‘I wasn’t even going to do anything at all because I just thought he’s long gone now or whatever else. I just felt it would be too stressful and all that. And then when I saw that with the Hey Dad thing, I thought, “It’s time”.’
Tess’s parents separated after her father returned from World War II and ‘was never the same’. Her mother had to work because ‘they didn’t have the pension then in those days’, and on holidays Tess and her sister were placed with foster families under a scheme overseen by the Anglican Church.
In the 1960s, when Tess was eight years old, she and her sister stayed with a family in coastal New South Wales. While she was there, Tess was sexually abused by the father, whose name she couldn’t accurately recall. The man would get into bed with her under the pretext of reading a bedtime story and he’d then fondle her genitals. Tess also saw him naked in the shower with his own daughter, a toddler, and he was ‘touching her’.
At the time of the abuse, Tess didn’t understand what it was. She described herself as ‘very naïve’ and that era as one in which children were always ‘bowing down to the adults’ and doing ‘everything they told you to do’.
She didn’t tell her mother, but afterwards ‘used to cry every day of my life’ at home. She told her mother she didn’t want to go back to that family and wasn’t sure if her sister was also sexually abused by the same man.
In the mid-2000s, Tess disclosed the abuse to her mother, who said she ‘thought something like that had happened’.
‘I sort of thought, “Well if you thought it, why didn’t you do something about it?” You know what I mean?’
Her mother was ‘old school’, Tess said, and when things happened ‘you just got on with life’.
‘A woman in those days, you know what I mean, it was like you had to be quiet and maybe she felt well, we seemed to be alright and we were alright coping and everything.’
Tess didn’t speak about the abuse through her teenage years and tried not to think about it. She told the Commissioner she’d had low self-esteem and never thought she ‘was good enough’. She never liked looking in the mirror because she ‘didn’t like what I saw’.
‘I told a girlfriend of mine years ago when I got into a relationship with her’, Tess said. ‘I was probably about 20 or something like that. But you sort of push it aside and that sort of thing and then you don’t realise. Later on it causes all sorts of problems in your life. You’re in relationships and I was quite controlling and that sort of thing.’
In her early adult years Tess experienced periods of depression and ‘just thought life was getting harder and harder’.
‘I went through counselling for this when I was about 35 because it was affecting my life and my relationships and the way I was behaving and controlling. If I’d get angry I’d have these blackout things and you didn’t know what was happening.’ After one of these episodes, Tess was admitted to a hospital’s mental health ward. In the early 2000s, Tess had ‘this massive breakdown’ and ‘didn’t know who I was or where I lived or anything’.
‘I blamed myself for what happened to me, what that man did. I felt because I allowed him to and didn’t say no or anything, and I felt it was my fault because I participated in it and I blamed myself for years and it caused a lot of problems for me.’
Relationships had often been difficult and she’d ended up ‘with the wrong people’, becoming ‘addicted’ to being with women who had behavioural problems.
In the last few years Tess had ‘found peace’ within herself, she said. She had faith in God and faith within herself to ‘find that strength to keep going and fight on’. She continued to see a psychologist ‘on and off’ and used self-affirmation and positive thinking techniques daily in her life.
‘People said, “You’re so strong. You’re a real survivor” you know, and [they’re] very proud of me. It makes you feel really good, ‘cause for years and years you just used to think that, feel bad about yourself, and think that you were nothing and, you know, you thought you were ugly and all these things that go with it. It’s silly how you think, but you do.’
Tess has never reported the abuse to New South Wales Police because she thought it would be too stressful and her abuser is likely deceased by now. Nor had she reported it to the Anglican Church. Recently she began the process of applying for victims compensation.
Tess said she came to the Royal Commission because she wanted people to know that abuse could occur anywhere.
‘It wasn’t just the Catholic Church; it’s everything as well, you know. I wasn’t going to at first. I thought I was nearly going to chicken out and I thought, “No”. And watching that Hey Dad thing, [that] encouraged people to come forward and I thought, well maybe I should do something, you know.’