Sophia's story

In the mid-2000s Sophia was driving with her sisters after a weekend away when the subject of sexual abuse came up. They’d had a good few days together and this, along with the relaxing drive, led Sophia to disclose that she’d been sexually abused as a 14-year-old. The abuser was a priest who was well known to the family.

Her sisters were so taken aback they stopped the car. ‘It wasn’t any big revelation to me’, Sophia said. ‘But they were so shocked and so angry.’

In 1960s Victoria, Sophia’s family adhered strictly to the teachings of the Catholic Church and visits by Father Iliffe to the family home were seen as an honour. Iliffe came to the parish for four to six weeks every year; his job was to encourage ‘mission’ by giving church services and teaching ‘spiritual renewal’.

On one of his visits, Iliffe asked for Sophia’s help in the presbytery and her mother agreed on her behalf. In the presbytery, Iliffe compelled Sophia to perform oral sex on him, telling her she was special and that she was making him happy. Other priests lived in the presbytery and Sophia wondered if they had suspicions, even though they weren’t there at the time of her visits. Iliffe told Sophia that he had ‘the run of the house’.

Sophia told the Commissioner that she didn’t tell her parents about the abuse because she felt ashamed and guilty and thought she wouldn’t be believed. She recalled one occasion when Iliffe dropped her home and her mother asked, ‘What is Father getting you to do?’ Sophia said it seemed more than a cursory question, but if her mother had concerns they weren’t expressed. Nor did Sophia answer truthfully.

‘She probably was unable to contemplate what it might have been, but she had some inkling.'

Sophia told her mother she was doing office work. ‘Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind I thought Mum and Dad would never believe me. I didn’t give them the opportunity.’

Soon after her disclosure in the mid-2000s, Sophia’s sisters encouraged her to ring the Catholic Church’s Office of Professional Standards to report the abuse. Sophia was then contacted by a member of Towards Healing who arranged an interview. The woman was helpful and understanding and Sophia was pleased to be believed. Before disclosing to her sisters, Sophia had told two other people about the sexual abuse by Iliffe. One was her husband who was shocked; the other a priest friend with whom Sophia had become close in her 20s. The priest’s response was to stand up and start to walk away, before turning and saying, ‘Sometimes women ask for these things’.

Sophia gave Towards Healing staff a list of things she wanted. First was acknowledgement that the abuse had occurred. She also wanted an apology, and further, that a more honest appraisal of Iliffe’s legacy be promulgated through Church circles.

On his death and subsequently, Iliffe was referred to in glowing terms on his character and contribution to the Church and community. The response letter from Towards Healing contained words to the effect that ‘in consultation with the Provincial it had been decided on the balance of probability that something had occurred at the time of the allegation’, a statement Sophia found deflating.

Another request Sophia made was for counselling and she had four sessions with a professional therapist which she found helpful. Although she hadn’t asked for compensation, Sophia was offered $20,000 as an immediate payment at the time of her interview. She declined the offer and the amount was later increased to $50,000. She accepted this and signed a deed of release.

Sophia said it had been hard throughout her life to shake off feelings of guilt and responsibility for Iliffe’s behaviour. Only relatively recently had she appreciated that the abuse was a crime. She reflected that poor life decisions and the way she related to the world probably had their beginnings in conclusions she’d drawn as a 14-year-old.

‘I have an obsessive need for control. I try and control every aspect of my life because the one time I lost control, look what happened. I get incredibly anxious if I get lost in the car or something, because I don’t have control. I always need to keep it together.’

In a statement to Towards Healing, Sophia said that Iliffe didn’t destroy her life. She was strong, she said, and successful and at peace with herself. ‘What he did however was take a naive, trusting 14-year-old girl and twist her mind so much that almost 40 years later she still feels that if only I had resisted him more it would not have happened. What he did was make it impossible to have a satisfying sexual relationship with my husband because of the evil perpetrated on me.’

She hoped that in years to come people would have the courage to tell the truth and not perpetuate Iliffe’s ‘glorious reputation’.

‘There are men alive in the order who must have known what was going on. And I think if just one of them had the courage to take action, his destruction and devastation of myself and others could have been prevented. If this man had not been cosseted and protected by the priesthood and congregation, I might not be having this conversation today.’

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