Impact statement. 2021. DPP. Draft 3.
Content warning: This piece contains descriptions of the impact of sexual assault.
To understand the impact these assaults have had on my life, you have to go back to who I was and who I was becoming before they happened.
I was a smart kid: perceptive, intelligent, full of life, and although my childhood had some difficulty I was sure of myself. I was academically strong; I was ambitious, socially optimistic and hopeful. As I entered high school I was excited to embrace my adolescence and the huge potential of my future life.
The first impacts of the abuse showed up soon after the first assaults. Almost overnight my optimism vanished. I began to withdraw and isolate from both family and friends. My grades began to tank. I stopped sleeping and I suddenly couldn’t engage with things I loved.
Worse than that, I got hit with my first serious bout of anxiety. For a year I couldn’t swallow properly; sometimes I couldn’t breathe and I became almost immobilised by a constant fear. It was fear of being expelled, of my parents finding out what was happening, and fear of the next assault.
I began to feel intense shame that I had done something to warrant the attention I was getting. The words and threats he had said about God, punishment and expulsion were stuck in my head and I had begun to believe parts of it. Added to that, my fight or flight responses were haywire and my adrenal system so confused that by the end of year 8 I was exhausted. By the end of year 9 I would be a broken person. Already I had lost the crucial early teenage years, time when I should have been building my identity, creating my values or simply just enjoying life like a normal teenager. I had no safe place. He took it.
I didn’t know it then but a lot of these things would stay with me my whole life: the loss of foundation, the fundamental breach of trust and the heightened fear of being close to anyone.
Coexisting with that was anxiety, trauma-based depression and the loneliness that came from not being able to share my story.
It’s easy now to look at it through adult eyes and rationalise the setting and behaviour, especially in a courtroom, the most adult of settings, but I was just a scared kid, a child really. I just wanted to learn music. That feeling of how horrified and alone I was after school on those assault days will never leave me.
As I was writing this I struggled to know where to start because the damage is everywhere. I have times when I’m high-functioning, even thriving, and I relish those times. But just below the surface there is dysfunction, isolation and a shattered life.
I’d like to share with the court some personal experiences that describe these impacts and the effect on me and my relationships.
My history with addiction started when I was about 18. I began drinking and didn’t stop for a year, messing up my HSC and hating myself for it. I was overwhelmed with the flashbacks that came every night and I just needed them to stop. I was waking up with the feeling of being held down, like something heavy on my chest and with restricted breathing. When I drank enough it would be less.
Later on in my 20s and 30s I used alcohol and increasingly drugs to normalise both my personal and professional relationships. I didn’t want to be addicted, but I needed to manage the anxiety that arrived every time I was faced with intimacy or a new relationship. I was trying and craving to create a safe place just so I could be present with the people I loved.
Until recently, my relationships rarely lasted beyond a few months. Day to day I found it really difficult to find fulfilment and commitment and I resisted trust. I never knew when or how to explain my impossible history to anyone, and for years every time I was intimate with someone I would have to stop, check myself and remove all thoughts of the assaults and the feeling of his hands on me.
Deeply affecting is that my first “sexual” experiences – strong inverted commas – were assaults perpetrated violently. The shame and confusion of that never quite leaves you. I could never build a strong bond with someone. He took that enjoyment away from me.
In my late 30s I began the process of getting a handle on my disorders and addictions. I felt like he won every time I replaced myself with substances. Plus I had a daughter now and I wanted what happened to me to never impact her.
By then, I was on my third suicide attempt and had ended up in hospital. I started to really look at and understand the full impacts of the abuse. I want to explain that I always want to keep being here and optimism is a very strong driver for me, but sometimes I would simply get overwhelmed with the depression and darkness. I never wanted to kill all of myself, just the part that housed the trauma of the abuse.
Because the abuse happened at such a young and formative age, I lost crucial parts of myself. They were parts I needed because they linked to my identity and my self-worth. If there were one thing I wish he hadn’t taken from me, it would be this.
The more abstract impacts are harder to define but just as profound.
One of the first I felt was the loss of my spiritual life. As a sensitive, deep-thinking kid, I was pretty vulnerable. I went to him as a mentor and for guidance. I don’t understand it now but back then my version of God was important to me. Still, I had started to question a faith handed down to me by my parents.
As the abuse continued I became deeply affected by the hypocrisy of it. I couldn’t believe in God anymore because the contradiction was too great and irrationally I grieved that loss. What he said to me during the abuse did a lot of damage. He knew I would believe those “man of God” words and he manipulated that. I had a right to choose my spirituality and the way I expressed religion and he removed that right.
My parents are horrified they put me in that situation. They trusted a priest and are appalled that they encouraged me to learn music with him. It’s been so challenging for them and they have essentially become secondary victims of his actions. I’m now estranged from the family I grew up with. The abuse radiated out and destroyed those relationships and I am always aware that I will never get back that time.
The breakdown of these close connections is important because it added to my isolation. Without strong support networks I start drowning, and this has big impacts on my ability to work. I love my job and I love working, but I’ve always had to choose between managing my mental health and managing my working life. At times this has literally been the choice between keeping being here and earning money.
For my daughter and increasingly for myself I will always choose to be here, but I would like to recognise the cost. By age 40 I had become a financial non-citizen – bank manager’s words, not mine. No house, no super, no credit rating, no mortgage, no savings, no stability of income. I’ve worked really hard to change that in the past 10 years, but I’m handicapped. Lack of education, borderline homelessness, not being able to afford therapy and the trigger of having no safe place all contribute to a pretty devastating cycle.
Four times I’ve started uni, and four times I’ve got “unwell” and not been able to finish. Some very real damage has been done to my right to earn, but what is more deeply painful to me is the loss of potential. I could have done so much. I can only try and do this now and I’m driven to contribute and make up for lost time.
What I hope will be learnt from this trial is a greater accountability from the church to its victims. They have no choice but to change this. They have a chance for healing here as much as we do.
What he did to me at school took a huge part of me, maybe the most important part, but what he can’t do anymore is define how I live my life. I feel real relief that he can’t do any more damage. For me now, it’s only about how I come back from it and live with optimism and potential.
Anthony Caruana was convicted this year of 26 counts of sexual abuse against 12 children. He is awaiting sentence.
Lifeline 13 11 14
National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732
The Gryffyn Foundation can be found here.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Impact statement. 2021. DPP. Draft 3.".
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