Stephie was born with a disability that limited her mobility. Her father, Reverend Rossi, was a minister in a Protestant church and her family had a strong involvement in that faith. Rossi was violent towards Stephie’s mother and, while the Church was aware of the abuse, they regarded it as a ‘family matter’ and did not intervene.
From the age of about four, Stephie was sexually abused by Rossi. On numerous occasions, he would pull her onto a rug bearing the emblem of the Church and sexually assault her while declaring God wanted him to do it.
‘He wasn’t just my father. Effectively he was also a parish priest … and represented God. And to this day I still need to convince myself that God loves me. And they can’t just say God doesn’t exist because it was so integral to my upbringing. So in my head it’s a god that didn’t love me enough to protect me … It was spiritual abuse as well.’
When Stephie was eight years old her family moved interstate. A year later her mother left Rossi on grounds of domestic violence, taking Stephie and her brother with her. Rossi continued to have access to Stephie on weekends where he continued to sexually abuse her, occasionally on church grounds. Stephie attempted to disclose the abuse to three different elders from the Church but no action was taken. Instead she was told not to worry about it and told her father was doing well at his new parish.
‘The reaction I got from … the elders was, you know, “Shut up and calm down” basically.’
When she was 12 years old, Stephie disclosed the abuse to her mother, but due to fear of reprisal minimised the extent of it. ‘My capacity to make changes is through my voice, so I had to say something if I wanted it to stop.’
Her mother did not respond for a full 18 hours, and then asked Stephie if she was sure. Stephie confirmed the abuse and her mother sought advice from a friend, who suggested Stephie make a report to the police. Stephie and her mother attended the police station where she was interviewed and made a statement, again minimising the extent of the abuse, largely due to her mother’s presence during the interview.
‘I wasn’t traumatised by the [experience]. Mum was more upset that I had to miss a day of school … I was under 18 so someone had to be in the room. But yeah it wasn’t the funnest experience … Even though there wasn’t intercourse in what I’d said to them … they did a rape kit anyway … I think under the right circumstances I would’ve said more.’
Rossi was charged but pleaded not guilty. Following the first committal hearing the magistrate did not commit the matter for trial. However the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions successfully appealed this decision and the matter proceeded to trial. The jury deliberated for a relatively short period of time before delivering a guilty verdict. Stephie was in her mid-teens when Rossi was sentenced 18 months later.
The judge gave him a three-year good behaviour bond and commented that while he did not disbelieve Stephie’s claims, he could not believe that a man of such standing in the Church was capable of such abuses.
During this time, the Church made no formal recognition of the conviction, took no action and did not publically respond. Although Rossi no longer had responsibility for a specific congregation, he maintained his involvement with the Church, which preserved his positive reputation. Stephie made efforts to have him defrocked but was unsuccessful despite other ministers being defrocked for lesser offences.
‘That’s when I started getting pissed off with the Church … I didn’t want him to parade around like a predator and have the potential to hurt other people.’
Stephie took out an apprehended violence order (AVO) against Rossi, however he refused to leave her alone, even attending her confirmation at 16 at the invitation of another minister. The Church provided Stephie with counselling, however the therapy focussed on her forgiveness of Rossi while he continued to show no remorse for his actions. Stephie began to experience depression and thoughts of suicide.
‘He seemed to know everybody or know someone that knew someone or whatever, and the Church became very, very small … I got to the point of thinking “What’s the point of saying anything?” … It is something that the Church could have helped with. Especially with the “God told me to do it” comments as the abuse was happening. The Church’s response still to this day make it seem like my abuser was right.’
In her mid-teens, Stephie took up smoking because of Rossi’s extreme opposition to it. As a result, she has struggled her whole life to overcome the habit, which she describes as ‘the ritual of keeping people away, keeping him away particularly’. In her late teens during a physical examination she was asked by her doctor how many times she had been raped, due to the amount of internal physical damage.
As an adult, Stephie has struggled with trusting people, counsellors and organisations. ‘I am cynical of organisations that say “It’s alright … you’ll be fine”, because that’s what the Church kept saying to me and it doesn’t work.’ She has used alcohol and prescription medication as a coping mechanism.
Rossi is currently in a nursing home and until recently was engaged as an honorary chaplain at a local retirement village. Stephie has not taken any civil action against the Church but has sought the advice of a lawyer in the hope of receiving an apology. ‘I don’t want the money, I don’t want a dollar or cent. I just want them to go “We shoulda done this”.’
While Stephie’s spiritual faith and self-worth have both been profoundly impacted by the abuse and its aftermath, she has found the strength and resilience to carry on, including completing several university qualifications and working professionally in the disability sector.
‘If something needs to change I find the reserves to do it, and then I go and find a glass of wine afterwards …
‘I’ve always had the approach that I need to be the best version of a disabled person that everybody sees. I wanna be a good role model. I wanna be someone that, thanks to what you’ve seen in me, you’re not scared of the next blind person that you meet or whatever.’