In the early 1960s, Vonni’s family moved to a small town south-west of Sydney. She and her sister were enrolled in the local Catholic primary school, with Vonni going into Grade 4.
She recalled frequent and brutal physical abuse, from both the principal, Sister Gertrude, and the parish priest, Father Bross.
‘It was shocking, actually. In the middle of class Father Bross would just fly through the door and he’d drag a boy out of his chair, but for something as simple as leaving the chalice out or putting it in the wrong place. He’d smash the boys’ heads up against the wall, and then drag them out and just whip them in the hallway. You could hear it, you know.
‘And Sister Gertrude was equally as violent in the classroom. She used to have a cane, like a bamboo cane … and if you as much as laughed at the incorrect time or spoke she’d just whip your hands and whip the backs of your legs.
‘My hands were much of the time black and blue when I went home in the afternoons, for basically nothing. They were very cruel.’
Vonni thinks she was in Grade 5 when the priest began to sexually abuse her.
‘Father Bross used to come over probably, you know, three times a week, in that range, and always be there sitting on the bench in the lunch area, with that little whip he used to carry with him. And the girls – I don’t know how many girls, I can’t remember now – would stand in line as he made us lay over his lap and would, you know, spank us with the whip. With me, and I don’t know if all the girls but with me, there was sexual contact made.
‘I had a friend, a close friend, I know that she was involved in lining up, too. We used to go after, you know, we were released from him, and sit behind the church. We never spoke of it. We had a little songbook we used to take, and sing, and sometimes cry.’
Remembering her parents’ response when she tried to talk about the physical abuse, Vonni didn’t tell them about what Father Bross was doing.
‘I know they would never have believed me. I remember going home to my mother and showing her my hands and my legs, and she used to say, having been brought up a staunch Catholic … “Oh well, you must have deserved it”. I mean, there was nothing ... There was nothing we could say. We just had to, you know, grin and bear it.’
Bross continued to sexually abuse Vonni until she was in Grade 6. She became increasingly withdrawn and often didn’t speak. ‘Sometimes I would just, you know, when I was by myself, have severe attacks of just breaking into tears and not knowing why.’
As she got older there were more impacts, particularly involving trust and intimacy.
‘I didn’t know why I felt, as I have all my life, with sexual contact with, you know, men … I’ve always felt as though there was something dirty about it, unclean … Something to be embarrassed about and to hide from. I realise now it probably had something to do with what happened to me as a child.’
In a statement provided to the Royal Commission, Vonni wrote that she never told anyone about the sexual abuse until the mid-2010s, when she was contacted by Barbara, an old friend from school.
‘It had always been in my mind, but I don’t think I ever faced it. I think I made more light of it in my mind to be able to cope with it, and I felt that confronting the situation would’ve been a little too much for me … And also the humiliation of growing up with it as a child, it was terrible, you know, you didn’t dare say anything. It was just too humiliating and embarrassing, so I think that stayed with me. And I probably would have never said anything had it not been for Barbara actually knowing and seeing what was happening …
‘For some reason we just started talking about it and, you know, it came up. And we actually, for the first time in all our lives – she’s just a little older than me – discussed what actually occurred ... basically it’s her that gave me the strength really to get in touch with the Royal Commission ... Not just for myself but for anyone else that it happened to, if it can help other people then, you know, it’s worth me saying something now.’
Vonni has never had counselling. She hasn’t reported the abuse to the Church or the police, but she is in touch with the free legal service, knowmore, and may do so in the future.
Her recommendations to the Commission were addressed in her written statement.
‘I would like all clergy to be monitored regularly, especially those who have direct contact with children. The Catholic Church has been, and still is, a refuge for paedophiles and they have been allowed to live above the law. It is time to seek these criminals out and expel them from the Church.
‘The perpetrators should also stand in front of a judge and jury and let the jury decide who is guilty and who is not guilty. It is quite obvious that the Catholic Church has allowed the Catholic clergy to hide behind their cloaks, never having to account for their actions.’