard a pin drop. And I just yelled at the top of my voice, “He was a dirty old man”. And I just uncontrollably just shook. Didn’t know where it had all come from.’
Afterwards a few of the women took Sara aside and confessed that they’d seen Father Oteri abusing her at school but felt powerless to stop it.
Over the next few weeks more memories came back to Sara. She recalled how Oteri groomed her when she was just a young teenager. He intimidated her until she felt helpless and trapped. She remembered all those sporting matches when she looked across to the sidelines and saw him waiting.
‘Afterwards he would isolate me and take me back in his car, and I used to cry. As soon as the game was over I’d be bawling my eyes out and saying to the girls, “Don’t leave me alone with him please. Some of you come with me”. And they tried. I know they really did try. But he always managed to get them onto the bus and just bring me home.’
This all took place in Victoria in the 1960s, a time when Catholic families like Sara’s felt a duty to the Church and considered priests above reproach. Sara’s mother was particularly staunch in her faith and so Sara never felt like she could disclose what was going on.
‘In my mind, and I know I can remember thinking this, if I had told my mother it would have been my fault … “What did you do to create it? He’s a man of God”.’
The abuse went on for about two years before Oteri suddenly moved to another parish. Sara suspects he might have been ‘moved on’.
By then Sara had lost all interest in school and, despite her ‘boundless academic ability’, she left as soon as she could. She married young and had a child. It was a good life. Which was something that Sara did not know how to handle.
‘If I look back at my first marriage I really could have stuck at it and been very happy, but it was always like … I didn’t deserve anything that was good.’
Sara and her husband divorced. Later Sara met another man. She had reservations about his drinking habit but ended up moving in with him anyway. When his violent temper emerged she broke off the relationship.
Eventually Sara met another man and has been with him ever since. It’s been tough at times. ‘Because I have difficulty with sex due to what happened there’s always a strain on the marriage.’
After the school reunion, when the memories of the abuse came back to her, Sara gained a new sense of purpose. She spent the next few weeks trying to track down Oteri. She wanted to confront him. She got his address from the archdiocese office and went round to knock on the door.
Two nuns answered. Sara didn’t introduce herself to them, she simply said she was there to see Father Oteri. The nuns let her in. They didn’t even ask her name. They knew who she was.
In the lounge room, Sara met Oteri. She told him that she wasn’t interested in going to the police but she wanted to put to him what he’d done. She told him in some detail. Oteri didn’t deny anything. Nor did he apologise.
‘Probably the most disappointing thing for me was he really didn’t care about how it affected me and what it had done to me … He said, “Well you can see that now I’m a very old man and I’m not capable of hurting anyone else”.’
He added, ‘The truth will set you free’. That was about all that Sara could stand. She left the room. One of the nuns met her at the door and embraced her, saying ‘That took a lot of courage’.
Sara has since spoken to a counsellor about what Oteri did to her. This has helped her to accept that the abuse was not her fault and that she did everything she could have done to stop it. That said, she believes there are limits to what counselling can do for her.
‘It’s like it puts a band aid over it’, she said. ‘Nothing will ever, ever fix it.’