If you can’t upset somebody, what’s the point in writing? – Mark Twain
My private hearing with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse was scheduled for 3pm, 26th June, 2013 at an inner city hotel. Words cannot describe the atmosphere that enveloped our vehicle as my husband drove me from our northern New South Wales home, to Brisbane. I didn’t realise at the time that a poorly sutured, invisible wound was tearing open.
I missed out on attending the previous child abuse royal commission when, mid 1996, I boarded a London-bound jet. I was armed with a two-year work visa and no intention of returning to Australia. I easily turned my back on a society that had constantly denied the existence of my abuse:
‘Fiona, you can’t talk about this sort of thing in public,’ my aunt’s eyes had darted about nervously as she tried to explain. ‘It’s too disturbing. You must tell a professional, someone who’s qualified to hear it.’
I had been disclosing my child abuse history to health and other professionals for years, none of whom did much to assist me:
‘Stop making up these stories!’ a nurse once yelled at me.
‘Your memories are a metaphor for something else,’ one psychiatrist suggested.
Soon after I arrived at my partner’s Devonshire home, news concerning the Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service flooded Australia’s mainstream media. The failed Wood Royal Commission (as it became known) was sparked by complaints of an elite Sydney-based paedophile ring – the very same syndicate I was now reporting to the 2013 Royal Commission.
Jon and I were waiting in a hotel room when a young lawyer rushed in to greet us. She cradled the 22-page written complaint I electronically submitted upon the Commission’s commencement, and remarked, ‘You’re obviously highly educated!’
‘No,’ I corrected her, ‘I’m highly intelligent. I received an abysmal education.’
She led us into an adjacent hotel room where two commissioners stood to greet us. Federal court judge Jennifer Coate sat opposite me at a large round table. Child psychiatrist Helen Milroy sat to my right. The young female lawyer took her seat to my left.
Judge Coate presided over my hearing: ‘We’ve read your comprehensive submission. It’s good that you submitted this beforehand otherwise we would be spending the entire hearing relaying its contents. We gained the impression that your submission contains a selection of what you experienced and that you know a lot more.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘There’s much more. I selected the incidents where I could best identify a time, date and place. I also compiled this,’ with two hands, I purposefully placed a fat, well-organised folder on the table. ‘It contains some evidence to back up my complaint. Sorry about the hand written contents page. I would normally type and reference everything better than this but I only had a few days notice that I would be attending today.’
The Australian public was given the impression that private hearings were intended as a positive, cathartic experience where victims got to share their abuse in a supportive, non-judgemental environment. My experience was different to that. The next two hours felt more akin to a cross examination. It seemed Judge Coate was looking for holes in my testimony.
‘That’s good!’ retired Tweed Heads detective Frank Natoli exclaimed when I complained to him. ‘It means they took you seriously. They were seeing how you’d hold up under cross examination.’ He concluded, ‘This Royal Commission is giving victims a false sense of hope. They won’t investigate their complaints.’
Frank Natoli was right. The first thing Judge Coate told me was, ‘Fiona, we’re not here to redress current victims’ complaints. We’re here to do something for future victims.’
But current victims are the future! I thought. At that, a wave of determination washed over my being and I defiantly asked:
‘What do you plan to do differently in order to avoid the pitfalls of the last child abuse royal commission?’
Judge Coate looked slightly taken aback. ‘We’re just at the information gathering stage. We haven’t yet decided what we’re going to do next.’
Don’t be too abrasive, Fiona. ‘I imagine you’re overwhelmed at the response so far.’
The three women collectively sighed with relief…
We spent the next two hours exploring three separate but related matters. The first regarded the NSW Education Department and NSW Police mishandling and cover-up of a paedophile ring operating within my local Tweed Shire. The second matter related to my experiences as a victim of an international child sex trafficking ring. The third matter concerned how police, the national health board and a private university collaborated to label me (a) an adult perpetrator instead of a child victim of my abuse, and (b) psychotic for speaking about my experiences.
‘You’re obviously not psychotic,’ Professor Milroy observed. ‘Fiona, your submission was impressive and unique. What you wrote about Elizabeth Loftus and false memory syndrome – we weren’t aware of any of that beforehand.’
I took the opportunity to reiterate the scientific invalidation of Loftus’ pro-paedophile writings that formed the basis for the previous Royal Commission’s dismissal of witness testimonies like mine. I finished my oration by warning the commissioners: ‘God help me if I see Elizabeth Loftus in your report!’
I continued, ‘You need to stop universities teaching this rubbish. You need to stop health practitioners from automatically labelling child abuse victims borderline personality disordered. That condition is often just a symptom of child abuse and it’s-…’
‘Recoverable?’ Milroy offered.
‘Y-yes,’ I looked incredulously at her. ‘The symptoms dissipate as the victim recovers her memories.’
I remounted my soapbox, ‘You need to stop the latest tactic that’s being used against child abuse victims. They’re using a study which claims that child abuse victims are more likely to become perpetrators, as grounds for accusing victims of being perpetrators. They’ve already tried to frame me as a perpetrator on the basis of being a victim – so you’d better nip that one in the bud!’
My brain constantly scanned and analysed the words, body language, eye appearance and micro facial expressions of the three panel members. Within a short time my mind drew its conclusion: Milroy – empathic, intelligent, genuine, eye single – trustworthy. So when the hotel room turned a fuzzy white and voices became like a faint echo in a dark cave, I turned to Milroy, stared into her red teary eyes and confessed: ‘I’m dissociating.’
The psychological trauma of discussing my child abuse history and how often people had used it against me, plus the realisation that the hearing would likely amount to nothing, plunged me back into a place I had not visited for 20 years – a living hell of dissociation, flashbacks, memory flooding and abreaction that I never expected to see again.
