‘He came across as a touchy-feely type person’, said Tara in a written statement, ‘and made it clear to the girls that we should see him as a friend rather than a priest … He particularly focused on girls who seemed vulnerable or were having problems at school. Vulnerable girls were obviously the easiest target for his grooming. This is how I got to know him’.
At age 15, Tara made a perfect target for Father Patrick Stevenson. It was the mid 1980s and she had just moved into a housing commission house with her mother and siblings. Having no connection with her alcoholic father and a fraught relationship with her mother, who was battling a serious illness at the time, Tara was in turmoil and needed someone to talk to.
She started visiting Stevenson at the presbytery during school breaks. He quickly took an interest in her and one day decided to take her out on a day trip with two other girls.
‘We were taken to what I believe was his holiday house. I have blocked memories of what happened that day … What I do remember is they [the other girls] were terrified of Patrick Stevenson from that day forward. They wouldn’t tell me why.’
Sometime later Stevenson took Tara out again, this time alone. Tara was supposed to attend a school excursion that day but instead Stevenson whisked her off to visit a tourist park. Tara remembers the whole event making her feel very uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, the school principal discovered that Stevenson had taken Tara with him for the day. She rang up Tara’s mother, Jennifer. Jennifer, who appeared at the Royal Commission alongside Tara, told the Commissioner that she was outraged by Stevenson’s behaviour.
‘I said, “I’ll go to the bishop, I’ll go to the police, I’ll go to the newspapers. You can’t just go and take somebody’s child”. But before the principal left, she said to me, “Mrs Fraser if I can help in any way I’ll support you, but I think you’ll find from my past experiences” – and this has stuck with me – “that they’ll probably close ranks”. And I had no idea what she meant. But later on I realised exactly what she meant.’
That afternoon, Tara arrived home safely. Over the next few weeks her problems at home worsened until finally she returned to the presbytery, desperate for a friend. What she got instead was Stevenson and his mate Gary.
‘Patrick Stevenson told me my mother was neurotic, would never have the ability to love or care about me and the best thing I could do was to move out. I was extremely upset. He then said it would be best if I stayed the night and had a break.’
Stevenson told her that his friend Gary had some light sleeping tablets that she should take to get a good night’s sleep. Tara did as Stevenson said and then followed him into an empty hall attached to the presbytery where there was a thin mattress on the floorboards in the centre of the room. Tara was wary of the situation but was also feeling light-headed and dizzy, and so lay down. A short while later she found that she couldn’t move her limbs. Stevenson and Gary then entered the room and raped her multiple times.
The next morning Tara said she wanted to go home. Stevenson ignored her and paid his housekeeper to take Tara with her back to her house. Tara spent the next four days at the housekeeper’s place. During this time Jennifer was frantically knocking on doors and ringing around. Eventually she found Tara and brought her home.
At that time Tara didn’t tell her mum about the rape. Jennifer knew only that the priest had taken her daughter away yet again. Jennifer tried to report Stevenson’s behaviour, but it seemed that no one wanted to hear about it. She spoke to a priest and he told her it was out of his jurisdiction. She spoke to the bishop who said that Stevenson was just trying to assist a troubled girl, and that he would probably have done the same.
Tara encountered a similarly dismissive attitude when she sought help. She had a session with a counsellor from Centacare and told her about the rape. Instead of reporting the crime or providing her with some coping strategies, the counsellor told Tara that she had to come up with her own plan. ‘I just found that she was telling me things I needed to do, and I was so overwhelmed.’
Tara gave up on the counselling. A few months later she left school, never completing her Year 10 certificate. Yet, in the years that followed, she managed to finish a TAFE course and then a university degree, which led on to a successful career that she enjoyed. She also married and had two children.
Ten years ago she disclosed the abuse to a psychiatrist who she has been seeing regularly ever since. Tara was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Her strategy for managing these problems was to remain busy. Eventually this strategy failed.
‘I always knew that if I had a time where I stopped and had time to think about what happened to me, I’d fall apart.’
In fact, the act of slowing down led Tara to make some breakthroughs with her psychiatrist. In particular she is now learning to accept that the abuse was not her fault. She told the Commissioner, ‘After many years of self-blame I hope that today’s process will provide me with validation, and reaffirm that I have nothing to be ashamed of’.