real life

Margaret loved her twin brother. Then she learned he was a paedophile.

Father Michael Aulsebrook was once the pride and joy of his family. 

‘My parents considered him almost saintly,’ Margaret says. ‘The day he became a priest was the happiest day of their lives.’ 

In March 1987, at the age of 31, Michael was ordained at the local Catholic church. As Margaret recalls, no expense was spared for the occasion. 

‘It was a huge celebration. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my parents’ faces. It was such an honour to have a priest in the family.’ 

Margaret’s brother had begun his clerical life years beforehand, teaching at Rupertswood College in Sunbury, on the outskirts of Melbourne. Brother Michael was popular among students, often buying the young boys treats from the school canteen and spending lunchtimes with them. One victim recalled how his mother was so charmed by the young priest that on his first day of school, she insisted that if he ever had a problem, it was Brother Michael he should see. 

Michael quickly rose through the church ranks and was promoted to the role of school deputy principal, but by then alarm bells should have been ringing. 

‘Every school holiday Michael would visit family interstate, often accompanied by a young student, a different boy each time,’ Margaret recalls. ‘They’d stay in hotels and I was really disturbed by this. My gut instinct was that it wasn’t right, but he’d tell us he was giving the boys a break from family troubles and I convinced myself that was okay. I couldn’t contemplate that he’d be doing anything wrong.’

Sadly, Margaret is all too aware of the devastation of sexual abuse. From the age of two, until she was in her early twenties, she was abused by her ‘model’ church-going father. She joined the convent to escape the trauma, but when she was at her most vulnerable she was abused again, this time by a priest to whom she had finally divulged her darkest secret and to whom she had entrusted her care and recovery.

Like so many victims of sexual abuse, she was overwhelmed by feelings of shame, worthlessness and the betrayal of those who were supposed to protect her.

She even attempted suicide, but the passing words of a fellow teacher one morning saved the young nun’s life. ‘She said, “Did you see that program on TV last night about incest? Terrible what has happened to so many innocent children.” At that time, I hadn’t told anyone about what had happened to me. It was all buried deep down inside, but those few words had a profound effect. It was an acknowledgement that what happened to me was wrong and that it was okay to tell someone. It gave me permission to speak up.’ 

Margaret left the convent soon after and began a lifelong journey of healing, starting with bravely confronting her father, who admitted his actions but argued that it was ‘his way of expressing his love’. He wouldn’t accept that what he did was wrong. 

‘He said that whatever he did to me was because he loved me. I remember yelling at him, “That’s no way to show your love for your daughter.”’ 

At times, the pain of her abuse has been too much. Margaret suffered a breakdown and has undergone therapy to deal with crippling post-traumatic stress. But as she was coming to terms with her own abuse, the pieces of another horrific jigsaw puzzle began falling into place. ‘I remembered this one particular day when Michael and I were visiting a parish family together and he encouraged their young daughter to sit on his knee. He was directly opposite me and I saw him touching her groin very inappropriately. I was shocked. 

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‘At that time, I hadn’t told anyone what my own father had done to me and here I was watching my twin brother do the same thing. I was totally in denial and it was only after I accepted what happened to me, many years later, that I realised the significance of what I had seen.’

The turning point came in 2004, when a former student of the jewel in the Salesians’ crown, Rupertswood College Sunbury, alleged he’d been sexually assaulted by Michael in 1993. Margaret had no doubt the young man was telling the truth. She went to the Church and reported her concerns about Michael and two other priests. The Church confirmed that Michael was being investigated over allegations of indecent assault, so Margaret and her younger brother confronted Michael, who admitted his guilt. 

‘I told the Church he had confessed, but instead of calling the police, he was sent to a secret home for wayward priests, to be “treated and rehabilitated” with the intention that he’d eventually go back into the community. I couldn’t believe it. All I could think about was the victims. Who was protecting them?’ 

Margaret refused to give up and insisted upon a face-to-face meeting with Church officials. 

It was then she learned that Michael had been investigated over another claim – this victim was discouraged from going to the police and offered a confidential settlement on the grounds that it was ‘his word against the Church’. 

‘Some of the allegations against Michael were made before he was even formally ordained, yet he was still made a priest and promoted to principal,’ Margaret says. 

She battled the Church bureaucracy for years, but heard nothing further until a friend phoned to tell her Michael had gone to jail. 

‘We weren’t even told he was going to court, I guess so we couldn’t face him.’ 

In August 2011, Michael was sentenced to two years’ jail with a fifteen-month suspended sentence; he spent barely nine months behind bars. 

‘The conviction is a formal acknowledgement that what he did was wrong. That brings me comfort and it’s an acknowledgement that what I have been saying for all these years is right.’ 

It was after his conviction that Margaret and I first met. Rather than hide away, shamed by what her brother had done, she used the opportunity to reach out to the media, beginning a tireless campaign to expose the Church’s cover-up of paedophile priests. 

I was struck by her candour, bravery and commitment to reveal the full truth of Michael’s offending and the abuse by other clerics, despite the hurt she knew this would inevitably bring. The guilt of not speaking out many years ago seemed to fuel a fire in her belly to right the wrongs of the past, and ensure this never happened again. Not on her watch. 

She refused to go quietly, demanding answers from the Church about why they supported Michael for so long, and pressuring them into formally defrocking the registered sex offender.

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In her heart, Margaret knew that her brother’s first conviction was just the tip of the iceberg and in 2016 he was jailed for the second time, for the indecent assault of three more victims. 

He appealed one of his charges, but in 2018 another jury found him guilty again after a re-trial. He remains in jail. 

At the time of writing this book, twelve people have come forward to Victoria Police claiming abuse at the hands of the former Father Michael Aulsebrook. We know there may be many more. 

‘It’s like a grieving process,’ Margaret says. ‘I’m grieving for my lost brother. The brother I thought I had is not the brother sitting in jail.’ 

Margaret has relied on her husband, Rod, and her two children to cope with the anguish of accepting what her brother has done. But others were not so encouraging of her public fight to bring her brother to justice. 

‘If I’d spoken up on the very first day I saw him touching that girl, then I may have spared others abuse. And I have to live with that, but I won’t be silenced anymore.’ 

Margaret believes her survival of years of abuse is for a reason: to inspire and empower others, particularly women who have been abused. Now trained as a life coach and mentor, she dedicates her time to helping women who’ve suffered abuse build their self-worth and achieve their dreams. 

This is an excerpt from Sue Smethurst and Margaret Harrod’s book, Blood on the Rosary, and was republished here with full permission. To learn more about Margaret’s story, you can purchase Blood on the Rosary right here. 

Blood-on-the-Rosary
Blood on the Rosary. Image supplied.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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