It’s not just the Catholic Church. But here’s why I left it- at 10 years old.

I left the Catholic Church, in my head, when I was 10 years old in my first year at a Catholic Boarding School. The day I was ‘confirmed’ by a bloke we knew was abusing kids at our boarding school, I refused to ‘kiss his ring’. That was the day I confirmed my ‘loss of trust and faith’ in the church and that’s permanent. The arrogance was unforgettable. I’d had enough of religion preaching piety and humility and practicing the exact opposite- even back then.

Here’s why.

I’d just received news that one of the kids I went to primary school with had been found hanging from a tree in the local churchyard. He was eleven years old. He wasn’t a friend, a strange kid, made stranger by the stories he told us about the visiting priest. He was an only child. His parents never recovered.

Years later, in my first year at University, a son of friends of my parents told us all in a shocking manner at a family dinner, that he thought he was ‘becoming’ a pedo-  his word- because of what had happened to him at their church years before. He was eighteen years old and a scout master. The next day, before anyone had time to digest what he had said he jumped off the Bolte Bridge and died.

I was, unfortunately, fairly familiar with abuse. I grew up in a tiny country town where everyone knew everyone else, but there were some secrets that were never shared. My first abuser was my mum’s boss. She died last week so I finally feel free to speak about it, and him. I’d just started school and he would offer to help us with our maths- a subject I loved. There were three of us and we’d take turns sitting on his knee so that we could reach the desk to practice our writing and ‘mental arithmetic’. It was something I looked forward to after school until one day I found my hand being placed on something that, until then, was entirely unfamiliar to me- I didn’t even know what it was called. I remember in that instant the thoughts that raced through my child’s brain – how do I say I don’t like this, should I tell my mum and dad, how do I make this stop? Sixty years later those thoughts are still as clear as they were back then. For those who choose to disbelieve victims- abuse is in the experience of the recipient, not the eyes of the abuser. A few minutes of pleasure for them causes a lifetime of nightmares.

I hadn’t felt traumatised as I had not been hurt physically, but I knew it was very wrong. So did the other kids. I did try to tell someone. I couldn’t tell my Dad. I was scared of what he might do to the bloke. My mum dismissed it as nonsense, her boss was a nice man and, she believed, totally incapable of doing any wrong. So I went to confession. The local priest told me I was a very bad girl for thinking these things and gave me a whole heap of prayers to say as penance. I remember thinking- screw you mate, I wasn’t doing anything wrong – as I walked out of the church, and never went back.

My tiny village was a timber town. We lived at the sawmill and there were many single men living in the ‘single men’s huts’ lined up like rust-coloured prison cells on the hill at the back. It could have been a hotbed of abuse. It was not. I hung out with those blokes when I was in early primary school. They were fascinating. Some were ‘new Australians’, aboriginals, and a couple of blokes ‘recently out of jail for minor offences’. One was a blacksmith who made me a special fossil hammer. They taught me about cars and wood, and engines and caring for bush animals and birds, and baking bread. I went out in the log-trucks with them where, in those days, they taught me how to discern which trees could be cut for the mill with minimal environmental damage. No such thing as clear felling back then. I do not remember a single instance of being afraid of any of them. I wasn’t even afraid of mum’s boss as he never hurt us. We kids used to laugh at him for being so pathetic rather than being scared. I heard he committed suicide a few years ago as the rumours and reality finally caught up with him. Mum was surprised.

My next experience was what really freaked me out. With my friend, Beth, we would occasionally babysit for her neighbor while she went to church. The second time we told the mum we’d had trouble getting the baby to sleep to which she replied I’ll show you how. To my horror she undid his nappy and masturbated him. He went to sleep just fine, but again, I remember thinking ‘I wonder what he’ll be like when he grows up’.

Then came boarding school. So much for thinking that would be a safe place! In my first term I learned that women can hurt other women too. That rarely gets mentioned. We lived in dormitories. There were 32 girls in mine. We had a bed and a locker, and curtains around these to provide some semblance of privacy. Each night the nun who slept in an alcove at the end would come around to check us and pull curtains back just before lights out. All except for one bed where she seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time, relative to the rest of us. There was never any noise then but often late at night I could hear the girl crying. She was 12 years old with a very well endowed body. I thought she was just missing her family. Finally, with my friend Bernadette, we found an opportunity to ask her and she told us about the touching and how much she hated it. That night when the nun came to pull back the curtains she found Bernadette and I sitting on the end of Anne’s bed glaring at her. I can still see her face, smooth white skin, distinctive glasses and a curl of blonde hair escaping her veil. An argument ensued, we were punished severely for refusing to obey orders, including having to prepare the chapel for morning mass- a ritual which meant we were woken at 4.30am. We did horrendous things to the altar wine!

