I was raised a Catholic. I grew up going to church at least once a week. During my early years the Catholic community were an integral part of my life. My mother was widowed at just 27 and the church stepped in with a significant pastoral role in our lives. A nun who taught me as a little girl gave me a letter to tell me that of all the children she had known I was the one that she thought of most often. It was actually very beautiful loving letter written by a childless woman who had felt a strong maternal love for me. I wish I still had it.
When I was selected to play basketball for Queensland, it was the Catholic ladies who baked lamingtons and raised money so I could go to the national championships in Perth. We were poor, and without their kindness I would never have been able to go. On school holidays I would spend two weeks each year volunteering in the kitchen of the Catholic summer school where I’d peel potatoes and make tapioca pudding for the 100 or more kids who went to state schools and were interned to get their sacraments.
When I was eight I wanted to be a nun. Partly because of my faith, and partly because I wanted to be like Sally Field in the Flying Nun, meet a Greek millionaire and be able to fly. I read the Bible. I prayed regularly to my glow in the dark Jesus. Priests were regular visitors to our family home. I trusted them. With no father figure in my life, they were often the closest thing I had to contact with an adult man.
When I was 16, a priest came to our parish for a short stay, and he quickly made himself known to my mother. It was only a matter of weeks before he became a regular at our house. I was 16, my mother was 36. He would have been in his early thirties. He was charming and worldly and incredibly charismatic. He told me that in a few months when I finished school and moved to Brisbane to go to university that I should get in contact and he would show me around, as I would be a country girl on her own in the ‘big city’ with no friends.
So I did. It was nice, because being in the city was incredibly lonely at first, and the priest showed me warmth and connection. We had fun together. He took me to galleries, to restaurants, and eventually he took me to an apartment at the Gold Coast and seduced me. I had just turned 17. I was a year younger than my son, who is in year 12, is now. When I think about what happened and how young I was the adult in me is appalled.
At the time I didn’t know what to make of it. He was older than me, he was a priest, and as a girl with no knowledge of men I trusted him. It did, however, make me feel a bit sick. This Lolita-like priest relationship continued for six months and included some pretty sordid situations, including once where he invited another man to participate. I don’t know who the man was and I only have flashes of recollection, as I was falling in and out of consciousness. I don’t know why.
Not long after this he cried, told me he was gay and I never saw him again. I didn’t go to church anymore. I had told no one about the priest. I was ashamed.
What I was ashamed of most was how I didn’t seem to be able to say no to him. I was coming into my sexuality and I enjoyed sex. That made me feel guilty and wrong. What I felt, I now know, is what a young person feels when an adult uses power over them. Sure, I wasn’t legally a child anymore, I was over 16, but as a fatherless girl alone in the city I was particularly vulnerable. Something that made me the perfect candidate for his grooming. A beautiful young girl with no understanding of men but a deep desire to be loved by one.
I still feel the shame when I write this, even though rationally I know that I was a young person who was taken advantage of by a sexual predator. A priest. Someone whom I trusted because he came from an institution that had been part of my life since I was small. An institution that was supposed to keep me and the children in its care safe. Instead, it put me and so many others in the sights of predatory abusers.
I understand why victims of abuse take so long to tell their story. The shame is like an invisible gun to the head that demands your silence. I actually feel scared writing this, so I can’t imagine the courage it must have taken to bring down the third highest ranking Catholic in the world.
I want to delete this and write about George Pell. That’s what I set out to do. But there’s nothing I can say about him that hasn’t been said with more clout and fury by journalists with more esteem and higher profiles than me. What I can do though, is tell this story, so that every disgusting sexual predator, paedophile and abuser within the Catholic church knows that the gun of shame is gone, and we are coming for them. All of them. And the Catholic Church, if it wants to exist beyond this, needs to shake the rotten fruit from the tree, accept responsibility and ask for forgiveness. It needs open conversations and transparency. It needs truth.
Remember David and Goliath? Little people can take on giants and win. So load those slingshots with your stone of truth and take aim at the Catholic Church. There’s a lot of giants to fell.