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Tessa Marie's story

Tessa believes she and her whole family, living in regional New South Wales, were groomed by Father Garrett. 'He came to our parish when I was about nine … We were a very dysfunctional family, and I think he realised that and targeted us.'

She doesn't enlarge on what made the family dysfunctional, instead focusing on the priest's drive to gain their trust. 'He was always there … He used to come over of a night: sometimes he'd have dinner or sometimes he'd come after tea. We would all be sitting there watching TV, and then we would have to go to bed, and he would come in and say goodnight.

'He would go into my younger sisters' room first, and then into me … He used to kneel beside my bed and talk to me. It makes me sick to think about it now, but back then he made me feel he was just wonderful. I was the black sheep of the family – everyone hated me, or that's what I thought, because I never got any affection from my mum and dad – and here was this person giving me all this affection, making me feel special.'

And after making her feel special, the kissing started – 'then it went further, other things started happening … He began to touch my breasts, put his hands on my body and touch my vagina. As a child of 10, I wasn't sure of what was happening, but I knew it didn't feel right. But he kept assuring me that it was okay, and that it would be our secret – no one was to know or God would punish me.

'It went on for about two years … Sometimes it was several times a week. I was thinking, "Why are my parents allowing this kind of thing?" And all the while they thought he was in my room counselling me!

'Now what child at 10 needs all that counselling? I can't even remember what I used to do that was so bad.'

The abuse stopped a few years later when Garrett left the parish.

'I thought that everything would be normal and that I didn't have to worry about this man coming into my room anymore … But then when I was 13, my parents separated for some months. I blamed myself, I was feeling so ashamed, disgusted and guilty that I attempted my first suicide. I took a lot of pills on my way to school – I wanted to drop dead in the girls' toilets.'

She woke up in hospital, and soon started acting out more and more. 'I got suspended from school … and I ran away many times. Finally I got expelled.' And then she began seeking bad treatment.

‘I began to let boys and men abuse me over and over again. It was the only way I felt that I was cared about. I hated being touched and kissed, but it also made me feel special … I believed that all this abuse was because they cared and loved me – because that was how I had been groomed.'

Toxic relationships, including a destructive marriage at 18, and lots of alcohol filled Tessa's 20s and 30s. She was a high-functioning drinker, pushing herself in several demanding jobs. 'There was another side of me that was a hard worker and provider. I was a single mum for many years and learnt to go without to provide for my child. I was paying off a home, car, bills, childcare fees …'

Her family had little sympathy. 'My father blamed me for most of the mistakes in my life and would often tell me he wasn't proud of me. My mother was never the maternal type and I didn't have a close relationship with her at all.'

Tessa's life spiraled out of control in her late 30s. Another suicide attempt saw her hospitalised, and she was diagnosed with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the urging of her sister, Tessa forced herself to explain things to parents.

'With the help of a counsellor and my sisters, I told them how I was sexually abused by our local priest. My dad was shattered while my mum just sat there … Dad was crying and told me he had no idea, and it explained how I'd been all my life … He told me that none of it was my fault and that he was sorry for blaming me for everything.'

Life didn't suddenly turn rosy after this revelation. There would be another bad relationship, and the struggle of starting again after losing her home and her job. Then severe illness left Tessa crippled for several years. However, she has finally found a worthy partner – 'he's kind, caring, thoughtful and one man in a million!'

But the past can't be buried. 'I found out just two weeks ago that he also molested my sisters. I was asking them did they remember any circumstances – and they revealed that he used to try to kiss them and touch them inappropriately.

'That devastated me. I always thought while he was in my room, everyone else was safe.'

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