Tilly was forcibly removed from her Aboriginal mother when she was eight weeks old and adopted by a devout Catholic couple. Her adoptive father was an alcoholic and her adoptive mother was dependent on prescription drugs. Tilly told the Commissioner that once you were adopted, no one carried out checks on the children.
When Tilly was bullied at primary school, she told her adoptive parents. ‘They just said that it must be something that I’d done to deserve it. That’s the last I brought it up, but think that sort of sets the scene for how clever the priest was, I suppose.’
As young children, Tilly and her adoptive sister ‘were forced to watch videos around the age of 10 in the school grounds, with the priest at night. They were videos of the devil, which really … with flames … scary. Sort of can’t take the image out of my mind when I tell that. Not that I’ve told that very often …
‘I remember questioning the adoptive people … No religion was right except their religion and I questioned that in front of the priest and he got to see how I was told, “How dare you ever question a priest”. I kind of think that’s where he thought, “Hey … these people will side with me at every point of the way”, so it kind of set the scene.’
The priest was from the local parish and his name was Father Johnson. He soon targeted Tilly for sexual abuse.
As an altar girl in the 1990s, Tilly was usually the only child present at the church before the early morning services. Father Johnson sexually abused her in a number of locations: ‘in the church preparation room, where they get things ready. Also … where the priest lived … There were grooming excursions, like days out, and also the place that I lived. He took us travelling round country New South Wales’.
Tilly told the Commissioner that ‘the adoptive people, they were very devout Catholics … So they felt it was a fantastic idea to send us away with this priest and really anything he wanted to do …’
Tilly recalled, ‘He was kissing me on the lips in front of the adoptive people in greeting and in departing and I let them know I was really uncomfortable with it, like, I didn’t want to go away because of that and they just said, “Don’t be silly. You’re imagining it. He’s a priest” …
‘In the altar room he’d put his hand or body in places … I knew something wasn’t right but I just felt completely helpless. There wasn’t really many options left … With adoption, it’s not like you can go to anybody else. I just feel like you’re dropped in this place and you don’t know anybody. No one’s related to you. You’re kind of pretty alone.’
Father Johnson took Tilly and her adoptive sister on a week-long trip around country New South Wales. As soon as they drove away, his demeanour changed. ‘He just became this really cruel person. I can’t describe it … even his facial changes. It was like … we thought the other one was bad. This is way worse … I was just so afraid. He was just so sleazy. He was drunk every night.’
Tilly only has vague memories of the trip and the sexual abuse that occurred. ‘Towards the end, I do think something else happened because I was an absolute mess and I was rocking back and forth in the foetal position, just crying, and my adoptive sister was comforting me, but there’s a very large blank there unfortunately … [but] maybe it’s for the better.’
When they got home from the trip, Tilly collapsed and told her adoptive parents what had happened. They asked her adoptive sister if it was true and she denied that anything happened. They accused Tilly of being ‘a troublemaker. Why would you bring this on us? You’re a liar’.
When another priest came to dinner, he saw that Tilly had shut herself in her room and he asked her why. She told him what had happened with Father Johnson. ‘He got a really dark look on his face and then stormed out of my room and left. Nothing came of that.’ Although Father Johnson left their church several months later, Tilly doesn’t know if she had anything to do with that.
Tilly’s education was affected by the sexual abuse she experienced, although she was able to complete several university degrees. She also developed an eating disorder and began experimenting with drugs in her late teens. As an adult, she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and experiences frequent nightmares.
Tilly has undergone therapy on and off for many years and is currently seeing a therapist whom she finds helpful. ‘I’m feeling a bit stronger, coming here. My therapist encouraged me to come here. I don’t think I would have otherwise.’ She wondered, ‘How many people must there be that haven’t come forward?’