'There's shame involved' - sexual abuse survivor on Pacific barriers to speaking out

It was more than 20 years ago that Frances Tagaloa, supported by her husband Timo, courageously sat her parents down and shared how she was sexually abused by a Marist Brother at a school in Ponsonby.

Frances was the first witness to recount her experiences​ on Monday at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in faith-based care. 

Frances described how she was abused between the ages of five and seven years old by Brother Bede Fitton, but it was only when she was in her thirties that she felt she could open up to her parents.​

PMN News reports during the hearing, Frances also spoke about the cultural barriers that discourage Pasifika from talking about their sexual abuse experience.

Between the time of the abuse and the conversation with her parents, Frances said she had to "work through the cultural barriers" of doing so.

"There's shame involved with disclosing abuse already but then on top of that in a Pasifika culture we have extra shame.

"You don't talk about sex in a Pasifika home," says Frances.

She says it was especially hard to tell her parents because of the level of respect children have for their parents in the Samoan culture.

"The shame of having to tell my dad, I feared being judged, I feared they wouldn't believe me.

"I didn't want them to experience the pain or shame of what happened to me and I didn't want them to blame themselves or their parenting for the sexual abuse."​

Growing up in a strict Catholic home, attending mass every Sunday, Frances says faith is a cultural way of life for Pasifika.

She says in Samoan culture, priests or others who hold highly-respected positions in the church, are seen as a "representation of God" where they can do no wrong.

Frances ​worried about the significant consequences disclosing her sexual abuse would have.

"This would be calling into question the way we did life, our faith, just our whole way of life and I didn't want to cause that emotional turmoil for our parents."

At the hearing, sitting in a few rows to the side of Frances was her younger sister Monique Faleafa who found out about her sister's abuse story a few years back.

Faleafa says faith-based organisations create a "culture of silence" within families.

"It's about learning how to break that silence, while also respecting your parents, your family and not wanting to bring fakama (embarrassed) on your family," she says.

​Culturally appropriate apology

Frances started her complaint to the Catholic church in July 2002, seeking redress from the Marist Brothers. Since than she has received "no apology, no explanation" but was offered $6000 as compensation.

"An appropriate apology was never offered, I was not informed throughout the process of what was happening right up to the final letter with the gratuity and I was not given the opportunity to speak to those processes.

"I believe they are never going to redress my situation," says Frances.

She believes moving forward, apologies need to be "survivor-informed and directed".

As a Samoan survivor, she says a culturally appropriate way to apologise would have been through the traditional Samoan practice of Ifoga.

Ifoga requires the leader of the perpetrator's family or village to seek forgiveness and offer a formal apology to the person that has been harmed and their family.

In Frances's case, she says the exchange would be between the Bishop who is the head of the Catholic church for a particular area, Marist Brothers and her family, including her extended family.

"I would have the head of my family and village representing me.

"We would expect that there would be speeches of contriteness by the Bishop on behalf of the Catholic Church seeking forgiveness and speaking about an apology. And then traditionally there would be fine mats offered as well by the offending village and then the head of my village or family would speak on behalf of me accepting their apology," says Frances. 

The traditional practice was one of Frances's recommendations to the Royal Commission.

Royal Commission of Inquiry recommendations 

But the main proposal that Frances wants the Royal Commission to recommend to the government is the establishment of an independent entity that deals with faith-based sexual abuse complaints.

Having to go back to the place her abuse took place to seek redress didn't sit right with Frances.

"It just seems strange to me that I had to go back to the Marist Brothers, the very organisation that allowed the abuse to happen, and it made me quite fearful about approaching them.

She says: "There is a huge imbalance between the survivor and the Catholic Church - they have all these resources available to them and a huge legal team."

Frances is also calling to have Brother Bede's name removed from a Marist Brothers room and any honours to him stripped. She also want the permanent removal of perpetrators from religious life or the priesthood.

Call to other Pasifika Survivors

The calls are in response to the serious impacts sexual abuse has on survivors.

"Some survivors have not been able to come forward and navigate life because they are still dealing with their abuse and they need help and support."

Frances is particularly concerned about Pasifika survivors.

"We don't have many Pasifika survivors coming forward to the Royal Commission. When we look at the number of other survivors that have come forward, it is disproportionately low."

She says it's crucial for Pacific survivors to come forward to the Royal Commission so they can influence the recommendations they present to the government.

"We can bring into the light all the abuse that is happening which will help us provide better Pasifika solutions, and better recommendations going forward.

"If you come forward, and you don't have to do what I did, you can just write in, ask for a private interview, you don't need to have a hearing."



Photo PMN News     Caption: Frances Tagaloa (left) with her husband Timo