13 Nov

This is the story of a little girl who grew up in a small township on the outer edges of Melbourne in the 1950s. Her name was Anne Wilson. Her family moved to Warrandyte when she was 17 months old. Anne was a happy, optimistic child who loved to look on the bright side of things, always tried to cheer other people up and brought injured or stray animals home. She was small for her age, had curls, freckles and loved to dance. She was the type of little girl who, if the sun had shone on her, would have grown into a confident and capable woman with much to offer the world. Life wasn’t sunny for Anne, and although she never harmed others, she kept so much of herself back that she never gave what she was worth either.

Many things happened to blight Anne’s little world, but the one area I’m looking at here is the sexual abuse she endured. Anne was never sure when it started, long before she went to school. She always thought from about two years of age, but it was definitely happening at four. She believed, wanted to believe it wasn’t the bad thing it felt like, wanted to believe that the secret was a good thing, a special thing just between the two of them. With every fibre of her little self she tried to believe it was a special love, just like she was told over and over.

When she was six, she learned that special love was being given to the little girl next door as well. So, not so special after all. Horrible, in fact. As horrible as she had really known all along. Big knowledge, big reality, big ugly truth for such a little girl. She kept the secret though. Fear and shame had already moved in, and she didn’t live in a home where such secrets could be shared.

She went to Prep Grade, known as Bubs in those days, at Warrandyte State School. Grade One was spent at Eltham Catholic School, Our Lady of Hope. To get to Eltham, the Warrandyte Catholic children travelled in a VW Combi van, driven by a local, Mr Hackett. The little ‘bus’ jogged along through Research, including a section of road neither responsible councils would agree to fix so in summer it was like bulldust and in winter slick mud. The van would fly down a long steep hill, round a rather sharp corner and tear up the other side. If any speed was lost, getting up the other side, in either direction, was highly improbable. Well, that made for some fly-by-the-seat driving and after a few little accidents, never serious except once when the door flew open and one girl flew out and went under the back wheel; no life threatening injuries, fortunately; it was too many for some of the parents, so end of ‘bus’ service.

The following year, Anne went to the Catholic School in Ringwood, on a real bus. She finished the rest of her primary schooling there, at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Anne couldn’t say Perpetual, she called it ‘Our Lady of Petrol Succour’ and later ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Suffer.’

In Grade 2, the children made their First Holy Communion. Before that, they made their First Confession. The very first sin all Catholic children must confess is the Original Sin. This isn’t optional. Catholics believe, are taught, every baby is born tainted with Eve’s sin of tempting Adam and the pair being cast out of Eden. The Original Sin is then followed by Mortal Sins, those that would see the perpetrator’s soul plunged into Hell if not confessed. Following the Mortal Sins are the Venial Sins, the type little children are more likely to commit, such as lying, being cheeky, being disobedient, etc.

During training for their First Confession, the children were told they wouldn’t have any Mortal Sins on their souls yet. They were also told there were three Mortal Sins, but by the time training was finished, and without real explanation, there were a few more than three. They were: Blasphemy (always No. 1), Murder, Taking the Host without Fasting, Missing Mass on Sunday (unless on death bed), Taking Holy Communion with a Mortal Sin on the Soul, and the Mortal Sin of Impurity. It was important to learn them, of course, no doubt for when they were a little older and would most likely start committing them. However, as though with amused indulgence, the trainees were advised they could ‘admit’ one Mortal Sin if they so wished. No doubt for practice, or perhaps exactly for the reason that some might actually be committing one of them: perhaps the Sin of Impurity.

Anne was torn with indecision. She did have a Mortal Sin on her soul. The Sin of Impurity. Of course, it wasn’t really there until after her First Confession, although it sort of was. Only after did her soul become 100% responsible for its sins. This point was never fully explained. Or if it was, Anne didn’t hear it because she HAD A MORTAL SIN ON HER SOUL. Making her First Holy Communion was important to Anne and she had looked forward to it ever since they had started training. Until, that is, they learned about Mortal Sins. Anne wanted to be as pure and holy as she possibly could be. But this became doubly important to her because she was already riddled with guilt and shame about that special secret that she now well and truly knew was truly a sin. Like all other children in the same position, she believed it was her sin.

Fear and shame spoiled the day, spoiled the weeks and days leading up to the day. She never remembered what the day was like in terms of weather, only it that wasn’t raining because the one obligatory photo supplied by the school showed no-one was wet. There was no excitement about the plain white dress or the scrap of netting pinned to her hair. No excitement from the family, after all, she was the last of her many siblings and the journey from Warrandyte to Ringwood was a hassle. There was annoyance by her family that they had to wait for her to partake of the Communion Breakfast afterwards before they could go home. Anne looked forward to the Breakfast, but even it was robbed of real joy by the fear and shame and guilt. There was no added joy of the day in her joyless little life.

