Valmae was born into a devout Catholic family in central Victoria in the 1930s. The local assistant priest, Father Patrick Shanahan, quickly befriended the family when he joined the parish and would visit their home for brunch after mass. Valmae’s mother was particularly flattered by the attention.
When Valmae was 13 years old Shanahan began sexually abusing her.
‘He picked me up from the bus stop and said he was going somewhere to give communion and would I like to come … that meant I was alone in the car with him. On the way back he sort of lunged at me. I got an awful fright …
‘He said, “You won’t tell anyone, will you?” And of course I said, “No”. He waited a little while and then he started again.
‘I remember thinking it can’t be wrong or he wouldn’t be doing it, he’s a priest. I was terribly ignorant.’
Valmae attended a school run by an order of Catholic nuns. A short while after the first assault Shanahan approached the Sisters and Valmae’s mother for permission to take her out of school early once a week to help him teach catechism elsewhere. ‘I was not consulted, just told to “go with Father” when he appeared at the classroom door.’
Shanahan took her to a church property in a neighbouring town. ‘Upon entering the sacristy … he pushed me against the wardrobes and digitally raped me. This became a frequent event.’
Valmae left school early at her mother’s urging to take a job as an office girl. The office was close to the local presbytery, and she was soon told she’d be cooking and cleaning for the local priests sometimes during her lunch hour.
Shanahan had helped manipulate Valmae into this job. He used her visits as another opportunity to sexually assault her whenever they were alone.
Valmae felt unable to report the abuse. She had been forced to promise the priest to keep the secret, and could not even tell her parents.
‘Too difficult. I thought because he’s coming and saying mass and they would be going to confession and receiving communion from him how could I tell them? … I didn’t know he could be moved …
‘I became more traumatised and mentally distraught, illogical and, I believe, introverted and quiet, while trying to appear normal. If my parents noticed they obviously interpreted this to be normal teenage behaviour.’
At 18 Valmae joined a convent, hoping to escape Shanahan. But the religious life was a ‘cold and unhappy experience’. She quickly decided she had made a mistake, but was constantly reminded of her vows and ‘God’s will’ by nuns and visiting priests alike.
On one occasion she confided her child abuse secrets to her Jesuit spiritual adviser. This priest expressed unease that he would now have to share a table with Shanahan, knowing what he’d done. But he did not offer to help Valmae, made no written report of the accusations, and took no action. Instead he told her ‘you wouldn’t be here if God didn’t want you to be here’.
It was seven years before Valmae had what she considers to be a mental breakdown and left the order.
Valmae tried to begin a normal adult life, but suffered from the effects of her loneliness and five years of sexual abuse. ‘You’ve been treated like manure or something, so you don’t expect good treatment from anybody really.’ She lacked self-esteem and allowed people to take advantage of her.
She married quickly and had children, but she felt unable to give them the warmth and affection they deserved. Her marriage was loveless, and she did not know what a healthy relationship was meant to look like.
Eventually Valmae learnt to assert herself. She left her marriage, choosing to live alone and unattached.
Decades later Valmae disclosed Shanahan’s abuse to a school counsellor where she was working as a teacher. The counsellor urged her to make a statement to the police. Valmae discovered there were many other complaints against Shanahan. He was prosecuted and sent to jail. The sentence was short, but Valmae felt vindicated. ‘He was stripped of his honour, and that satisfied me.’
In the 1990s Valmae engaged with the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing process. She considers the money she received to be poor compensation, given the lifelong effects she has endured. The meetings with church lawyers, counsellors and clergy she found ‘unpleasant and distressing’. Valmae received a letter of apology from the Church hierarchy.
‘The symbolism of the letter and the money, however, was that the wrong and hurt done to me by "my mother the Church", was at least recognised and this did alleviate some of the hurt and anger …
‘The saving grace was that non-Church counselling was offered as an alternative. I found an understanding and respectful female counsellor, and for this I am grateful. Her counselling helped me to regain some self-respect and to reduce my self-blame and my shame.’
Almost 20 years ago Valmae wrote to the Pope calling for reform in the Catholic Church.
‘The Church which preaches love and morality has exhibited only callousness, and in its evasion of responsibility for the selection and supervision of priest, immorality.’
She is still waiting for a reply.