"Today, Australia confronts a trauma, an abomination, hiding in plain sight for far too long." So began Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he delivered the national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse at Parliament House this morning. Hundreds of survivors have gathered in Canberra to hear the landmark apology, joined by Julia Gillard, who established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse during her time as Prime Minister.
Gillard sat with survivor advocate Chrissie Foster to hear the apology, smh.com.au reports. Foster was instrumental in forming the Royal Commission after she discovered a Catholic priest had sexually abused two of her daughters at their primary school.
This is her story, written by Lucie Morris-Marr and published in the August 2018 issue of marie claire:
The Truth Teller: Chrissie Foster
Chrissie Foster’s spacious and pretty Victorian home in Melbourne’s Oakleigh used to be lled with the delightful sounds of three little girls playing and giggling. Her daughters Emma, Katie and Aimee all shared a close bond growing up and would run into the arms of their father, Anthony, when he returned home from work each evening. Now the once-happy home has fallen quiet. The lives of the Foster family were shattered by priest Kevin O’Donnell, a paedophile and serial child abuser who raped Katie and Emma repeatedly between 1988 and 1993.
Brazen and cruel, O’Donnell would regularly take the girls from the playground of their Catholic primary school to the school hall or the church next door. At the time, they never spoke a word of the abuse to their parents. However, as the sisters entered their teenage years, the abuse began to take an immense toll on their mental health and wellbeing.
In August 1995, O’Donnell was jailed after pleading guilty to multiple charges over 31 years. Though the Fosters were not involved in the case, the surrounding publicity prompted Emma and Katie to plummet into private despair, confusing their parents.
“Emma had lost so much weight – we knew something was wrong but she wouldn’t say what it was. Eventually she told a nurse about O’Donnell and the penny nally dropped,” Chrissie explains. “It was a devastating day.”
The nightmare resurfaced again 15 months later, when Chrissie read a desperate note written by Katie explaining that she too had been abused by O’Donnell. Katie developed a binge-drinking problem and in May 1999, when she was 15 years old, she was hit by a car while drunk. She suffered brain damage and is now confined to a wheelchair, requiring 24-hour care.
Emma continued to spiral out of control and in 2008 she took her own life, overdosing on prescription medications. She was 26. Compounding the tragedy, Anthony, 64, died suddenly last year of a head injury after falling during a suspected heart attack. Instead of descending into a tunnel of grief, Chrissie has focused her energy on campaigning for the safety of children. She has the support of her youngest daughter, Aimee, and her young family.
“I think you’ve got to follow the truth, because there’s peace in that,” Chrissie tells marie claire from her home office – her own personal “war room” where she writes letters, articles and speeches. “I’ve been railing against the Catholic Church since 26 March, 1996, the day we found out Emma had been abused,” she says. “I’m proud to be a voice for so many. It’s an honour to campaign for the safety of children.”
However, the transition from a softly spoken mother to a public figure hasn’t been easy, especially for a naturally shy woman. The traumatic memories of how her children suffered will never dissipate. But the sickening truth made Chrissie determined for answers.
It emerged that the Archdiocese of Melbourne had allowed O’Donnell to continue working as a priest despite previous allegations of abuse stretching back to 1958. “It soon became clear that behind the abuse was this institution aiding and abetting it,” Chrissie says.
Along with her husband, Chrissie bravely went to seek answers from senior Catholic figures including Cardinal George Pell. In 2010 she co- authored a book, Hell on the Way to Heaven, with ABC journalist Paul Kennedy. The former Labor MP Ann Barker presented the book to Victoria’s Parliament and called for a state- led inquiry into the Catholic Church, eventually resulting in the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse.
“The ramifications of abuse are so deadly, it was crucial to expose what had been going on,” says Chrissie. “Everything snowballed and I’m so proud, as none of this would have happened without speaking my truth.”
Today’s national apology is just one of more than 400 recommendations made by the commission, the ABC reports, with Prime Minister Morrison today committing to addressing the 104 that relate to the Federal government. That includes the establishment of a National Museum "to raise awareness and understanding of the impacts of child sexual abuse" and a national research centre to guide best practice for dealing with stigma and providing support.
"We will work with survivor groups to ensure your stories are recorded, that your truth is told, that our nation does not turn from our shame, and that our nation will never forget the untold horrors you experienced," Prime Minister Morrison said.
Anyone affected by this story can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.