In a statement provided to the Royal Commission, Thora wrote that her knowledge of the sexual abuse she experienced comes from memories she recovered in counselling many years later.
Thora was born in the mid-1940s, to a farming family in country Victoria. Around the age of four she was abused by her parish priest, Father Horris.
‘It happened in the sacristy and my belief is that, for whatever reason, he was extremely angry. I experienced other abuse from other family members, but this abuse was kind of different in that it was quite vicious. I believe he punched me, I believe that I fainted and he had to shake me to wake me up.
‘One of the most horrible things I remember is him circling my nipple saying, “The Lamb of God” over and over. And lots of threatening … sticking his penis out through his cassock … that’s my memory of it.’
Thora said she was abused by the priest on several occasions. She wrote: ‘I certainly did not tell anyone. I believe I was threatened by Father Horris not to say anything, and that I was rightly terrified of him and what he might do’.
As she grew up, Thora started to feel the impact of the abuse. She had no confidence and felt completely cut off from her feelings. She also had great difficulty with physical intimacy. ‘In a situation where a hug was socially appropriate, my body would become like a wound-up spring, which was excruciating for me and quite awkward and sometimes hurtful to others.
‘Within myself I felt unloved and unlovable. I could hardly believe it when I left home at age eighteen, that my family kept writing and visiting.’
For the next 40 years Thora devoted herself to God, teaching and helping others. ‘That was a wonderful period of my life,’ she said.
But in the mid-90s things started to unravel. ‘I knew I was in trouble, so I actually arranged to see somebody. I was quite desperate.
‘It was really only about a week or two into [counselling] that I started to remember. I went into her one day and I said, “Look, it’s like my body is remembering sexual abuse”. That was what was happening, I was having all these physical kind of flashbacks.
‘I really think it was probably about seven years before I felt I was … okay.’
As she healed, Thora wrote a letter to the bishop of the diocese, telling the story of her abuse. She said that she received a ‘very helpful’ reply. ‘He apologised … it was a heartfelt apology it seemed to me, he gave me a little bit of information about Horris and yeah, it was warm.’
The bishop told Thora that no other complaints had been received about the priest, but she later learned that he had abused other children.
While she was in counselling, there was also a significant change in Thora’s beliefs. ‘I just eventually became aware that I really didn’t believe in God. I have a great respect for people who do but for me, it’s just not how I am now.
‘I think I said in my statement it’s not a matter of blaming the abuse for that change, but it was while I was dealing with all of that that the faith disappeared.’
But while she’s no longer a Christian, Thora is still a spiritual person. ‘I believe that there is love flowing through the universe, and that that has the power to heal.
‘Good things happen and bad things happen to us all. And the love that is around the universe has the capacity to heal that. That’s the sum of it for me, really.’
She’s never been interested in compensation for the abuse. ‘I look on it now, and this might sound crazy, but I look on it as a gift. Because … look, it should never happen to anybody and it’s been horrible. Dealing with the memories and all that was horrible. The fact that the marks have been there on me my whole life, that’s horrible too. But, it has given me a level of compassion and capacity to empathise with the poor and the marginalised or whatever kind, that I will be ever grateful for.’
When asked for her recommendations about stopping sexual abuse, Thora wrote that the Catholic Church must go back to the words of Jesus and care more about helping those in need than itself.
‘The mission of the Church has been diminished in value by many in authority. Greater value has been placed on preserving the positions of power and the men who hold those positions.’
She also spoke of her experience with a safety program in schools, where the children are helped to set up a network of people they can talk to and trust.
Thora hadn’t intended to come to the Royal Commission. She thought that writing her story, and knowing it would be read, would be enough. But she also remembered that the hardest obstacle to overcome was the fear of speaking up, what Thora called ‘all the injunctions to silence’.
And she realised that the Commission gave her the opportunity to ‘break the silence again’ and help others.
‘It gives me hope that at least some of the children of the present and future may be safer.’