Church offers a blind eye for an eye on child sex abuse
In this story
The school was nearly behind them when Julie told her husband to stop the car. Graham Quinn pulled over, killing the old Mazda’s engine and turning to his wife. Yes, she told him, she was sure. But her legs shook as she walked towards the school hall.
The sun was dropping behind Devonport’s St Brendan-Shaw College, on Tasmania’s north-west coast. In the hall foyer the school board was gathered – a dozen or so people spread about the room, cradling coffee cups and speaking quietly.
Julie spied her target amid the group. The then Archbishop of Hobart, Adrian Doyle, was robed in black and to his head clung a cap of rich purple. As his eyes fell on Julie, he stiffened. His partner in conversation withdrew. Heart pounding, Julie Quinn confronted Tasmania’s most senior Catholic.
Rumours were circulating in Devonport’s Catholic community, and the archbishop’s answer to Julie’s next question epitomised his response to them: “We’ll just leave things be.” Right now, however, Julie was desperate for things to change.
Three years earlier, in 2000, Julie revealed that as a child she had been sexually abused by her Catholic priest, Father Paul Anthony Connolly, in Tasmania’s south. She brought charges against him and Connolly was later convicted of seven counts of indecent assault occurring from 1971 to 1973. The abuse allegations came out just before her daughter, Chloe, turned 14 – the age at which Julie’s abuse started. Talking about it now, Julie says, “Looking at Chloe I could see what a horrific thing it would be, and I just kind of collapsed.”
Julie was terrified but suddenly, after three decades of silence, she desperately needed to talk about it. “You lose your ability to speak about things of the heart,” she says. “Once you suppress one thing, the rest goes as well.”
First, Julie told her husband, Graham. The rest just happened. Within a few days they had seen a counsellor. Within a week, they had told their families. The reaction was terrible. The abuse was the first indignity, but then her community refused to accept it. They began treating her like an outsider.
Julie says she discussed the abuse briefly with her mother and sister, and their response was, “Julie, how could you?” Her mother died two months later, having refused to talk about it.
Her sister began calling Graham, the words shaking through the receiver: “You need to think about yourself.” She was suggesting that Graham leave Julie.
Others in the family understood the hurt but not why Julie needed to seek justice for something that happened so long ago.
Julie expected the church to accept some responsibility for the abuse and turned to it for support, calling its abuse hotline, Towards Healing. Soon after, two Catholic sisters appeared at her hilltop home. Their first question – “Why did you go to the police?” – set the tone for an hour-long interrogation that left Graham feeling deflated. He realised the church wasn’t interested in helping. According to the nuns, there was no money for counselling.
Next, Julie reached out to a childhood friend. The woman’s husband, known for his woolly jumpers and sharp wit, was a former school principal who wielded influence in the local parish community. The couple said they wanted to talk to Julie. But at the Quinns’ home, when Graham left the room, the husband’s words were cold and his advice devastating: “You’ve got to stop rocking the boat.”
In 2001, Father Connolly pleaded guilty to the assaults and served four months in jail. But in the community little changed. A new and just as insidious abuse began.
When Julie dropped her son at the doorstep of a friend, his parents – Graham and Julie’s friends – told her they would still cross the road to shake the paedophile priest’s hand.
Based on her counselling experience, Vicki Russell, a former manager of the Centre Against Sexual Assault in north-west Tasmania, believes Julie received a response from her community typical for victims abused in church institutions. In her view, communities must learn to tell victims, “This was not your fault. You were a child. And as a child you have a right and an expectation to be protected by adults.”
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, in its recent interim report, noted the danger of victims being retraumatised by telling their stories. Underscoring the crucial role of a sensitive audience, the report says victims who contacted the commission took an average of 22 years to first speak of their abuse. For those who found little sympathy, the commission is succeeding where their communities failed.
For 15 years Julie had sung in the church choir. Walking through Devonport one day, she met a choir member who told her she had heard about the abuse. Outside the church, another woman told Graham’s mother she knew how sorry Connolly was. It seemed people were talking.
