‘I started fighting boys in the classroom, just being horrible to my mother, just a horrible child, just turned from a nice young girl to a horrible child.’
Sheila’s father was in the defence forces and the family spent much of the 1960s moving between postings in Australia and overseas. It was a happy family. When Shelia was about 11 they were living on a base in New South Wales which had its own Catholic church and presbytery.
A friend asked Sheila to go to the church with her and help with the cleaning she was expected to do. Sheila’s family were not church-goers and this was the first time Sheila had met the priest there. At the presbytery her friend had to leave and, when they were alone, the priest grabbed Sheila.
‘He got me on the piano, pushed me back on to him, and was playing the Chopsticks, and he rolled my body on his penis.
‘It was the only time, and I never went back there.’
Sheila’s life began to go off the rails from the day of the abuse onwards. ‘I know mine is not as bad as everyone else’s but it still did have a big impact on my life’, Sheila told the Commissioner, who reminded her that any level of abuse can have toxic impacts.
Sheila’s behaviour at school deteriorated immediately and she began to truant, as well as fight with her mother at home. She became sexually active in her early teens and blames the abuse she suffered. ‘If that hadn’t happened my sexuality would’ve been completely different.
‘I left home very early, I had a baby very early. I lost contact with my family for a long, long time. I can’t make up those years I lost with my father, at all, because he’s gone now.’
The baby was adopted out. Sheila struggled with severe depression and self-medicated with alcohol and occasionally drugs. She began a long-term relationship with a man who was violent, but whom she credits with ‘saving her’ by preventing her from taking her own life.
Sheila raised children. She did not tell anyone about her abuse, preferring to bury the memory. ‘I put it back there. I’ve always known it was there and made sure nothing happened to my children.'
‘Nothing happens to my grandchildren. I don’t trust a soul.’
Sheila still doesn’t trust anyone and believes this has poisoned her relationships with others. She also worries that she has passed on that lack of trust to her children and they struggle with friendships because of it.
Sheila was in her 50s before she disclosed the abuse in the presbytery to anyone. ‘I was having a nervous breakdown and everything just came to a head.’ She was ill and her children’s father was dying. She sat down with her adult children and her partner and told her story. She also disclosed to a psychologist she had been sent to at the time. Sheila isn’t sure the psychologist has been much help. She considers her brother a better counsellor.
‘I do understand it wasn’t my fault. But growing up I do have to take the blame for some of the things that I’ve done. I’m an adult now; when I was a child there was no blame …
‘I think the toughest day was the lead up to today. Now I feel so much better.’
Sheila is thinking about seeking an apology from the Catholic Church. She will also investigate professional counselling again, to help her heal. For now she is keen to see the Royal Commission have an impact.
‘Everything has to come out. It’s got to be proved. I don’t believe any child should be in a presbytery, any child. Whether they are an altar boy or what, I think they should be banned from the presbytery.’