Royal commission: Church 'ruined my career'

CARMEL Rafferty was silenced, shut down and bullied in 1992 when she dared to question the behaviour of a parish priest at the school where she worked as a teacher.

The Boronia resident — known as Mrs Giddings during her teaching life — taught at Holy Family in Doveton for five years from the late 1980s, before being appointed as a senior school teacher in grades 5 and 6.

It was during this year that her pupils started coming forward to tell her that they were uncomfortable with the way the priest, Peter Searson, was touching them.

It's because of her experiences more than 20 years ago that Ms Rafferty was "overjoyed" to hear the federal government's announcement of a royal commission on institutional responses to allegations of child abuse.

As the senior teacher at the time, she became the focus for an issue that had persisted for decades, long before Searson, who is now deceased, was appointed to the parish.

She had some forewarning of problems at the school when she accepted the job: "[I was] asked if I knew about the problems, but no one would say what it was."

Some, however, had known. Shortly before Ms Rafferty began teaching at Doveton, the principal Graeme Sleeman, who told his story to The Age newspaper recently, had quit in a vain bid to force the church into acting against Searson.

In her time, she was left in no doubt what that unspoken problem was. "Then everyone was coming to me — students, parents, police, social workers, other teachers," she said.

Ms Rafferty went to Catholic Education Office representatives with her concerns but says she was shut down and, like many others, effectively told to shoulder the blame.

The outcome for her was the same as it had been for Mr Sleeman. She said: "I lost my teaching career over paedophilia in the Catholic church."

She said, however, that the royal commission was a chance to change the future and ensure past victims are better looked after.

"If a child was abused during their school education, they didn't have a chance to provide a decent life for themselves or their family."

Compensation for victims and better legislation to protect children are two outcomes which Ms Rafferty would like to see arise from the commission.

She said the current laws in Australia made it very easy to be a paedophile.

"The church adheres to a different law and priests can use that to stay in their positions."

The former teacher also believes there needs to be more education right across the community "to make it very difficult for people who want to interfere with children".

Ms Rafferty said her experience with the Catholic Education Office and church "changed everything" about her faith: "I've lost most of my respect for the Catholic church."

But she believes the commission will be part of a healing process for victims of child abuse. "It brings those wounds more to the surface than reopening them. But they need to be. They want a chance to be believed, heard and recognised — it will help take away the isolation and loneliness."

She urged any victims to come forward to the police and tell their story. "There are excellent police programs now — they've put a lot of effort in."

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