Theresa's story

Theresa grew up in a very Catholic family in Brisbane and there was close contact with the mostly Irish Augustinian priests of the parish. ‘A number of the priests used to come and visit us; come for meals – it was that sort of relationship’, Theresa told the Commissioner.

One of the parish priests was Father O’Doherty, who was handicapped by a chronic disease. He was in his late 40s at the time he began abusing Theresa in the early 1960s, when she was a teenager.

Theresa’s mother and grandmother both knew Father O’Doherty. Theresa remembered that they felt sorry for him and would take him out on picnics. His speech was badly affected by his health condition, Theresa recalled, and he was very overweight and sweaty. She remembered that as a child she found him deeply unattractive.

The abuse began the day Theresa finished school one year. ‘I remember coming home from school on the tram and feeling terribly happy. I’d done really well in my exams – I’d got straight As and the holidays were coming, I had a holiday job lined up – I felt the world was my oyster.’

Father O’Doherty had suggested she call in and see him at the presbytery on her way home from school. The housekeeper let her in and showed her into his room.

Over the next two years there were many such visits. Each time the presbytery door would be opened by the housekeeper or an elderly Brother who also lived there. Theresa would be shown to Father O’Doherty’s room and left there alone with him for up to an hour, with not a single question ever asked.

On that first visit, Theresa told the Commissioner, Father O’Doherty put a proposal to her. It was a plan he called the 50 50, which he explained as a secret pact between the two of them. They would tell each other everything and share everything and nobody else would know.

‘I can remember feeling extremely uncomfortable and bewildered, wondering what on Earth this was all about because it was completely new territory from the way he had been’, Theresa said.

There was more. Father O’Doherty would give Theresa money, and at the end of year 12 she would become a nun and he would come and visit her.

‘When I look back on it from an adult’s point of view - here was this man whose life was confined in every way, and he’d developed this fantasy about this young girl and that’s how he’s keeping his sanity, I suppose’, Theresa said.

Father O’Doherty was sitting behind his desk as he outlined this plan to Theresa; he leaned across and pulled her over and kissed her. Then he put some money in her hand and told her he would call her to arrange their next meeting.

Money became a big part of the relationship that then developed. ‘Every time the same thing would happen – he would kiss me and there’d be money in his hand.’ The amounts weren’t insignificant; it was as much as 20 pounds at times, Theresa said.

The money made her feel ambivalent about what was happening. ‘I’d feel dirty about the money but I also loved having it’, she told the Commissioner. Father O Doherty, who could type with one finger, kept an account of the money he’d given her and from time to time would present her with an itemised list.

Surveillance was another key part of the relationship. The presbytery was on Theresa’s route to and from school and Father Doherty told her that every time she went by he was watching her.

Going to university triggered the gradual end of the relationship, Theresa said. Night lectures made it harder for Father O’Doherty to watch out for her, and her growing maturity meant it was easier for her to avoid him. After completing her degree Theresa moved to Melbourne and broke off contact, ignoring the letters he wrote her. He died some years afterward.

Theresa first disclosed the abuse when she received therapy in her early 20s. She never told her mother – ‘She wouldn’t have believed me’ - or friends, except one who, like her, worked as a therapist. ‘[Father O’Doherty] told me we were in a secret pact’, she said. ‘That message remained strong even as I matured.’

Theresa found it difficult to identify the impact of the abuse. ‘I suppose it’s a bit hard to talk about that because I think what I’ve done is very successfully blocked it, put it away.’

Now happily married, she said she believed the abuse may have lain behind a deeply unhappy first marriage in her 20s. As well, for the past 10 years she has had a chronic disease, which she believed had its origins in the trauma caused by those years of abuse.

‘I suppose the effects were much bigger than I acknowledged and probably even now acknowledge’, Theresa told the Commissioner. ‘I thought for a long time about whether I would come here and tell my story, and what held me back was thinking "Oh, that’s not much of a story; that’s nothing compared to what’s happened to other people". And in making the decision to come I really wanted to honour myself and this story.’

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