Therese Mary's story

‘I always blamed myself because I thought I was the only one and I thought it was me that caused it, and I really never knew any different to that.’

Therese grew up in the Hunter region of New South Wales amidst a close family and community. ‘Good Catholic family, mass every Sunday, Catholic schools.’

Father Barry Harper was a priest from another parish who used to regularly travel to Therese’s area to participate in church activities and take children for sports.

In the early 1960s when Therese was in Year 6, she was offered a lift home with Harper. On the way to her house he drove down a dirt road and raped her. ‘I kept asking him not to hurt me. He said he wouldn’t hurt me ‘cause he loved me.’

Therese got out of the car and ran but when she got to her house no one was home. She didn’t tell anyone about the rape and afterwards, ‘never went near him again’, even though she often saw him in the school playground.

In her high school years, Therese ‘went off the rails a bit’ and would ‘go places where I wasn’t supposed to be – smoking, drinking, all of that’.

From the time of the attack on, she’d thought the rape was her fault. ‘I was just so scared that someone would find out what I’d done ‘cause I thought it was me. I just kept quiet.’

When she was in her early 30s, Therese was alone at home with her baby one day when Harper suddenly appeared on the doorstep and invited himself into the house. At that time, news of his sexual abuse of children was beginning to be made public and Therese thought he was ‘checking out what, how my reaction was, which he was lucky ‘cause I was too scared to say or do a thing’.

Decades later again, Therese told her daughter about the rape. ‘She couldn’t understand why I never told anybody. She was shocked.’

In addition to feelings of guilt and depression, one of the effects of the rape was that Therese lost her faith in religion. ‘I was myself a very good Catholic right up until I found out what had happened … Now I don’t go near the church and I blame the Catholic Church again for that. Why bring us up to be Catholics to destroy us?’

She’d nevertheless brought her daughter up ‘a Catholic little girl’ but ‘was very careful who or where she went’.

In the late 2000s, Therese approached Towards Healing and was referred to a service for counselling and support. This she’d found helpful, particularly the understanding she’d felt meeting others who’d been sexually abused by Harper as children. She considered the amount of compensation she received through Towards Healing inadequate and at the time of speaking with the Royal Commission, was in discussion with a lawyer to put forward a further claim.

In recent years Therese had been working through feelings she had that she was responsible for the assault. ‘I think after living with the guilt for so many years it’s really hard to get rid of it. I know myself in my head, I’ve told myself it wasn’t me.’

And although Harper was now dead, she remained critical of those who knew of his sexual abuse of children over decades and did nothing to stop him.

‘The people that are to blame should have to pay, the ones that did the hiding. The people that hid them, you know there’s a lot of them still around and why can they live a normal life and we’re not?’

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