Jane’s Story

How a priest betrayed a family’s trust and destroyed a young life

Offender/s:
Father Robert Hickman

Compensation Awarded: $200,000

Jane was the youngest of four children, born into a family devoted to the Catholic faith. Father Robert Hickman had been a close friend of Jane’s parents for many years. Jane and her siblings regarded Father Hickman as family, even calling him ‘Uncle Bob’. Jane suffers from a rare genetic condition, myoclonic dystonia, that is managed with various medications, some of which have sedative qualities. Jane and her parents would regularly travel from their home in Cooma to Sydney for appointments with a medical specialist. Quite often, the family would stay with Father Hickman at the Presbytery in Bellmore.

On 23 January 1992 when Jane was 11, she and her mother travelled to Sydney to see her doctor. As usual, Jane and her mother arranged to stay with Father Hickman at the Presbytery. On this evening, Jane’s mother had made plans to dine with her sister in the City. Jane was feeling unwell after seeing the doctor, so she stayed with Father Hickman while her mother went out. As she prepared for bed, Jane took her medications, which included Mogadon, a highly sedative drug with significant motor impairing qualities. Just before taking her medication Jane was called on by Hickman who had just finished showering. He requested that she apply ointment to his back. After handing her a jar he lay face down, naked on the bed directing Jane to apply the cream.

Hickman instructed Jane to lie in his bed as he would carry her to her room after she fell asleep. Jane was anxious, but affected by the medication and although confused she obeyed Hickman’s orders. Jane woke with terror as Hickman climbed into the bed and began touching her. Jane desperately told Hickman to stop, but she was trapped because of her sedative medication. After sexually violating Jane, Hickman told her to keep silent, stating that people would not support her claims of his sexual abuse because “I’m a Catholic Priest and you’re just a kid, so they won’t believe you”.

Kelsos were able to negotiate a compensation settlement of $200,000 for Jane, as well as ongoing counselling costs and a written apology.

The consequences of the abuse were irreparable for Jane. The symptoms of her myoclonic dystonia became worse. In 1997, Jane was referred to the school counsellor after a series of unexplained crying fits. At age 18, Jane disclosed the abuse for the first time, initially to a trusted teacher and shortly afterwards to her parents. They believed their daughter wholeheartedly, dumbfounded by Hickman’s sexual abuse and betrayed by a friend they took into their trust. The following year, Jane and her father met with officials from St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Cooma to report the abuse. Representatives from the Archdiocese revealed that Hickman had admitted to the abuse and other victims had contacted the police.

Jane was directed to the Church’s Towards Healing program. Father Brian Lucas and the Church agreed to cover the cost of counselling and contributed $1800 towards the costs of a pilgrimage Jane had planned. Father Lucas made it clear that “this is by no means an admission of guilt and this should in no way be seen as compensation”. Nothing further was offered by the Church.

More than a decade later, Jane and her family contacted the Archdiocese to gain some sort of compensation. Jane and her family met with the head of the Professional Standards Office, Michael Salmon. The Church once again offered to cover the cost of counselling for Jane, but nothing more.

By this time, Jane had suffered for 17 years with chronic depression and anxiety. Her capacity to hold down a stable job was crippled by her mental health issues. In 2013, Jane registered her interest to tell her story to the Royal Commission. Just months later, Jane had a private session with a Commissioner. Around this time, Jane reached out to Kelso Lawyers to approach the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney for compensation.

The Catholic Church were finally able to understand the enormity of child sexual abuse. Payment of compensation is just one aspect of their duty to victims. A heartfelt apology delivered in a timely manner is often more important.

In October 2013 Jane, her father and Peter Kelso met with Monsignor John Usher and his legal representatives in Sydney. Monsignor Usher was visibly distressed by the Catholic Church’s inept response. Jane accepted $200,000 from the Church and an agreement that they pay for ongoing counselling costs and issue a written apology. Monsignor Usher also told Jane that her family would be flown to Sydney to receive a formal apology in person from Cardinal George Pell. The relief that came with the compensation and apology was significant for Jane. Although she received some semblance of justice, Jane still struggles with mental illness. Sadly, Jane attempted suicide in November 2013. She is now receiving regular psychological support to ensure that any problems are detected long before she feels so desperate again.

In Jane’s case, the Catholic Church were finally able to understand the enormity of child sexual abuse. Payment of compensation is just one aspect of their duty to victims. A heartfelt apology delivered in a timely manner is often more important. The need to finance the victim’s ongoing counselling costs is so crucial and Kelsos are proud to have played a part in affording Jane the medical care that she deserves.

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