Born in the late 1950s, the oldest child in her Catholic family, Sue grew up wanting to ‘do the right thing’. She was ‘faith-filled’, she said.
‘I was a very holy little girl … I would go into the church at recess and do the Stations of the Cross. So I suppose I was hanging out in the church a bit, by myself. Only because I felt that faith very strongly.’
The children at her Catholic primary school in suburban Melbourne were prepared for communion by the local priest, Father Hector Gonzales. He was a friend of Sue’s family, came to their home for Sunday dinners and stayed in touch when he moved to other parishes.
The thought of Father Gonzales made Sue uncomfortable for many years, but she couldn’t identify exactly why. Nor did she understand the flashbacks she experienced over and over, of being in the school grounds. A couple of years ago she looked up Gonzales on the internet and found, to her shock, that in the mid-1990s he’d been found guilty of child sex offences. He had died a few years later.
This discovery still didn’t prompt any specific recollections about her own experiences with Gonzales. ‘It wasn’t until last year that I had a memory of him taking me into the sacristy’, she told the Commissioner.
The memories of the priest’s abuse that have surfaced since then have been deeply painful but have also given Sue new insight into why she became the adult she did. She suffered low self-esteem and, in her early 20s, was hospitalised twice for depression.
This affected her family, too. ‘They were devastated. They didn’t know what had happened to me … People didn’t know much about depression then. They thought it was a physiological thing. They just thought that it had to do with a chemical imbalance … So therefore I didn’t have therapy.’
The abuse has ‘affected my whole life’, Sue said. These days she sees a counsellor regularly, and has done for many years. It helps her manage her depression and the sense of grief and loss she’s carried over such a long time. ‘I didn’t know why I felt that, for all those years.’
She is no longer a Catholic – ‘Of course not. How could anyone go anywhere near there?’ and remains deeply angry with the Church.
‘I think probably like a lot of people that’s what brings up the most anger. Not necessarily the perpetrator, but the Church.’ Gonzales was moved from parish to parish, she said. By the time he got to hers, ‘they already knew that he was a paedophile … They certainly allowed him to continue abusing children, particularly young girls, wherever he went, in full view, almost, of the parents. That’s how much of a predator he was.’
It is not just the Church’s inaction and desire to protect its reputation that concerns her. It’s also what the Church teaches.
‘The priest was considered to be God’s representative on the Earth. And seriously, people believed that – including the nuns, and the teachers, and my parents. They could do no wrong. They were God’s representative. For a little girl – you don’t make sense of that … No wonder I blocked it out. Because it doesn’t fit’, she said.
‘It’s worse than being abused by a parent, because we put our trust in something much greater than the earthly level. That’s really where those priests were. They were on that pedestal. That’s how we were raised, and that’s how the school saw it, too.’
Sue has had a career in youth and family services. In her 20s she spent several years working with schools, including a Catholic primary school, in an outer suburb of Melbourne. This led to another firsthand experience of the Church protecting its own at the expense of vulnerable children, ignoring significant concerns and complaints about the then parish priest. She wanted to put on record her high regard for the principal at the time, Robert Marsden, who did his best to get the Church to act.
‘Oh my God, he tried so hard. He did everything he could, and no one wanted to listen’, she said. ‘He actually said to me, for 10 years he wanted to die … He was an outstanding person. Because he was not listened to – he was completely cut out – it destroyed his life.
‘It’s just so unjust. The ripple effect of that is thousands of people. That’s what I want to say here today. The ripple effect of child sexual abuse affects generations. It affects thousands of people. It’s not just the one person who’s been abused. My abuse would have affected my parenting of my own children. These are the messages I want to get through … This is what happens and it has a profound effect.’
The Catholic Church has much to answer for, Sue told the Commissioner. ‘I just don’t think it deserves to exist.’
She has not sought redress for what Gonzales did to her, in part because she doubts the value of an apology.
‘I want to see justice done. Just a sorry from the Church – that wouldn’t cut it for me. It’s not really about that. It’s about them taking responsibility for evil, and being accountable. A lovely “Sorry” – how can that heal, really? It’s such a heinous crime that just a sorry is not enough.’