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Woman receives compensation decades after being sexually abused by teacher at Catholic school

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More than 30 years after suffering sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher in a northern Victorian religious school, a Melbourne woman has finally received compensation from the Catholic Church.

Therase Lawless, 50 – not her real name – developed post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, anorexia and bulimia, following an inappropriate relationship with a teacher during the early 1980s.  

Between the ages of 15 and 17, Ms Lawless was groomed and sexually assaulted by the teacher – aged in his early 20s – who also had a sexual relationship with her older sister and allegedly a list of other girls during his teaching tenure in the region.

The man cannot be named and has not been charged. 

In 2013, Ms Lawless testified at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, detailing her experience in the hope that the wider community could understand the impact the experience has had on her life.

And last month, Ms Lawless’ lawyers at Slater and Gordon helped her receive compensation through the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing initiative, which involved a comprehensive and “traumatising” assessment process – lasting more than a year – re-visiting the facts of the case.

However, the church has not admitted liability.

Towards Healing is an initiative developed by the church, which allows those claiming to be a victim of any form of abuse while under the care of clergy or other church personnel to pursue support.  

“The Towards Healing experience was immensely traumatising. It required me to attend two psychiatric evaluations, which resulted in harm rather than ‘help’,” Ms Lawless said.

“But my lawyers fought hard to hold my rights. I maintained my integrity and used my voice to assert the unique truth of my experience.”

Ms Lawless said from the age of 14, the teacher showed a great deal of interest in her, writing complimentary notes about her appearance on homework and assignments, picking her and her friends up in his car to take them on trips and outings and on many occasions visiting their family home. 

After turning 15, the relationship became sexual, eventually consuming her life and leading to a list of mental illnesses that still plague her today.

“Like most girls that age flattery and attention was welcomed. The extent of the attention increased and I started to develop an attachment to him and his presence,” Ms Lawless said.

“I now know that his behaviours were part of a strategy.

“I had a deep shame and self-blame about the situation, I didn’t realise what kind of power he had over me. He destroyed my self-worth and sense of safety.”

After finishing school, she moved to Melbourne in the hope of escaping her demons, but unfortunately her condition became worse with the memories and mental scars, which negatively impacted almost every aspect of her life. 

“I was utterly tortured by it – depression, shame, loneliness, self-hate, flashbacks, post-traumatic stress, I had mental disorientation and sometimes I didn’t feel like I was in the world,” she said.

During the past 35 years, the mother of two has been presented with constant and, at times, overwhelming challenges stemming from the childhood trauma.

These include battles with bulimia and anorexia, unsteady employment, a failed marriage, ongoing mental health issues and most recently a second marriage separation.

There has also been a constant fight working to ensure her experience was heard, testifying at the Royal Commission, calling for an Education Department investigation into the teacher and of course the Towards Healing process.

However, she said there was a lot she was proud of, raising two confident young women, earning a PhD in creative writing and working for a community mental health organisation – developing training and recovery programs that have supported hundreds of people.    

“Resilience is not about bouncing back, it’s about letting stressors grow you,” Ms Lawless said.

“By working on understanding what happened to me from an adult perspective I began to realise that I deserved more than this.

“But I have lost a lot. This man has had an overwhelming impact on my life.

“It’s worrying to know that he has still not been charged for the impact he has had on my life and the lives of others because abuse scores a traumatic imprint on young people that can last a lifetime.”

Her lawyer at Slater and Gordon Jana Athanasopoulos said it was important for Ms Lawless to finally receive some support.

Ms Athanasopoulos said the process of seeking compensation can be extremely traumatising but Ms Lawless was determined to have her experience heard.

She said initiatives, such as Towards Healing, often asked those making a claim to undergo multiple comprehensive assessments; however lawyers ensured Ms Lawless was supported each step of the way.

“While the church has not admitted liability, we’ve worked hard to ensure that her testimony was considered and this is some acknowledgement,” Ms Athanasopoulos said.

“Therase has exhibited enormous bravery and perseverance and we hope this goes some way to help her move on.”

She said it was the responsibility of schools to identify any kind of inappropriate behaviour and address it in order to protect children from experiencing what Ms Lawless has.

“No child should have to go through what she has experienced,” Ms Athanasopoulos said.

“All children should feel safe and supported in a school environment, which should be focused on education and wellbeing.”