March 2015

A personal story of child sexual abuse in the Church

“It hasn’t been easy since I spoke to the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse,” writes Gayle. “There have been tears, nightmares, and profound grief. However there has also been a lightness of spirit.”

BY Gayle*

I deliberated for months before deciding to give evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. I was a confident, professional woman, who had raised two children and was enjoying her new role as grandmother. I feared speaking for the first time about abuse that dated back to the 1970s at a boarding school run by the Good Samaritan Sisters. Would I unravel, could I talk about what happened and what would my family think? Why put myself through this ordeal?

The compelling motivation and why I think many others are coming forward to tell their story also, is that we live daily with the many negative impacts of such abuse and seek to understand why it happened to us.

The Royal Commission gave me the pseudonym of Gayle when publishing my story in volume two of its interim report (p.118). The sexual, physical and emotional abuse began when my elder sister and I were left under the guardianship of a Good Samaritan nun, at a boarding school, while my parents were posted overseas. I was two years younger than my sister and, at 13, was emotionally immature and sexually naïve. I missed my mother and felt tremendously alone without parents and in a separate dormitory to my sister for a year. This nun preyed on my vulnerability ensuring that I had no self-confidence to challenge her ongoing abuse.

Yes, nuns can and do abuse.

At the time I did not fully comprehend what was going on. It was only when I became an adult that I understood what she had actually been doing and it has haunted me ever since. Over the course of the year her cruelty knew no bounds. She belittled me whenever she could: at the lingerie counter of a department store when she accompanied me to buy my first bra, joking to other customers about my small breasts; and on my birthday when she caned me while wishing me a happy (whack) birthday (whack).

And yes, I did nothing and told no one. Who could I tell? This nun previewed then suggested changes to letters to my parents.

I know that some in the Catholic Church are critical of the accounts that are being made public through the Commission, saying that they diminish the Church. Some even deny that the abuse ever happened, accusing those who come forward of making up stories which is sadly so far from the truth.

It’s been an ongoing battle to rebuild my self worth, to overcome my fear of intimacy, competing with that nun’s cold eyes and disdain for my weakness. I wanted to confront her as an adult, but worried that her sneering smile would reduce me to that pathetic teenager again. She is now dead.

It hasn’t been easy since I spoke to the Commission. There have been tears, nightmares, and profound grief. However there has also been a lightness of spirit because, in publishing my story in writing, the Commission acknowledged that my abuse was seriously wrong. I felt empowered by the experience and it provided the vehicle to be able to talk about what happened all those years ago to my family and friends.

I contacted the school, which is now a day school, and the principal was very supportive. That principal connected me with the Good Samaritan Sisters’ current congregational leader and we met for coffee. She listened and acknowledged what had happened, noting in writing to me that “such incidents go against all that we stand for as a congregation”.

For those in our Church who say we need to move on and forget about the sins of the past I’d say that my way to God is not linear, nor is it a progressive path. Rather it is through confronting such nightmares that I come closer to God, to appreciate what it means to be fully human and to forgive. I continue to work on forgiving myself for being a passive receptacle and that nun for robbing me of childhood innocence.

The challenge for us all is to accept that such abuse is not a thing of the past but continues while we choose not to bear witness. In my case I think that other nuns recognised the cruelty of my abuser but did nothing, perhaps feeling powerless like me.

It is only when we work together, talk openly without blame, seek out people like me to understand the complexities of abuse, its full dimension and insidious impact, and speak up for those in our community who are being bullied or silenced within our Church, that change might occur.

We need to work towards a more responsive and inclusive Church, seeking open dialogue and long-term remedies, changing culture and attitudes, rather than trying to sustain a Church that is often too hierarchical, risk adverse and judgemental.

“We ask that he [Jesus] look at us and that we allow ourselves to be looked upon and to weep and that he give us the grace to be ashamed, so that, like Peter, forty days later, we can reply: ‘You know that I love you’; and hear him say: ‘go back and feed my sheep’ – and I would add – ‘let no wolf enter the sheepfold’” (Pope Francis, July 2014).

We are all tasked to protect the sheep from the wolves that are still in our midst.

* Gayle, the author, would like to thank all those involved in the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse and particularly Commissioner Jennifer Coate “for the sensitivity you show each day to those who come forward to tell their story”.

If this article has raised any issues for you, please contact 1800 RESPECT through the toll-free national counselling hotline 1800 737 743. You can also find support through Lifeline on 13 11 14.  

The Sisters of the Good Samaritan take all safeguarding concerns seriously and treat them as a priority. If you wish to raise a concern with the Congregation directly, please visit the website or contact the Congregational Safeguarding Coordinator on (02) 8752 5319.

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