Added to the  fear and shame and guilt was an acute sense of mortification at what she knew she had to do. She had to confess. It would be even worse not to. Not to confess a Mortal Sin was yet another Mortal Sin. Then, to take communion, let alone First Holy Communion with a Mortal Sin on her soul was in itself a Mortal Sin, and she wanted desperately for it to be as special and holy as it could possibly be. Besides, as young as she was, she knew that then having Two New Mortal Sins on her soul would be harder to confess next week, then she’d take communion again, another mortal sin, and so it would compound. That, on top of the abuse, was too much for this little girl to bear.

So, she confessed. The priest didn’t know whether to believe her or not, thinking or perhaps hoping she was having a practice confess of a Mortal Sin. But, he asked questions. And she answered them. He didn’t give her a long penance. It would have held up the proceedings. But he advised her to stop her behaviour.

If there was anything Anne would have liked more than anything else, it was to stop the behaviour. She wasn’t choosing the behaviour, however, so it wasn’t possible for her to stop it. HE didn’t choose to stop no matter what she said. HE gave her many reasons why she had no choice in the matter. Besides HE had groomed her throughout her life. And HE reminded her, often, how alone she was in the world. She knew this. It was there, every minute of every day in the home with her. Years later, her psychiatrist explained to her that she was the scapegoat of the family; the outlet. It was the only way the family could continue to put on the brave front of functioning. That’s another story, however.

This story is about Anne and the Catholic Church. Although HE told her often to stop confessing, to never confess, to keep the secret in the confessional as well as outside it, she couldn’t do it. She confessed week after week after week. Friday was confession day at school. Every student, every grade, every nun. Sundays were confession days at Warrandyte. Anne became good at arriving too late for confession on Sundays, with the honest excuse of having confessed on Friday, and with the knowledge that when ‘trapped’ into confession at her home church, she could confess only Venial Sins because the Mortal Sins were dealt with on Fridays. Anne didn’t have many Venial Sins, sometimes she made a few up, especially on Sundays. She had to have something to say.

Did the Priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour abuse Anne? No. Did her help her? Advise her? Tell her the sins weren’t her sins? No, No and No. Did he find someone outside the Confessional to help her? Advise her? Take her under their wing? Discover what was troubling her, happening to her? No, No, No and No. What did he do? He punished her. Week after week after week. He saw that the punishments weren’t working. And her sinning was becoming worse. Now there were other men involved. She was committing Impure Acts with ‘other men’. The punishments had to match her sins.

Saying the Act of Contrition, ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers wasn’t doing the trick. Better add the Rosary. A few Rosaries. Ten Rosaries. Better make her do them everyday. Better make her do them three times a day. Better make her spend before school, play time, lunch time, afternoon play, after school in the church praying, praying, praying. Nothing was working. The girl just kept on committing The Mortal Sin of Impurity.

The nuns and the other children wondered about all this praying. At first there were jokes and jibes about the longer penances. They were, after all, as long as the penances of the worst boys and everyone knew no girls were that bad. What could Anne be up to? Then her penances were longer than the worst boys. This caused silence by the children. It was beyond them. The penances grew longer still. There wasn’t a nun who could out-pray this one child. Nun’s started to whisper. To wonder. Their whisperings grew louder. Anne was aware of them, whispering from the nearby pews. Peeking in at morning and lunch times.

Then, one day, a group of them stood in the aisle behind her and their whispering grew and became non-whispers. They were discussing how pious this child must be, to pray so much. She must have a calling from God. One didn’t think so. That one was the Head Nun, the aspirant to become Mother Superior. She and Anne had their own relationship. It wasn’t a healthy one. The Head Nun didn’t like Anne because not only was Anne from a poor family, didn’t have her fees paid, or own a uniform, Anne was clever, could do school work above her grade level, was put forward for fast tracking by some of her teachers. Worst of all, Anne questioned some of the religious teaching. Some of it just didn’t make sense to Anne. Then, Anne never could help herself from asking questions in a learning environment. Surely that was a good thing. You’d think so, wouldn’t you.

Well, one of the various punishments the Head Nun metered out to Anne, for just being Anne, was to strip her in front of the class, force her into the oldest, rattiest, biggest uniform from the second-hand box in her office and tell her to stay in it until home time, even though it wrapped twice around her body and had to be held up so it didn’t trip her. Funny thing about that was, the children – most of them anyway – were quite nice to her on those days. One girl even took her by the hand and insisted she join in their skipping game. Most days, Anne attempted to be invisible and was mostly successful.

Anyway, back to the huddle of nuns in the Church aisle, the Head Nun was having none of this pious business where Anne was concerned and directed one of the younger nuns to ask the girl why she prayed so much. Well, being the honest little soul that she was, Anne told them honestly, ‘Because I’m doing penance.’ There was a collective gasp and a collective pulling away, as though they might be somehow contaminated just breathing the same air as this sin-riddled child.