Hold it together, I instructed myself. You’re here to give the children a voice.
I continued, ‘Detective Bob Sullivan of the NSW child protection squad told me in 2005 that only a Royal Commission had the power to investigate the Tweed Shire paedophile ring. Well, we have a Royal Commission – so let’s investigate!’
‘Are you going to investigate my complaints?’ I persisted.
Judge Coate ignored me.
Don’t you dare! I seized the commissioner’s eye and demanded: ‘Yes or no! Do you have the power and authority to investigate my complaints?’
The commissioner squared her body to mine, smiled bemusedly and coolly responded, ‘Yes.’
‘Right! That’s one point. Secondly, is it within your terms of reference to make recommendations based on your investigations?’
‘Yes,’ she responded just as smoothly.
‘Right!’ I ran my finger across their collective presence and warned, ‘I’m holding you to that. Investigate my complaints!’
I shuffled through my folder of evidence and pulled out a document. ‘I’ve included a newspaper article about my university lecturer who was recently charged with sexually assaulting two children. The university website published his pro-paedophile writings. It says here,
‘In his book Life of Crime, Professor Wilson said that in the “sizeable majority of incidents” adolescents were sexually provocative. “My findings were remarkably similar to studies in California and Scandinavia which suggest child victims of adult sex offenders are generally willing or active participants, and that they not infrequently initiate the sexual relationship,” he wrote.’
The commissioners gasped.
‘This is what students are being taught in our universities?’ I raised my voice. ‘It’s not acceptable!’
My heart beat faster as I pulled out another document. ‘This is an email sent to me from Tor Neilsen saying he witnessed 60 children raped in the very same location where I witnessed the same people committing similar crimes! Tor and I independently reported our experiences to the police!’
My frustration peaked as I turned to another section of my folder and tore out an illustration of a ritual banner. ‘Look!’ I thrust it at them. ‘Look at this! I am the first person in the world to come forward and publish this! This was erected at every major paedophile ring meeting! Other victims out there must recognise this!’ I tossed the drawing on the table.
Finally, Jon spoke, ‘Let’s remember that there are victims who couldn’t be here today…’ his voice broke as tears welled in his eyes, ‘because they didn’t make it.’
I continued, ‘I’ve put my neck on the line time and time again for others.’ I lowered my head and fought back tears as I uttered words that caused me immense pain: ‘I’ve never asked for anything for myself…’ I struggled to continue. ‘But I’m asking you now – investigate my complaints.’
‘Fiona,’ Commissioner Milroy spoke softly and pointed to my folder of evidence, ‘first we have to read that.’
‘Fiona, you’re obviously highly intelligent-…’
‘So what?!’ I snapped. ‘What’s the use of having intelligence when institutions continually prevent me from using it?! My life has been destroyed! They’ve continually ruined my finances, my health, my reputation and now all prospects of employment!’
‘Fiona,’ Judge Coat asked, ‘Do you have any final questions?’
‘Yes,’ I wiped my tears and straightened my posture. ‘What am I allowed to share with the public regarding what I experienced here today?’
The judge shifted awkwardly in her seat, ‘You can’t repeat anything you heard here.’
‘Show me the legislation.’
‘The legislation,’ my tone strengthened. ‘Get me the legislation that states what you just said.’
The young lawyer’s eyes widened and she dove into a pile of folders. Minutes later she read out the relevant section.
‘Now,’ I ordered Judge Coate, ‘interpret that for me.’
Following Coate’s explanation, I clarified, ‘So, I own anything that I stated here and can share that with whoever I choose.’
Judge Coates nodded, ‘That is correct.’
‘But Fiona,’ Professor Milroy interjected, ‘you may be tested on how much what you say you said here, indicates what we said.’
‘Thank you,’ I smiled. ‘That was my next question.’
Oh sure, I thought but dared not share. As if the Commissioner will spend public funds prosecuting a victim instead of investigating her complaints – what a great national news headline that would make!
‘You’ll have to excuse my audacity,’ I offered, ‘but that is what has sustained me.’
‘Oh no, that’s fine,’ they all agreed.
It was time to go. I shook Milroy’s hand, peered deep into her brown eyes and expressed, ‘Thank you. I know you’re genuine.’
‘Fiona,’ Milroy implored, ‘keep making submissions.’
I mournfully shook my head, ‘What’s the use?’
Then I met Judge Coate’s handshake which was so firm, I was reminded of the western ritual where men shake hands to establish dominance. I stared defiantly into her right eye and returned her grip with enough strength to make my point but without committing an offence.
As I exited the room, I noticed the panel members stretch, sigh heavily and exchange looks that said: That was intense!
Jon and I had barely exited the room when he, grinning from ear to ear proudly exclaimed, ‘Oh, Fi! Milroy would have employed you on the spot! Well done!’
We were escorted into yet another hotel room where a government appointed psychologist waited to debrief me. I engaged in half an hour of intellectual discussion before tiring of it. You must let yourself break, Fiona, my brain warned me. You need to feel the emotion before you leave.
‘They’re not going to do a thing,’ I complained. ‘This is a whitewash! And I knew it would be. I knew not to get my hopes up. But still I did. A small part of me hoped that there would be justice for me. I’ve never asked for much -…’
I lowered my head as my whole being convulsed in emotional release. I wept sorely from some hidden chasm of despair.
Minutes passed before I gathered myself enough to speak again. ‘I just thought that maybe…just maybe…for once something might be done for me. But I was wrong. There’s a part of me, buried deep within that’s reserved solely for justice. That part of me opened up today for the very first time – but it just got shut right back down again…’