Finally the archbishop met the Quinns for the first time. Sitting across the boardroom table of his office in Hobart’s New Town, he told them he was sorry for Connolly’s “inappropriate behaviour”, that an expert would contact them soon and that the Quinns should not contact the archbishop again.
The only expert to contact them was a lawyer, offering a modest settlement which Julie says she grudgingly accepted.
In 2002, the press reported that Connolly, now out of jail, was still receiving financial benefits, had been provided with a church car, and that he could still conduct private ceremonies. The church publicly defended the priest despite his conviction, calling him a valued clergy member and citing his significant contribution to the pastoral community. The archbishop said he made the arrangements for Connolly because he “considered [Connolly] to be a fully retired priest”.
The Quinns were incensed. The same archbishop who regularly visited their children’s schools was protecting the reputation of a paedophile. If people were being led to believe Connolly was decent, what did that make Julie? The church community was making life difficult – for her and her family.
Speaking with a teacher outside his son’s primary school, Graham complained about the archbishop. A few days later, the principal advised the Quinns to take their son out of school – it would be easier for everyone. But they refused to just pack up and go.
After 12 years of involvement with the school, the Quinns’ relationships with the teachers dissolved overnight. “Those relationships pretty much never recovered,” says Julie.
Graham volunteered to cook at a school lunch but found himself scraping the barbecue hotplates alone. As the kids queued for sausages, no parents or teachers offered to help. He washed up and left without speaking to any of them.
One morning, Julie dropped her son at the school playground. Waving him goodbye, Julie noticed that on duty was the special education teacher, someone she considered a friend. But Julie had been spotted first and her spirits crashed as the teacher turned her back.
Soon afterwards the Quinns received a letter from the Tasmanian Catholic Education Office, banning them from all contact with the school. A basic relationship was later re-established but first the Quinns were forced to sign a letter promising they would not talk to staff about their strained relations with the church.
The couple called the office of the Archdiocese of Hobart, but it got them nowhere. The church would not defrock Connolly nor retract its statements about him. The archbishop refused to meet Julie again, and her calls to him were not put through. When he came to Devonport, the Quinns could only watch while on stage the stooped figure blessed students and delivered awards. But in October 2003, the archbishop was back at St Brendan-Shaw College, and Julie took her chance.
The pair faced off in the hall foyer: her voice loud enough only for him, his words nervous and slow. Lies regarding Connolly and the abuse were spreading in the community, she said. “What are you going to do about it?”
The formal atmosphere was becoming harder to ignore. At any moment the antibodies would rally and drive out the intruder. Then came the archbishop’s answer: nothing.
It hardly mattered. Julie had at least made him face her. Looking him in the eyes, she delivered her verdict. “You’re not welcome here,” she said.
“Okay,” said the archbishop.
Then Julie dismissed him.
During those three years, few people had publicly supported the Quinns. But there were some. One such person, whom the Quinns barely knew, felt compelled to make the three-hour journey to Hobart. There she asked the archbishop for a more compassionate response to Julie.
In 2004, Julie says, the archbishop privately apologised for how he handled her case, admitting the other woman’s words had softened his view.
“You just think what a difference it would’ve made if more than one person had done that,” says Julie.
Ten years on, Julie and Graham live happily in Hobart. Julie believes in the good in people, and with Graham she helps other victims of trauma by volunteering to settle refugees. She has made a statement to the royal commission. Finally, there is an audience more generous than the community to which she first spoke. For many abuse victims, this catharsis is a key aspect of the inquiry. The commission now needsa further two years of funding, with which it can both fulfil its mandate and help more victims to leave behind parts of an anguished past.
Talking of her sister and other family members, Julie says she has forgiven them for their initial responses. “They just couldn’t cope,” said Julie. “And I blame the abuse.”
Composed and compassionate, Julie took the advice she now offers abuse victims: “Face up to the pain of how it’s hurt you in your life. That pain can actually transform you.”
Some names have been changed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "A blind eye for an eye".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.