I have been following with a heavy heart the developments that have been occurring at the Royal Commission into sexual abuse in Ballarat.
The stories that have been shared and the questions being asked have taken me back 10 years when I was representing a courageous woman who reported suffering a life of serious sexual abuse by members of the clergy and other organisations in the Ballarat region.
Annie Jarmyn is a name that may be familiar to some. Her name will always be linked with the demise of our Governor General at the time, Peter Hollingworth.
I first met Annie in 2002. I was a new solicitor, heavily involved in representing survivors of sexual abuse as they struggled to obtain some sort of justice for what had happened to them many years ago.
Annie's story was a harrowing one. After being made a ward of the state, she was fostered to a family with close connections to the Anglican clergy. From the age of 10 to 13, Annie described horrific sexual abuse at the hands of representatives of the Anglican Church, saying she had been "passed around" between Church ministers and officials in and around the Ballarat region.
Annie tried to speak out back then, but with no one willing to believe her and step up against the Church and high-profile people in Ballarat, she was disbelieved and treated as a liar.
In 2003, Annie lodged a claim in the Supreme Court of Victoria against the Anglican Church for the sexual abuse that she had suffered over a number of years at the hands of many.
Again, as was common for the time, few people were willing to believe her. Hers was a story declared "too tragic". She was a person deemed "too troubled". The stories she recounted of being an orphan girl passed around like a sex toy between members of a church paedophile ring in Ballarat dismissed as "too far-fetched".
I was fortunate to spend a significant amount of time with Annie in 2002 until her tragic suicide on 22 April, 2003. I believed her. The descriptions that she was able to provide, the corroborating evidence that we were able to find, and the physical pain she felt when recounting the events all supported her instructions to us.
The stories that have emerged from the Royal Commission in Ballarat are tragic and heartbreaking, with so many survivors unable to move forward after the horrendous nature of what they endured. I have read with sadness that the Ballarat region's suicide rate is "through the roof" as a result of the area's toxic legacy of child molestation.
The evidence being heard is consistent with Annie's story that there were paedophile rings in the area and a culture of sexual abuse.
I think to myself, there's a bit of vindication for you, Annie. Perhaps people will now see that your story is no longer far-fetched. Perhaps your life was really as tragic as you said. Perhaps you were telling the truth about Ballarat all along.
As a result of Annie's claims and his handling of abuse allegations, Peter Hollingworth was forced to step down from his role as Governor General of Australia.
Now, 12 years later, the spotlight is on Cardinal George Pell, and questions are rightly being asked as to his role in what went on for years in the region.
There may be a parallel to be drawn between Hollingworth and Pell. Hollingworth knew that, as a result of his failure to deal with sexual-abuse allegations, his position as Governor General was untenable. I believe that George Pell does have to provide answers to the questions that are being asked of him. If his answers are unsatisfactory and/or there is evidence that he failed to act on reports of sexual abuse -- his position must also become untenable.
In my experience dealing with hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse, these people do not come forward with compensation as their primary motivation. They come seeking acknowledgement, validation, and a sense of justice. They often just want someone to believe them, and to stand with them as they fight for justice. Unfortunately, many of these people have been disbelieved in the past when they have tried to speak out about the abuse.
I think we all have a duty to do all we can to ensure history does not repeat itself. For the survivors of sexual abuse, I am in awe of the courage they possess when coming forward and telling their stories. When someone shares this information with us, we have a duty to listen, to respond, and to protect.
Annie did all she possibly could to fight against the evil. That fight took her life. I hope the commission's findings mean she can finally rest in peace.