The nun singled me out in the refectory where we ate. I was punished with food I could not eat but was forced to, with disastrous consequences for my later health. But never again was Anne touched by her. We were only kids but we also set out to deliberately disrupt what we knew then was an abusive culture. The boarding school was also a novitiate ie a training school for nuns. Over a period of four years we convinced four of the five postulants to leave, we plotted to marry the fifth off to a young priest- they did- and two other novice nuns also left to get married. One ended up, apparently, with six kids. The church’s loss. The old priests and nuns didn’t know what had hit them.

I went on to become the first girl to attend a Catholic boys boarding school and started the move to co-education. To get to class I would ride from the girls school where I boarded, then be escorted from my personal parlour by one of the Jesuit Brothers ‘for my protection’. They were amazingly kind to me. Up the stairs, through the boys dormitories, past the alcoves where the Brothers slept, and sometimes sick boys lying in their beds, and into the classrooms. There were rumours of mistreatment of boys – mainly overly aggressive physical beatings. Three boys did at different times seek refuge with me in my parlour- to which the brothers could only enter with my permission. At one point we had a new Brother arrive. He had apparently been moved from another parish. The fear among the boys became palpable almost immediately and the Principal told me I was not to allow him to come into my parlour, but he was quickly moved on.

And so it goes. Later in my time working as a psychologist in one professional incarnation, I had to help families deal with some horrific situations. One which has always stayed with me was a ‘highly respected’ local policeman sexually abusing his eldest daughter- who was 15. Vestiges of respectability surrounded them. He was considered a pillar of the community, a leader of his local church, a good bloke, a role model. She became pregnant at the same time as her mother. A lengthy saga, it turned out Mum was pregnant to the eldest son who was 12 at the time. There were three younger siblings also about to be ‘broken in’ according to the father as he yelled ‘who are you to tell us how to live our lives’ That question still haunts me. He threatened me with his police issue gun one day in my office while warning me off trying to help the kids. I reacted by screaming in a most un-psychologist-like manner at him, my office staff burst in and found me standing on my desk so I could yell from a place higher than the two metre advantage he had been using to try to cow me. Nothing ever happened to him. The only option I was given to protect the daughter at the time was a women’s prison. I, illegally, took her home until a foster placement could be found. No doubt a school chaplain would have handled the situation much better!

 

At one point I was actually raped by another client. A teacher who had been referred by his Principal as he was experiencing blackouts and behaving ‘strangely’ around the kids in the high school where he was teaching. He’d also been an Olympian so the mixed messages were incredibly confusing for the kids. It turned out he had been a ‘tunnel mole’ during the Vietnam war. One of the frontline who crawled through the Cui Chi tunnels expecting to be killed at any moment. He’d be diagnosed now as having severe PTSD. As he was raping me, he was quoting the bible. He’s dead now, committed suicide, but I’ve never forgotten his face, the pain, how he hurt me, or what his voice sounded like, what his body parts looked like, and particularly the three shrapnel wounds on his groin area. We survivors notice these things, and they become indelibly imprinted on our long term memory. It becomes referred to as ‘evidence’.

Abuse happens in so many different forms- sexual, mental, emotional, physical, financial. The longevity of the impact is there regardless. The brutality of the impact is often commensurate with the brutality of the assault. The reasons why people become ‘pedos’ and engage in abuse have been studied within the church. I know, personally and professionally, one of the highly respected authors of a very detailed report. Recommendations have been made, none have been followed.

It’s not just the Catholic Church involved in these abuses, for those who are trying to claim the virtues of other institutions. The past five years have seen financial abuse by this brute of a government ruining people’s lives to the point of suicide. This scourge is epidemic and systemic. It’s about power over another by someone who uses it to express their anger or to punish those who are seen as somehow weaker. Often they walk away and completely forget about it, absolving themselves. A few minutes of relief for them while the victim feels the impact for the rest of his or her life.

This is not just a Catholic Church issue. It’s endemic and epidemic.

To the Andrew Bolts and Miranda Devines and other apologists, those who’ve never experienced or witnessed abuse- count yourselves fortunate, but don’t you dare judge those of us who have, and don’t you dare try to disbelieve us, or excuse the behaviour of those who hurt us. With elder abuse being added to the list of cruelties more frequently now- who knows. Your time may still be coming!

My mum died this week. And my final gift to her was to have a Catholic priest give her the last rites. Why did I do that after everything I’ve seen and experienced and my own dis-belief? Because the ritual gave her and her older sister comfort, something the church is supposed to be good at. George Pell and his apologists have forgotten that their job is to offer comfort, not to misuse their power for abuse.