Having testified at the royal commission and for a police investigation, a victim of abuse endures another cycle of doubt from the church. By Therase Lawless.
Exclusive: How the church forced me to relive my abuse
I’ve suffered from complex post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety for most of my life. I’ve worked in community mental health for almost two decades. Professionally, I have written programs that have assisted many hundreds of people to reclaim their lives out of the experience of mental illness, stigma and disadvantage. I’ve also recently completed a PhD in creative writing and mental health. I’m grateful for the richness of my life, particularly because there were times when it might have prematurely ended.
Between the ages of 15 and 17 a teacher at my Catholic school groomed, manipulated and sexually abused me and other girls. This experience was accompanied by immense shame, loneliness, self-hate and parental neglect. During that time, my mental state devolved rapidly into depression and severe anxiety. I became bulimic, began using alcohol, withdrew and dreamt an impossible dream that someone would intervene. What was happening should have been obvious. But not one person came to my aid. My life then and my future was left in the hands of a predator.
The wounds came with me as I got older, enveloped by depression and anxiety. I muddled along, raised two daughters and somehow got myself through university. At age 50, I have forged a career of which I am proud. Yet I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t experienced all those years, at least an accumulated decade, of inability to function.
Throughout my adult life I’ve tried to make sense of the childhood abuse. Even when I was abused, I craved healing through justice. When the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was announced in 2013, I decided to testify. I was hopeful that doing so would facilitate a mental and emotional shift, possibly some kind of resolution. But more importantly, I believed my contribution would influence systemic and social change, and protect children. I had no idea that it would be the beginning of a process of unravelling. The commissioners were incredibly sensitive and respectful, and being heard and believed was significant. Following my private session, the commission forwarded my report to Victoria Police; they did so because of child protection concerns.
As I testified, the perpetrator held a teaching position in a state departmental school. For eight months I was involved in a police investigation. Speaking the words about the way he put his hands on my body propelled me into further states of shame and mental trauma. Throughout this period I experienced constant flashbacks to the mind-state I had as an adolescent, traumatic dreams every night and hours and hours of dissociation. At that time I was not able to work on my PhD, and couldn’t fully function at work. I was also fearful that the teacher, once interviewed by police, would seek me out and harm me.
The investigation concluded without charges being laid. Though I had evidence that he had abused me when I was 16, expressed in letters and diaries I had kept, I had nothing to prove that it started when I was 15, below the legal age of consent. The police believed me, were disgusted by the abuse and were remorseful that the law failed me. They advised me to contact the Victorian Department of Education and call for the teacher’s resignation. So I did.
It was a fruitless exercise. Again, I provided the evidence. The department informed me its officials had followed up the matter with the teacher but that, in the absence of any current concerns about his behaviour with students, they were not undertaking any disciplinary action.
After two blockages to justice, I decided to pursue a compensation claim with the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing protocol, which is administered by the committee for professional standards. I prefer to call this the “Towards More Suffering” response. The first step in this process required an independent psychiatric evaluation. My lawyers arranged this, on my behalf.
The psychiatrist asked many open-ended questions about my state of mind and symptoms, about my family background and current life, and about what happened. It was a challenging conversation, but fair. In due course I was provided with a copy of the report. I had been given three diagnoses: PTSD, major depression and generalised anxiety disorder. No news there.
I already knew a great deal about mental health, diagnostic categories, treatment approaches and recovery – my area of expertise. And I was aware of the evidence that attributed the major cause of serious mental illness to trauma. Trauma arises from experiences of extreme threat, including violent injury, exposure to major conflict or war, experiences of childhood neglect, and sexual and emotional violence. According to the literature, the causation of the most serious and disabling forms of mental illness is the experience of childhood trauma caused by sexual or physical abuse.
Traumatic stress fundamentally changes the functioning of three major parts of the brain – the amygdala, the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus. Brain-imaging technology reveals that for people who have PTSD, this part of the brain is hyperactive and reduced in volume, as is the pre-frontal cortex, whereas the hippocampus is enlarged in volume. The amygdala helps us process emotions and respond to fear. The hippocampus manages memory, recording new memories and helping us to distinguish between past and recent memories. The pre-frontal cortex regulates emotions in response to stimuli. These three brain components form a neural circuit, that when activated by external stimuli perceived as threatening, alert us to a fight or flight response. But for people who have damage from trauma, perceived threats conspire in creating a state of extreme distress. In a sense, for people suffering with PTSD the brain is like an operating system infected by malware: the malevolent sensations, memories and crystal clear detail of traumatic events from the past have hypersensitised the brain, and the brain brings these experiences of extreme mental pain and threat into the present.
As far as I knew, the Towards Healing process required me to undertake two further engagements that were, of course, very mentally challenging. A “contact person” came to my home and asked me to describe all the details of the abuse. Months later, two “assessors”, retired policemen, interviewed me to clarify the information compiled by the contact person. The assessors also requested copies of all the evidence I had kept. Then they interviewed the perpetrator, who denied my accusations. Based on the evidence, the assessors concluded that on the balance of probabilities the teacher had sexually abused me, and he had lied to them.