Anne learned a very important lesson that day. The ongoing shame, fear, unworthiness she felt through to her core was deserved. There really was no help for her, and no hope either. All she could do was endure. After all, even though suicide was calling her, had been for some time, long before she was even in double figures, she also knew it was the one Unforgivable Sin. There was no reprieve. No second chance. No alternative to burning forever in Hell. If there was one thing Anne knew, it was that she did not deserve that. If she had been committing the sin wilfully, then perhaps, yes. But she had no choice in the matter. No say. And no real culpability either. So, no suicide then. Just endurance. But she further realised something else. She wasn’t really committing the Mortal Sin of Impurity. It was being committed against her. So, she stopped confessing the sin that was not her sin, had never been her sin in the first place.

Life got a little better then, at least on the surface. No more lectures in the Confessional. No more penances so long she couldn’t finish one before the next one started. She did finish all her penances, of course, just in case and because, well, that’s the type of child she was. Besides, she helped to counteract the evil in her life by being the ‘goodest little girl she could be.’ The damage was done though. The nuns always treated her as though she was tainted. And when a visiting priest, a nice Irish fellow, who she told in the Confessional, tried to intervene, to get one of the nuns to take her on, hear her story, he was truly puzzled and disappointed when there were no takers. Anne, though, was relieved. That bridge was well and truly burnt.

It took many years for Anne to overcome the guilt that riddled her psyche, the guilt imposed and enforced by the Catholic Church. It stole joy and opportunity and years from her life. Outside the harm and damage done by the sexual abuse itself, in some ways, the damage done by the Church, those hailed paragons of mercy and forgiveness, trust and understanding, purveyors of the Life of Jesus, instilled a worse wound, a deeper wound than the physical wounds of the actual abuse.

Obviously there were many causes to the many wounds Anne endured. She was in her twenties when the Catholic guilt and training fully left her. She was in her 30s before she fully stopped the guilt-cringe response built-in from religious training. She was in her forties when she left her family (of origin), totally and permanently. She’d had little to do with the brother, twelve years her senior, who had abused her and made her available to others to abuse, many years prior to that. She was in her fifties when she ceased to exist.

I know this story. I know it intimately. I was Anne Wilson. I go by a different name now, Hannah Quinn. I am in my 60s. I am a grandmother. And I’m really only now starting my life. I admit, I still struggle with many issues from my childhood and the consequential choices and non-choices of my life. I feel angry and hurt and passionate when I hear of child abuse. Sometimes those feelings are for Anne, for me, as well. But I don’t think anything makes me more angry than hearing about the Seal of the Confessional. Or the Catholic Church diminishing the victims of its own abuses. Every time one of their representatives, such as George Pell did today in the press conference he held and was televised on ABC24 tries to make out they, the church, are somehow being victimised, I feel so angry that I wish there really was a Hell, because I know that is where these abusers and apologists for abusers and abusive institutions deserve to go.

The Seal of the Confessional is all about the next life, the Eternal Life. How can it be separated, ex-communicated if you will. It must be fully connected to how this life, this finite life is lived and the choices made and the actions taken. Separating the two, using the Seal of the Confessional, makes a mockery of earning Eternal Life when there is no consequence in the finite life. Paedophiles are serial offenders, recidivists. That, too, makes mockery of the Seal of the Confessional. Keeping secrets is exactly why and how these shocking, life destroying abuses can fester and survive for so long, and why so little is done about them. The guilt and shame, and the oft many cries for help of victims which are ignored or openly denied, is why so few speak up, or take so long to speak up. Whether the abuses are happening within the Church or are being revealed in the Church via the Confessional, the secrecy, the Confessional Seal, is wrong and both demonises the innocent and protects the guilty. It all too often denies the Eternal Life of the victim who too often commit suicide, and too often go on to become offenders in later life.

Even if I believed in God, which I don’t, somehow I doubt that was what he would want.

If, as I believe might be the case, the Catholic Church and its Seal of the Confessional is not above the law, then thank goodness we are having a Royal Commission and let’s hope it is set up to deal with this specific issue as well as the many others it must deal with. Whether it is the perpetrator or a victim ‘confessing’, action must be taken outside the confessional. Let the confessional deal with the eternal soul, but let that not dismiss culpability in this life first. And if a victim is asking for help, then let it be on offer; let them know the shame is not their shame and they have nothing to confess. Above all, let them NOT BE PUNISHED for a heinous sin they did not commit but which is committed against them.

This, surely, would be what God would actually want.

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  1. archiearchive November 14, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    Thank you for telling your story. There have been so many others who were not strong enough to put the blame where it belongs. And who accepted unearned guilt until it overcomes them. Thank you.

  2. SJ Begonja November 14, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    It's so very brave of you to share such a personal and heratbreaking story. I hope it inspires other victims to realise they weren't the ones at fault.

  3. mcgisht November 14, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    Thank you for your extreme courage and strength in writing of these terrible things. I weep for the little child, and for your lost opportunities.

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