A BLIND Vietnamese orphan who was five when she came to Australia, 11 when she was sexually abused by a Catholic nun, and 35 when she received $15,000 compensation for her ‘‘personal trauma’’, has spoken out for the 10 per cent of people reporting female perpetrators to the child sexual abuse royal commission.
‘‘I want people to know a small percentage of women are just as capable of abusing power as men are,’’ said Emma Pham, pictured, who was sexually abused by Dominican nun Sister Kay Fennell at the St Lucy’s School for the Visually Impaired at Wahroonga in 1979.
‘‘She knew she could do what she did to me, so she did, and that’s the worst of it because I was so vulnerable, and so alone.’’
Ms Pham came to Australia in 1972 from a Vietnamese orphanage after Catholic nuns organised a passport. Her guardian, a nun, enrolled her at St Lucy’s in 1973.
Another St Lucy’s student and former Maitland-Newcastle diocese employee, Catherine Mahony, remembers Ms Pham’s vulnerability as the child with ‘‘nowhere to go for holidays and weekends, and no family’’.
In a Towards Healing complaint in 2003, Ms Pham said she was frightened of Sister Fennell from 1978, not long after the nun arrived.
The sometimes painful sexual abuse that Ms Pham alleged started in 1979, and continued until Sister Fennell left the school in 1981 to work at Maitland, often occurred at weekends in a transition house owned by the school.
‘‘I used to get very upset about going to that house. She was able to come and go because she was welcomed in that house. I could not get away from her,’’ she said.
Ms Pham became a state ward at the age of 14, trained as a telephonist with the then Royal Blind Society, and was still in her teens when she suffered her first emotional collapse because of the abuse.
In 1984 single mother Jennifer Sharland fostered Ms Pham, aged 15, and then adopted her.
‘‘I just remember mum saying to my sister and I that there was this young girl who couldn’t see, who needed somewhere to stay on weekends and holidays. Mum said, ‘I think she needs to belong to somebody and somewhere’,’’ Mrs Sharland’s son, Keith, said. Jennifer Sharland died in 1995.
By 2003, after Ms Pham had spent $10,000 on therapy and counselling, she made a Towards Healing complaint and alleged physical, sexual and verbal abuse. She asked for compensation for the money she had spent on therapy, an apology from Sister Fennell, and for the Dominicans to ‘‘take their share of responsibility for what happened to me’’.
In a letter in October 2003, Sister Fennell, who moved nine times in 22 years and worked at Maitland and Waratah, acknowledged sexual abuse occurred, and sought forgiveness from Ms Pham ‘‘for the fear I must have instilled in you’’.
‘‘I am consumed with remorse and I hope you can find in your heart the capacity to forgive me,’’ Sister Fennell wrote.
The Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia paid $10,000 to compensate for money Ms Pham had already spent on therapy, and added $15,000 for ‘‘the personal trauma you have been through’’.
But in a letter on November 24, 2003, the then prioress, Sister Rosemary Lewins, made it clear the money and a signed deed of release would ‘‘record the settlement and bring the matter to an end’’.
The Dominican Sisters were true to their word. Apart from paying for extra counselling sessions, the nuns had not contacted her again, Ms Pham said.
She contacted the Newcastle Herald on behalf of victims of female sex abusers, after a private hearing with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
In its interim report in June the royal commission noted that about 10per cent of allegations in private hearings, or more than 220 complaints, related to female perpetrators.
Sister Fennell died in 2012. In an obituary she was described as a nun whose temperament ‘‘fired and energised her’’, but ‘‘the underside of this artistic temperament brought its own darkness’’.
Dominican Sisters prioress Sister Judith Lawson conceded yesterday that the order’s 2003 response ‘‘would seem a little cold’’.
She was not aware of any other allegations against Sister Fennell, and the order was prepared to support Ms Pham and reconsider its compensation to her.
Ms Pham said she hoped there were no other victims from St Lucy’s, but had her doubts.
She asked to be named, despite concerns about negative comments.