I was believed. He was “found guilty”. My spirit lifted. I felt I was close to the end of the journey. I thought to myself, “Soon the church will take responsibility for this and offer me compensation.”
But it wasn’t the end of the journey. My sense of relief was premature. More months passed, and I received a letter from the committee for professional standards, indicating that I was to attend another “independent” psychiatric evaluation chosen by them. It seemed coincidental that the appointment was to be held at the same medical practice where I attended the first assessment, but with a different psychiatrist.
There was a small pile of documents on the psychiatrist’s desk. It became obvious that she had in her possession the reports about me from Towards Healing. Part way into the session, she made a remark about my personal counsellor. Clearly, she also had in her possession my counselling file. I had a flush of fear and defencelessness, as it occurred to me that the psychiatrist was working with the Catholic Church’s lawyers. She most certainly was not about to make an independent assessment of my mental state.
“Towards Healing is a business strategy, designed in conjunction with the church’s lawyers, its accountants and its insurance company,” says Bernard Barrett, a retired academic who works for the victims advocacy group Broken Rites.
“The name Towards Healing is the kind of brand name that could be inspired by any public relations consultant or advertising firm. In some cases, Towards Healing might help a victim to heal, but many victims feel revictimised. Where possible, Broken Rites advises victims to avoid getting involved in Towards Healing. A victim should choose their own counsellor and get the church to pay for it.”
My experience of the psychiatric assessment was this: Dr A needed to know how much I would “bleed” if provoked and prodded. She had a catalogue of questions designed to gouge out of me specific details about every aspect of suffering I endured as a victim of sexual abuse, including symptoms and coping behaviours in adult life. Unlike every other person I had dealt with, her approach was neither warm nor empathic. Her questions penetrated like needles. What compels you to self-harm? What happens next? Are you able to resist the need? How do you feel afterwards? Shame was the real answer, and the emotion aroused within.
To test her criteria for post-traumatic flashback, Dr A asked me, “When you flashback to the past, do you see the past from the eyes of an adult, or do you feel what you experienced as a child?”
The question instantly invoked the mind schema of a 15-year-old abused girl. I was she, in a state of hopelessness, shame, mental torment and neglect. I was in part child, and in part broken woman grieving for that girl, crying inconsolably, shaking uncontrollably.
The assessment lasted one-and-a-half hours. The only human engagement the psychiatrist offered me before I left, was the question: “Do you have something to look forward to in life, something that gives you hope?” I thought to myself: what does she see before her… a vision of a pitiful, helpless girl-woman? A person made pathetic by her inquisition?
I stared at her aghast, for a brief moment lucidly present. I replied, “Yes, I have immensely close and joyful relationships with both my daughters. In my job I have supported thousands of people to recover their lives from the impacts of mental illness, and I’m an advocate working towards social change.”
She looked surprised.
When I exited her rooms I was disoriented. For the next few days my mental state swung like a pendulum between dissociation and flashback. I was in an extreme state of hypervigilance, besieged by hair-trigger startle reflexes and horrific nightmares.
I’m fortunate enough to have enormous support from friends, family and colleagues. And my knowledge about mental illness, advocacy and oppression equips me with an overflowing toolkit of coping and recovery strategies. But my heart aches when I think about the victims of abuse who undergo these psychiatric tests who don’t have support, who are disempowered, and have no capacity to make sense of what’s being done to them. If I had endured this 10 or 15 years ago, I would have been broken by the experience.
Once I could function again I became furious, and my fury wrote this piece. I needed to put this sly perversion of justice on the public record. While we might like to think that psychiatry is a “helping” profession, it can actually be a field that towers over individuals with significant powers of authority and judgement. From my perspective, this cannot assist with healing. Healing can only occur within relationships of equality that offer care, trust, empathy and understanding.
I have had no resolution from Towards Healing. The first church assessors found that I had provided a “truthful account of the abuse committed” by the teacher. They came to the conclusion that the teacher had “attempted and succeeded in sexualising a pastoral relationship” with me, which resulted in a breach of trust, abuse of his authority and professional misconduct. As a result of their inquiries and all available evidence, they found that the required standard of proof was produced. In their terms, “on the balance of probabilities”, my allegation of sexual abuse was substantiated.
As yet, I have received no compensation or further correspondence. And so, again, I wait.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Sandhurst, which handled this complaint, said: “The Towards Healing protocol is designed to minimise trauma to the extent possible, and to support them through the process. Appointed assessors, as defined within Towards Healing, are independent and appointed by the Director of Professional Standards... The Assessors’ findings regarding the allegations of abuse are one of the factors that influences compensation.”
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 1800 099 340
Lifeline 13 11 14
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2017 as "Exclusive: How the church forced me to relive my abuse".
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