Zara described her early childhood as abusive and her mother as ‘narcissistic and self-centred’. She never knew her biological father and didn’t get along with her mother’s boyfriend.
In the late 1970s, Zara and her siblings were made wards of the state and placed into care. She believes her mother gave up the children because her boyfriend didn't want to look after another man’s children.
For several years Zara was moved between foster homes throughout regional Victoria, before being sent briefly to a Salvation Army home. Then in her early teens she was moved to a care unit for teenagers that was overseen by the Christian Brothers.
The unit was located away from the main Christian Brothers orphanage, where Zara’s younger siblings were accommodated. She recalled feeling ‘helpless’ when her brother came to her after he’d been sexually abused by an older boy and a priest associated with the orphanage.
‘He would come to me, crying and tell me what was going on. As a child, I didn’t know what to do or how to help him. It was quite stressful because one of the people that attacked him also attacked me.’
While she was living in the unit Zara was raped by Henry Cahill, a boy in her dormitory, and the one who’d abused her brother.
When Zara told one of the supervisors about Cahill, she was told her ‘not to fabricate stories’. After that, she didn’t feel safe living there and at night would often roam the streets with other kids.
In the 1980s when she was 14, Zara was told that her wardship was ‘terminated’ and she needed to leave the unit. Not wanting to return to her mother, she was homeless for two years. She hadn’t finished school and was thinking of becoming a sex worker when she came across a church function in Melbourne. Here, she was introduced to a youth minister who arranged a successful placement for her with a local family, and after this she joined the defence force.
In her late 20s, Zara had children with her partner. She described feeling ‘unworthy’ to raise them and so she placed them in their father’s care. She still feels guilt about this.
‘I didn’t think I could be a parent. Having no parents of my own, I didn’t think I was worthy enough.’
Apart from her brother, Zara had been estranged from her birth family for over three decades. She was devastated when her brother took his own life.
Zara told the Commissioner that she was ‘socially awkward’ and had very few friends. She struggles to trust people and avoids relationships with men. Throughout her adult life she has experienced severe depression, nightmares and at various times has had thoughts of ending her own life. She felt she had ‘very few life skills’.
In the late 2000s, Zara reported the abuse that both she and her brother had experienced to Victoria Police. She felt determined to seek justice for the crimes perpetrated by both Cahill and the priest, but was disappointed to hear that no action could be done as it happened ‘so long ago’.
In more recent years, Zara reported the abuse by Henry Cahill to the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing process. She found their response disappointing and ‘stressful’ as Cahill, when he’d been approached, had denied the abuse. She was told if she wanted to proceed she would need to make a police report but as she’d already attempted that, she didn’t feel it would be of any use.
Zara came to the Royal Commission to have her story heard. She said that she doesn’t want children to experience the same things she did growing up and hopes her story might provide an insight for people to believe children and encourage those who are being abused to ‘speak up’.
‘I think kids in care need someone else outside the circle to talk to. To tell them that it’s okay to speak up if something’s happened.’