‘You’ve got a case where there had already been an offender and then there was another offender and the same things happened. We haven’t learnt from what was going on. There was no crisis response and as a result victims were being ostracised and harmed. And the other point is, the offender had just been ordained the year before. So that proves that the Church’s contention that they are actually scrutinising these men [is false].’
In the 1990s and 2000s Sonia worked as a senior staff member of a Catholic school in regional Victoria.
‘It was like a big family. Every child knew every other child and each teacher knew all the children in school.’
In the late 1990s the parish priest suddenly ‘disappeared’. The school authorities had no idea what had happened to him until six years later when, ‘We read it in the [newspaper] that he had been in court and found guilty’ on child sex offences. ‘We were never told anything.’
It also became apparent from court documents that the Church had known he was a sex offender when they placed him in the parish.
‘The Catholic Church actually knowingly sent an offender into our school. And while he was there … he had access to a very large number of altar servers. He was a man who only liked the boy.’
Sonia realised that child abuse can ‘happen under your nose without realising it and that ignorance is the reason why children aren’t safe’. When she realised that the priest had been ‘harming the kids that I taught, I was really worried about them’. She wanted the Church to support the children and parish community but nothing was offered.
‘I asked for someone to come and speak with us and we were told, “There’s nothing needs to be done, everything’s fine. It’s best for the victims if it’s all kept quiet. They don’t want any fuss”. I thought there should be a meeting and I thought that there should be information given to the families to know what to look for and how they can help, how they can create an atmosphere where [children] can tell. But there was no outreach whatsoever at any stage.’
Sonia kept pressing the school’s principal for open discussion about child sexual abuse with both students and parents. She believed that while there was no education or discussion about child protective behaviours and the signs that may indicate a child is being abused, the parish and school were open to the situation happening again.
‘I carried guilt … everyone’s at fault that we haven’t created the right kind of communities for children to be able to tell … In the end I became a little bit of a nutcase as far as they were concerned … You talk about these matters and people listen politely … and then they go on with another conversation. … You just know they don’t want to hear it … I believe it’s a willful ignorance.’
In desperation, Sonia wrote a letter to the archbishop. As she was writing it, ‘I cried like a baby. I had no idea that it had affected me that badly. I wrote to the archbishop saying “You’ve done terrible things to this parish and something needs to be done”’. Nothing was.
When a new priest arrived at the parish Sonia became ‘really worried about him’. The man’s body language, his dismissal of Sonia as an authority in her own classroom, his choosing of specific boys to be regular altar servers, and his favouring of boys over girls were all signs to Sonia that the man may be creating opportunities to abuse children.
Sonia thought, ‘I’ve been here before. This is the behaviour of the [previous paedophile]’. When the man, ‘spent ages with each boy [in confession] and he ran out of time for the girls … straightaway all the alarm bells ringing’.
The man had also refused to conduct confession in an open place where he could be observed, which was against the rules.
‘I knew I was hypervigilant … [and] I was aware I didn’t have any evidence and there was nothing I could really do about it, but I was terribly worried.’
Sonia’s anxiety and stress became extreme and she couldn’t sleep.
‘I thought about all the children that [the first priest] had got at and who might suicide one day in the future and then all the kids in my class who were going to be exposed still to this man that I thought was dangerous … Everybody thought I was crazy … I completely lost the plot and had a complete breakdown.’
Sonia took leave from her teaching and sought counselling. She discovered an organisation that works with survivors of clergy child sexual abuse, and received support from them. Her GP also recommended that she see a lawyer.
Not long after, Sonia was told that the priest had ‘disappeared in exactly the same way’ that the earlier priest had. No one in the school or the parish was told why.
Sonia told the Commissioner that a parent of a child at the school had gone to the principal because they knew ‘[the priest] was obsessed with [their] son and … could see that [it] was a really unhealthy relationship’.
The principal acted on the complaint by referring it to the Church-appointed investigator. The parent ‘wasn’t encouraged to go to the police’ and was warned not to talk to Sonia. But the parent sought Sonia’s advice. The police became involved and the priest was charged and convicted.
‘We had a paedophile in the parish go to jail [several] years before and still in that parish nobody knew what to do when … [a priest] was having an inappropriate relationship with a child.’
Sonia remains a passionate advocate of training for teachers, parents, clergy, church staff and children about child sexual abuse and ways to prevent and recognise it. But Sonia believes little has been done to create a safe reporting environment.
‘The victim [in the second case] was a minor at the time the disclosure was made … If in the future we manage to get better education out there in the community there’s going to be more and more disclosures at the minor age. So there’s a really great need to understand what happens in parishes or school … when a young person comes forward about a current event.’
Sonia’s advocacy has impacted significantly upon the health and wellbeing of her and her family. She will never be able to work as a teacher again.
‘My teaching was a vocation to me. It wasn’t just a job. I went into it believing that I wanted to be a Catholic teacher and that was my vocation in life.’
She is hopeful that the Royal Commission will be able to effect change within the Catholic Church.
‘My plea is that the Royal Commission don’t make the mistake … in allowing the Church to make up what they are going to do without scrutiny. It definitely must be scrutinised.’