‘I’ll start by saying I have an intense dislike of priests, since an early age. Not all priests, just the ones that dissemble, calculate, harm and destroy one’s trust in the institutions they represent’, Zita said, reading from a written statement.
This isn’t only because of the priest who molested her when she was six.
‘My take was that the Church was responsible as well, I never had the view that it was just a bad apple. Never. Because there were rumours around. We knew that this happened … It felt like you were surrounded by people you couldn’t trust.’
Zita’s parents were Italian migrants who settled in Melbourne after World War II. Catholicism was at the heart of family life and, as a five-year-old in the early 1960s, Zita joined her older sister Sophia at the local Catholic school.
‘It didn’t really matter that money was tight or your friends were equally poor. That was the natural order of things. What united us all was our attendance at the school under the banner of Catholicism … We knew we were on the winning side because we were believers versus non-believers’, she explained.
Zita loved school. And along with everyone else she loved the new assistant priest, Father Mason, who arrived soon after she started there. He was a ‘breath of fresh air’, a modern young priest who played with the kids at school as if he was one of them. ‘All in his path had fallen for his charms, including the gushy and excitable nuns’, Zita said.
One of Father Mason’s roles was preparing children for communion. One day he visited Zita’s home unexpectedly, ostensibly to discuss communion matters. He was welcomed by their mother, who left first Sophia and then Zita alone with him as she organised afternoon tea. When it was Zita’s turn, he pulled her onto his knee and sexually assaulted her.
‘When the others came into the room he acted like everything was fine and normal, and I didn’t understand why he was so dissembling. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t know why he was there, why he picked me, and what he wanted from me, except compliance – with what I didn’t know. I only knew that I was scared and glad that he was going to be leaving soon.’
After he’d gone, Zita told Sophia what he’d done. Sophia revealed that he’d also molested her.
‘My sister had the courage to tell our mother what had happened’, Zita said. The girls’ mother was ‘horrified’, though not too surprised given her experience of priests back in Italy. She refused to allow Father Mason back into the house. One time he knocked on the front door and she wouldn’t let him in. Another time she intercepted him at the front gate, and told him not to return. But she didn’t tell her husband – who would have gone straight to the parish priest, Zita said. And she didn’t go to the parish priest herself.
Zita said her mother’s main concern was keeping the girls away from Mason. ‘We’d identified him as a predator and treated him in the same way as a child molester in the street. Do not at all times let them get near you.’
Some contact was unavoidable however. And both Zita and Sophia, who sent a written statement to the Commission, recalled the anxiety they felt seeing Mason playing with other kids in the playground or on school outings. ‘I was worried about these children’, Zita said.
Eventually Mason was moved on to another parish. Decades later Zita found out he’d been charged on multiple counts of indecent behaviour. ‘I felt exhilarated that my story had been corroborated by virtue of other victims. I had not made it up all those years before.’
She’d had moments of doubt, she explained. ‘There’s a part of you that knows what happened; there’s a part of you that says, could it have happened? And you can’t reconcile the two.’
In the years since Mason’s assault she had suffered from a range of issues she felt arose from it: a deep mistrust of religion and religious institutions; a fear of failure; depression. She finds it difficult to trust. ‘My relationships have all been defined by this occurrence in my life and I feel I am still paying for something that is not of my doing.’
Zita first saw a counsellor when she was 17, and has seen many since. ‘I’ve informed every therapist of my hatred and anger about what happened to me; railed against the Church and its miscreants’, she said. Though she believes attitudes would be different now, in the past she’s dealt with some unhelpful responses. ‘Oh well, life’s tough, these things happen, you just need to get over it’ was one she reported. ‘You can’t hold onto that forever because it’s going to ruin you’, was another. Her preoccupation with Mason’s abuse was seen as ‘self-sabotaging’, and a symptom of depression.
‘And I didn’t accept that’, she told the Commissioner.
Zita closely followed proceedings of the 2013 Victorian Inquiry into the handling of child sex abuse. She considered coming forward but in the end felt too scared. ‘I’d seen already how the Church had responded – I was horrified at the way they treated people.’ As well, because her mother had intervened to help her, and the abuse hadn’t been ongoing, she felt she was one of the lucky ones. ‘I always thought of myself as a lesser victim, compared to other people.’
She has never sought redress or compensation from the Church. ‘I have read a few things about Towards Healing, and thought – is that really healing? I thought, that could be a disaster at this stage of my life, to go through that process.’ She’s certain the Church knew exactly what Mason, who died some years ago, was up to.
‘I know the Catholic Church aided and abetted him by moving him from parish to parish in full knowledge of his activities’, she said.
She hopes the Royal Commission’s work will result in ‘justice’, with perpetrators and those involved in cover-ups brought to account, and compensation paid to victims. She believes a hotline for people who want to report abuse would be helpful, and thinks greater vigilance is needed.
‘Do not leave children alone with adults in positions of power and assume that everything’s OK’, she said.