2 Dec 2020

Catholic Church made rape trauma even worse, abuse survivor says

8:36 pm on 2 December 2020

A woman who was sexually abused and raped by a Catholic priest says the response from the church to her complaint was insulting and laughable.

Catholic church priest during a ceremony mass

An abuse survivor is angry that the priest who admitted raping her was freed from jail after serving just one-third of his sentence. Photo: 123rf

The priest, Peter Hercock, was a counsellor at Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt.

Ann-Marie Shelley was at the school in the late 1960s and early 70s.

She told the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care today that for the two years she was seeing Hercock for counselling, an insidious process of grooming was going on.

Nothing happened at the school, but a couple of years later she contacted him for counselling.

''One night during the so-called grief counselling he raped me. I felt dirty, ashamed and shocked and told no one.

''I was convinced it was my fault.''

Several years later, when she had children and her marriage was breaking up, Hercock reappeared in her life.

She told the commission that it was while she was in emergency housing.

''Hercock climbed in the window in the middle of the night and raped me while my five-year-old son and nine-month-old baby twins were asleep next to my bed.

''Hercock climbed out the window as soon as he finished and left.''

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Ann-Marie Shelley: ''I was convinced it was my fault.'' Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Shelley sought redress from the Catholic Church many years later after discovering she was not the only victim of Hercock.

''Once I began discovering he had hurt other girls I was overcome by anger.''

Formal complaint laid 18 years ago

She said the energy that came from that anger gave her the strength to make a formal complaint in 2002 with the abuse protocol committee of the Wellington Archdiocese under its Path to Healing Process.

A letter from Cardinal John Dew to her said that Hercock had left the priesthood and the church no longer had jurisdiction over him and it was possible he might refuse to take part in the process, or if he took part, he might deny the abuse ever took place.

Shelley said she felt angry.

''Angry that it seemed my complaint was going to be squashed before it was even investigated and angry in the sense that the church most certainly did have jurisdiction over Hercock at the time of this offending.''

She said she assumed the committee used investigators with appropriate experience and qualifications, that any interview of Peter Hercock would be recorded and notes taken and that she would be fully updated.

''My assumptions later proved to be very wrong.''

Hercock was interviewed in March 2003 and he admitted his guilt.

Financial recompense, apology

Shelley received a formal apology from the church and a payment of $25,000. This was later increased by another $25,000.

''I was then expected to shut up and go away. Apologies are good, but accountability would be even better."

Shelley laid a complaint with police in 2003. No charges were laid and she said police told her that was because of the limitations of the Crimes Act and not enough victims.

A police investigation was reopened 11 years later in 2015.

Hercock pleaded guilty to nine historical charges against four victims. Three charges related to Shelley - two of rape and a representative charge of indecent assault.

In 2016 he was sentenced to six years and seven months in jail.

He served a third of his sentence and was paroled in July 2018.

''I do not feel that justice had been properly served and I think releasing him from his original sentence after only a third of the way through makes it even harder for other victims to see the point in striving for justice. It really is a massive slap in the face,'' she said.

Physically abused by nuns

Ann-Marie Shelley's dark experience of the Catholic Church started at a very early age when she was physically abused at the hands of nuns, who were her teachers.

She went to two Catholic primary schools in Lower Hutt in the early 1960s.

She said nuns constantly punished the children using violence against them and spoke of one who would hit girls in the head with her fist.

''Another favourite of hers was to sneak up on a girl who was looking for something inside her desk. She would creep up on the unsuspecting victim and slam the wooden lid hard down on your head and then she would laugh.''

She said straps and rulers were also weapons of choice for the nuns.

It was not only at the hands of the Catholic Church that Shelley suffered abuse.

She faced cruel and degrading treatment at the Salvation Army's Bethany Home for unmarried mothers in Wellington in 1973.

Shelley was 17 and pregnant and had been kicked out of home by her parents.

Women's tears at Bethany

She was homeless and penniless and ended up at Bethany, along with 16 others aged between 14 and 21.

''I cannot adequately describe the atmosphere of desolation in that place and the piteous sound of so many of us crying quietly into our pillows at night.''

At Bethany they received a benefit of $25 a week, but with half going to Bethany, there was not much left to spend and usually it went on food to supplement, what she said were the slops they were given.

''The food was scarce and atrocious. The milk was off, the butter was rancid. We often vomited after meals but there was nothing we could do. None of us had anywhere else to go.''

She describes Bethany as a dilapidated, Dickensian building, riddled with fleas.

''The fleas were in our pillows, the mattresses and not even a toxic kerosene flea bomb which the exterminators regularly put through the place could get rid of them.''

She said the Salvation Army Major in charge was constantly putting them down and in their place.

''Made sure we never forgot that we were delinquents, deviants and sinners.''

Shelley said they were all made to do domestic work, no matter how advanced their pregnancy was, or how they were feeling.

''You still had to scrub floors on your hands and knees with a scrubbing brush. Scrub the baths and toilets. Do all the washing of the bed linen in the wringer washing machines and hang the heavy sheets out on the line. No matter how nauseated you were you still had to do the cooking, do the pig buckets.''

Baby adopted with no goodbye, no photo

Two weeks after she had a baby boy, she was told to go into town to do an errand.

She rushed back to be in time for her son's afternoon feed and when she got to the nursery, his bassinet was empty.

''The adoptive parents had come and taken him. He was gone.''

She was dazed and in complete shock.

''I couldn't believe that any human being could be as cruel as the staff who sent me up town knowing I was coming back to nothing.

''I hadn't even said goodbye to him, I had no photo of him, no last cuddle, no last kiss, no last touch of him, no last smell of him.''

Shelley said social workers had lied to her, telling her she had to give up her baby because there was no financial support available for single mothers.

Later she found out this was a lie, as the newly brought in domestic purposes benefit meant she would have qualified for a range of assistance.

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