“It makes me sick to see my wedding photos,” Grace* confesses to Mamamia.
“That man ruined the memories of what was supposed to be the happiest day of our life.”
The man that Grace, 30, is talking about is Father John Fleming, an Anglican priest in Adelaide, whom the South Australian Supreme Court ruled in 2016 had engaged in criminal sexual behaviour with a minor.
And now, it’s all that Grace can see when she looks at photos of her church wedding ceremony: Fleming’s abhorrent actions, and his deceit.
Grace’s association with Fleming began in 2014, when he gave Grace and her then fiance, Mike*, the standard church marriage counselling in the lead-up to their wedding. But she says the priest would also take the opportunity to disparage Grace, who worked in the field of reproductive medicine, for her “unholy occupation that was against the will of God.”
Such remarks would upset the then 28-year-old. But it meant a lot to her and Mike to be married in a church, and so they persisted with the ‘counselling’ sessions.
But when Fleming’s crimes were publicly revealed two years after the wedding, the priest’s role of representing God took on a different meaning for Grace.
“Of course, I was devastated to read about what Fleming had done to his victims. And of course, anything I feel about him doesn’t come close to what they have endured at his hand,” she says.
“But I feel very betrayed. He’s in all of our church photos. And every time I look at them, instead of remembering the happiness I felt on the day, I feel disgust and sadness thinking about his victims.”
Grace says she can’t shake the feeling that she has been robbed of her precious memories of a joyous occasion.
“He’s a hypocrite of the worst kind. He sat there and gave me a hard time about helping people to have babies, and lectured us on the sanctity of marriage, and he had done such terrible things to people.”
She also points to an alleged cover-up by the church she only later discovered, which has added to her distress.
She refers to the fact that in 2008, six years before she approached the church to ask to be married there and so unbeknownst to the bride, The Sunday Mail reported the allegations against the priest. It was reported the court had evidence the church was aware of Fleming’s misconduct as early as 2002.
“I can’t believe he was allowed to go on riding his moral high horse despite apparently knowing what he’d done,” Grace says.
However it’s of some comfort to her that the Catholic Church, which Fleming fled to, banned him after the Supreme Court ruling two years ago.
“That’s some justice for the victims,” she says. “It gives them a tiny bit of validation for their suffering.”
Her husband, she says, has a different take on the situation. When he looks at his photos, he doesn’t see a tainted wedding.
“There’s good and bad in everyone, it’s just that we don’t always know it. In this case we do know it,” Mike says.
Naturally, this is a factor Grace struggles with. She can’t bring herself to be as pragmatic as her husband.
But most people would find it difficult to be pragmatic after learning of the wrongs perpetrated by the very man who married them in front of God and the church.
Whilst Grace’s struggle cannot be compared with that of the victims of sex crimes, her story sheds light on a situation that many people would be grappling with, especially as the clergy is increasingly being held accountable for their actions.
Anyone who has had close dealings with a church figure, be it through baptisms, weddings or funerals, may be feeling similarly lost. And yet afraid to speak out, lest they appear insensitive.
But in the era of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, it’s important for everyone to be made aware of how wide-reaching the impacts of predatory behaviours are. As for Grace, she wants other people dealing with similar experiences to know: They’re not alone.
*Names have been changed
LISTEN: Mia Freedman shares the one lingering regret from her wedding day, on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues after audio.