MARGARET Harrod was silent when she was sexually abused by the people in her life she trusted most.
But when she saw her twin brother, a Salesian priest at the time, inappropriately touching a child, she couldn’t stay silent any longer.
Her long journey to a role in advocacy had begun and last month she was nominated for a Lifeline Women with Spirit award.
Growing up in Sydney, Margaret came from a “deeply religious” family.
Sexually abused by her father from the age of two, Margaret joined a Salesian convent to become a nun in her early 20s, at the time thinking it was a calling from God. “But really it was an escape from my father,” she says.
While there, she confided in a priest she trusted about her father’s abuse.
“That same priest used that trust to sexually abuse me, over a period of three months,” she says.
“There were two priests who abused me, one when I was 16 before I went to the convent, but I kept them both a secret, I shut it off.”
Margaret left the convent soon after and began a long journey of healing, starting with bravely confronting her father, who admitted his guilt but argued it was a “way of expressing his love.”
She moved to Canberra in 1989 with her husband Rod and their two children, where she taught in Catholic schools for more than 20 years.
“Being Catholic was still very much part of my life then, but eventually I felt I had no option but to leave teaching because it was this daily conflict where I was supposed to be upholding the faith and I’ve got all this dilemma inside of me.”
And in 2004, the dark past Margaret had been repressing for so many years finally surfaced in a breakdown.
“That was when I finally told everyone about the abuse by the priests, and what I had suspected about my brother in the last few years, I couldn’t hide it any longer,” she says.
Margaret approached the church authorities about her brother in 2005, but instead received threats.
After widespread media attention, her brother Michael was investigated and jailed for six months last year for sex offences on students at Rupertswood College, Sunbury during the 1980s.
Margaret eventually approached authorities about her own abuse by the two priests, but no legal action was ever taken, and she says one priest is still working in churches.
“With all the parliamentary inquiries going on in the Catholic church now, I hope victims of sexual abuse will have the courage to ask for help, because it is a sign of strength,” she says.
“The more it’s talked about, the more it’s in the media, the more people are prepared to stand up and say ‘this isn’t right’.”
Margaret says she now lives a “wonderful life”, working as a crisis supporter and advocate for sexual assault at Lifeline, and running her own consulting business, where she works as a life coach, specialising in “empowering” women with sexual-abuse trauma.
Though no longer religious, Margaret says she is “more spiritual than ever.”
“I feel the most vibrant and energetic that I’ve ever felt, I’m in a really good space where I’ve learnt the skills and strategies to nurture myself, look after myself, and feel at peace with what I’ve done,” she says.
“It was a long process, I had to do so much healing myself, a lot of recovery. But now I feel that this is the reason I survived my sexual abuse, my life, to make a difference to others.
“I figure if my having a voice is going to encourage and give hope to another victim, to actually speak up, that’s what I am going to do.
“For too many years, I was made to keep quiet. And I’m not prepared to do that again.”