As children, Margaret Harrod and twin brother Michael shared an unbreakable bond which extended to their vocation. As adults, both dedicated their lives to the Catholic order of Salesians – as nun and priest.
Their devout parents couldn’t have been prouder, but as Ms Harrod reveals in her memoir, Blood on the Rosary, behind the façade of an upright churchgoing family, lay a shocking secret history of sexual abuse and cover-ups.
It was only when Ms Harrod found the strength to face, and begin to heal, from the lifetime of sexual abuse suffered at the hands of her father and two priests, that she was ready to confront another horrific truth that had long kept her in denial.
Her beloved brother, Father Michael Aulsebrook, was a paedophile who preyed upon parish children.
In 2010, when the following extract begins, the former nun and mother-of-two was ready to take a decisive step in her quest for justice and in 2016, her brother was jailed (for the second time): “If my story can help one other person deal with abuse, then it’s all worthwhile.”
On 19 August 2010, two days before Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott went to the polls for the federal election, I sat down and penned a five-page letter to [advocacy group] Broken Rites. I was blowing the whistle on three cruel men: Father John Murphy, Father X and my brother, Father Michael Aulsebrook.
It had been six years since I first took my concerns to the Church, but despite my pleas, they wouldn’t listen to me or take action. “My name is Margaret Elizabeth Harrod. I am a survivor of sexual assault,” I wrote, “and I want to share my story.”
And with that one word, “survivor”, my world changed. For the first time in my life, I was no longer thinking of myself as a victim.
The letter to Broken Rites gave detailed information about Michael’s offending and how the Church had covered it up. It also detailed the offences of the two priests against me and my dealings with [Catholic Church organisation] Towards Healing.
The poisonous blood that had pumped through my family’s veins for decades was spilled for the world to see. No more secrets, no more lies.
I wanted what had happened to me documented somewhere outside the Church, not buried away in a filing cabinet at the back of their lawyer’s office.
My letter to Broken Rites gave dates, times and locations of the things that had happened to me and the things Michael had done. It was beyond cathartic to put this out publicly. My only regret was that I hadn’t done it sooner.
It was barely a day after I’d sent off my email that I received a call from Broken Rites. From their first approach they were caring, compassionate and willing to listen. I wasn’t an inconvenience who needed to be silenced, as I had been with the Church.
Michael had already come under the Broken Rites radar. They were well aware of him and very keen for any information I could provide, so over many conversations, I assisted them as much as I could. It was through their research that I found out at least one settlement to a victim had already been paid by the Church, way back in 1993.
The young man had been abused by Michael some years before he was even ordained. This surely must have raised a red flag with the Salesians.
The case was settled privately out of court, and the boy signed a confidentiality agreement and waived his right to legal action. Consequently, the case was swept under the carpet quick smart.
Broken Rites strongly encouraged me to go to the police and to speak with a lawyer about compensation. I told them that, for me, speaking out was never about money.
The Church had given me a small amount of compensation years beforehand when I first went to Towards Healing, which was kind of ironic. I took my claims to them because I wanted their compassion, an apology and an acknowledgement of what had happened. I yearned for their pastoral support and an assurance that what had happened to me would never happen to another child.
Instead they tossed me away like a rag doll and continued to support the priests; it was the very opposite of what I’d gone to them for.
On 1 November 2010, I drove up to the Harbourside police station in North Sydney to meet with a detective in the Sexual Offences Unit. I’d spoken with Detective Turchanyi on the phone two days earlier and made an appointment to meet.
She welcomed me into an interview room at the back of the police station where, despite cups of tea and her reassuring manner, I shook and sobbed as I recalled every last detail of what had happened to me.
Because my father had passed away, I couldn’t take any action against him, but it was still important to me that his offending against me was officially recorded.
It was a big step for me to speak up. This was not what some members of my family wanted. Some felt shame and embarrassment as a result of what Michael had done, and I understood that. Others in my broader family still refuse to acknowledge what has happened, especially the offences by my father.
They simply won’t speak about it, as if by never speaking the words it won’t exist, it will just go away. They cling to the memory of my churchgoing dad, the good Christian man, because in their minds that is their truth.
I know in my heart now that by not speaking up, we become part of the problem. What Michael and the other priests have done is not our fault, but we can’t turn our backs. None of the victims of any of these people deserved their abuse, and they deserve our support.
For many years some members of my family have sat back, covered their ears and eyes, and hoped this would go away. We are not responsible for what my brother has done, they are not responsible for what my father did and we have no reason to hide.
But we do have a duty to do what is right. As Gandhi famously said: ‘Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.’
This is an edited extract from Blood on the Rosary by Sue Smethurst and Margaret Harrod, published by Simon & Schuster, $32.99