Today, disgraced Cardinal George Pell will learn his fate when the Supreme Court of Victoria hands down its decision on his appeal.
I’m not powerful or an academic expert but I know far more than anyone should about paedophile priests — I was just 13 when I became the victim of one myself.
John Philip Aitchison abused me for two years, raping me in both the church and my own bedroom. Last year he was jailed for nine years (five non-parole) for what he did to me.
His abuse snuffed out the girl that I was, the girl in the Year One photos who had potential and hope for the future.
That’s why I know that today, regardless of the outcome, will not be easy for the tens of thousands of victims of abuse across this country, especially those who have spent a lifetime waiting for justice that will never come.
It is for them, but also for myself, that I am sharing this, an excerpt from the victim impact statement that I read out in court one year ago this month, at the sentencing of my abuser.
Remember us today, the survivors, and remember that when you pass judgment on one of us, you’re judging all of us. So be brave. Make a different choice — remember us, and what was taken from us, instead of focusing on the perpetrators and what they’ve lost as a result of their own deplorable actions.
This is my story.
I was 13 when Father John Aitchison first raped me on a church pew after violin practice. Like an atomic bomb, my life changed instantaneously. My identity as a girl, my body, my voice as a musician, my ability to forgive myself — he took it all. He rewrote who I was meant to be, he manipulated the weaknesses in my temperament and he amputated my sense of safety.
I remember I was proud I’d just learned to French braid my hair, I thought wearing odd socks was an act of serious rebellion. And then my safe spaces just disappeared.
Instead, my own bedroom was somewhere I was raped. Those Canberra blossom trees aren’t beautiful. The smell of summer wattle and water from the pool I used to love became something awful that I ran away from. And on every corner, a church.
Childhood should be an adventure with people who love you, where you learn stuff about yourself with limited consequences. Safety is assumed, trust is taken for granted and your body is one more thing to be proud of.
My experience was different. It was so different. John Aitchison had already lived his childhood. It wasn’t enough somehow, so he took mine too. The loss of that can’t be measured. It can’t be given back. To be raped inside a church. There are no words for the terror I felt.
My primary thought about being a young teenager is why? What did I do to deserve what happened to me? It must have been something I did. It must have been my fault. In the absence of any other explanation, I’m less than human. I’m a set of initials in a court transcript. I’m a freakish kind of refugee.
You may reassure me. But they are and always will be empty words. No one but me can find answers. I am alone in this stage of thermal radiation — the only person that has flash blindness that has now lasted 30 years after Aitchison detonated inside my life.
There are so many layers of cruelty that this man chose to inflict that has left me still frightened of him. And I am ashamed of the level of influence he has.
I would like to kiss my husband without remembering the messed up layers that this priest left behind him. I would like to look at my two daughters and my son without it being a link to a time that the only memories I have is that of a paedophile priest who should never have been ordained.
Ask my husband how he felt to learn about this. How he feels about being the man who gets to pick up the pieces of the mess Aitchison left behind. How it feels to watch it all and not be able to fix it, to see me come outside after giving testimony for two days.
As men — think about the fallout from John as seen through the eyes of my husband.
I have been changed physically by Aitchison’s assaults on me. These issues were not caused by natural causes. They were caused instead by being raped at an age that my body was not ready for.
In being unable to fight Aitchison off, I knew how badly my own body was letting me down. I had lost consent over myself in a way I hated — there was nowhere I could turn that hatred to, except into myself.
There are simple things that make life richer that I am not able to enjoy. Friendship is an example. John Aitchison was my friend. When he asked me about my life, I was so pathetically grateful that someone was interested that I answered his questions and felt indebted to him for asking in the first place.
I ignored myself. I didn’t trust myself. It was stupid. No intelligent person should have believed what I believed. I was a fool — worse than foolish. As time went on and I realised the huge mistake I’d made, I couldn’t find the door to let myself out.
I won’t allow it to happen again. I see myself as dangerous to society because my judgment is flawed and unreliable. I can’t make friends when I don’t know who I am, can’t trust who I might be and I hate who I was and the man that made me that way.
Aitchison was an atomic bomb. This is one of the expanding shockwaves — the dynamic pressurised wind systems that have tumbled and torn apart my life. These are the processes that vaporised my potential.
Each and every person in society has contributed to the abuse that happened to me. As long as this stays a secret that I am obligated to keep and feel ashamed about, the more you, your church, your society will make sure this happens again.
Where were my teachers, my friends, the mothers of my friends? Where were the parishioners? I want to know why I meant so little to a society I am meant to be a part of.
I would like to ask — when will it stop? The Royal Commission found there are 60,000 people like me, survivors of institutional abuse. I see my family in them, and in other children tortured, raped and abused. The collateral damage of adults who should know better and have never cared about us.
Not as children. Not as adults.
Why aren’t we enough? When will our numbers be enough? Do I need names for you to listen and witness what I say?
They are my real family. They are where I belong. I am proud to stand among them. But it’s not really okay.
I look out of the window in the middle of the night because there’s a nightmare and see a priest standing under a street lamp below, who is looking up at me and smiling. I can’t recognise my own husband when I wake up.
This is the memory and reality of rape, and things done to me in a back bedroom which I can’t tell anyone.
It’s the coldness in a Catholic bishop’s eyes when I told him what John had done, and the way my crying sounded when I read letters about me for the first time, between the then-archbishop and then-father John Aitchison, written in 1989.
I have been tested. I have been held accountable. I have paid a high price for protecting those I loved. I have been forced to name what was done to me.
So I want to say for the first and last time in my life — how dare you, John Aitchison? For everything you did me, a talented, sweet child who deserved so much better. How dare you?
Is okay to strip away my consent? My personal boundaries? My dignity? Is it fair? We are told as children that if you are in trouble, get help. Tell someone you trust. Someone will help you. Someone will listen. Someone will come.
But no one came. I wasn’t concentrating on sleepovers and friends and what subjects I liked at school. I was focused on survival. There wasn’t room for anything else.
Father John Aitchison built a prison. He held the keys to the door. In the past 30 years he enclosed me brick by brick, with endless corridors and cells where I have lived. Part of the awfulness is that I recognise that after a while, I have laid bricks myself — I hated myself so completely that it’s all I knew how to do.
I think I’ve lived there long enough. Please don’t ask me to stay. I can’t do it anymore. Endurance has a use-by date — it must be today.
You can imagine what this process is like. Multiply it. Imagine yourself when it was happening. Imagine yourself today — writing this down and preparing to speak out loud. For the first time — to say the real truth of what this is like. The truth is horribly sad and ugly.
But it’s other things too. Who am I? Would you be proud and would you feel brave?
Here’s the thing though. For all of this — all the ugly sadness, desperation, loss, suffering and pain — what brings me back each time is the face of a little girl looking steadily at the camera in her first grade photograph.
She has wide grey eyes and a gap between her front teeth. Then, older at 14, she sits hunched over her violin, unsmiling, sombre. She has been raped. She has no words left.
I can’t tell you what she says to me because she isn’t loud or confident. I think she was hopeful for her life once. She deserved happiness, and love and an identity.
She deserved her dignity, her boundaries and especially to consent to her own life, lived the way she wanted.
I believe that if she was here, she’d tell you that the church was wrong, your society was wrong — she’s earned your respect.
It’s time for me to say for her — I will not be silent anymore.
She was not a thing to be used.
She was a person.
I am a person.
This is my story.
I was that child. She was so many wonderful things.
I am proud of her.
Originally published as Dark secret hidden in school photo