Shelley and her younger siblings grew up in inner-city Sydney in a house with extended family members. Her father was extremely violent and involved in organised crime, and her mother exhibited signs of mental illness, for which she received no treatment. Outside people weren’t allowed in the home, and Shelley said none of the four children were given any love or nurturing.
In the 1950s, Shelley was six when her mother became pregnant and placed the children with a couple as part of an informal foster arrangement. The house they were sent to had boys and girls of all ages, and at night the male foster carer would come into Shelley’s room, put a pillow over her head and sexually abuse her. During the day he’d make her sit on his lap while he put his hands down her pants and fondled her genitals. ‘He said if I told anybody, he’d hurt my sister who was there as well’, Shelley said.
From that house, the children were sent to a non-denominational home where Shelley remembers being cold and hungry, and having to ward off a teenage boy’s sexual advances with ‘a piece of four-by-two’. But she loved school, particularly the teacher who took an interest in her and allowed her to stay back at the end of each day. ‘She taught me to read and that saved my life.’
Returning to the family home, Shelley said the conflict and violence continued. Shelley’s father had stored a large cache of weapons, and regularly threatened to kill his wife and children. Her mother had received some psychiatric care but still demonstrated disturbing behaviour, including involving the children in occult practices. At least one teacher expressed concern about the children’s living conditions, but no action was taken.
In the early 1960s, Shelley’s mother decided to convert to Catholicism and the children were ‘exorcised’ before being baptised. The family’s problems were known in the parish, and one of the older priests, Father Carl, was the only visitor allowed into the home.
Knowledge of the family’s circumstance was a key factor, Shelley thought, in making her vulnerable to Carl’s sexual abuse. ‘He prepared me, took me step by step by step along the path … He knew I was from a dysfunctional family.’ Carl continually gave Shelley praise and positive encouragement, something she ‘never got at home’.
Carl would take Shelley, then aged 13, aside and ask her to do special tasks for him. Alone in a meeting room he started showing her pornography, telling her how bad it was. His abuse started with touching, then escalated until one day he raped her.
Shelley told the Commissioner that she disclosed the rape to one of the nuns at school who reported it to another of the priests. Shelley was called to the presbytery and told she’d made up her story. ‘They said it didn’t happen, “You’re lying. It’s all your fault”.’
The priests then named a young man Shelley knew and said that if a rape had occurred, it was he who must have done it. ‘He was a very kind and gentle man. I’d begun to trust him and I could talk to him’, she said. ‘I felt safe with him.’ The priest, nuns and Shelley’s mother made sure the young man disappeared from Shelley’s life.
After that disclosure, Shelley kept the abuse to herself until a few years ago when she told her best friend. She subsequently rang the Royal Commission, and also told her husband of more than 40 years as well as her children. They had been supportive but it was difficult to give them details and properly describe the effects of the abuse on her life. Her husband would become upset at her obvious distress and try to steer her away from such intense feelings.
After leaving school, Shelley had developed symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder that, she said, she used to her advantage in jobs that required close attention to detail. A recent reduction in work commitments, and the move of her children away from home, had increased her awareness of other effects of the abuse, including hyper-vigilance, anxiety and physical health problems. In her late teens 17, she’d tried to kill herself.
In the year before coming to the Royal Commission, Shelley had researched Father Carl’s whereabouts. ‘I wanted to make sure he wasn’t anywhere near children.’ She found that he was still alive and ministering to elderly people in another state.
She had no intention, past or present, of reporting the priest to the police, and she doubted she’d ever pursue redress. ‘I couldn’t fight against the Catholic Church. They’re too powerful an organisation.’
She’d come forward, she said, as part of a process of ‘coming to terms with what happened’ and helping others.
‘If anything I have said or done can help children, that’s all I want to do.’