A tattoo on Jacinta Welch's forearm shows a sound wave of her saying "I have a voice".
It was permanently etched on the former Warrnambool woman's skin almost 40 years after a sexual predator stole her innocence and left her too frightened to speak up.
Gary Bruce, 68, sexually assaulted Ms Welch in their Warrnambool and Allansford homes in the early 1980s when she was aged between 10 and 13.
This week he was jailed for more than five years.
Ms Welch has granted The Standard permission to identify her as a victim-survivor of sexual assault in the hope of inspiring others to speak out and seek justice.
Ms Welch carried the burden of her abuse for decades.
She said she felt shame and was threatened by her abuser to stay quiet.
Growing up, people referred to Ms Welch as the "quiet one".
It's something that still angers the now 50-year-old, who says her voice was stifled by her perpetrator, leaving her to wonder who Jacinta Welch could have been if not for the horrific abuse.
"I was 10 when (Bruce) got together with my mum and the abuse basically started soon after that," she said.
"I never disclosed anything growing up. I was confused, anxious and afraid. I felt alone and isolated.
"Being labelled as the quiet one was hurtful for me, even as a child, because I was carrying this dark secret. No one knew the abuse was happening and I never felt understood."
It was a secret Ms Welch would keep for the next 10 years.
While living in Sydney, aged 25, a counsellor encouraged her to disclose her trauma to her family, which she did. "But I still felt so alone," Ms Welch said.
"I think mum felt saddened and was going through a lot of emotions herself from the disclosure and so the secret remained within our family and it was not spoken about again.
"It was hard because this secret, and the abuse, was something that affected my life immensely.
"It impacted who I was, as well as my intimate relationships. You're triggered all the time and what happened to me when I was a child was always right there in my mind."
Ms Welch said the years that followed were difficult as she tried to navigate life not knowing who she was.
She continued to bury what happened to her until 2014 when she learnt of her abuser's involvement with Bethany Family Community Service.
She feared there would be more victims, although none have been reported.
Ms Welch contacted police but was not ready to make an official statement. Another five years passed and after a negative encounter with another person, Ms Welch was ready to tell her story.
"Someone said something to me that made me feel violated, like I was when I was aged 10, and I thought 'I need closure and I need justice'," she said.
"From 25 to aged 50 I'd continued to carry this horrible secret and I realised I was protecting him. It was his secret, not mine, to keep.
"I went straight to the police station and I said 'I've been a victim of sexual abuse and I would like to make a statement'."
Ms Welch said the police were supportive but the process of making a statement was traumatic.
"I had to recall where the bedrooms were that the abuse occurred in, where I was sitting, what he did... it certainly wasn't easy," she said. But the statement, taken in November 2020, triggered a police investigation and Ms Welch was another step closer to justice.
Then in January the following year, she successfully squeezed a confession out of her abuser in a pretext phone call recorded by police. She said she thought her heart might stop as she called the man who had taken so much from her.
Ms Welch asked Bruce if he thought her mother would have known about their "sexual times", in which he replied "I wouldn't imagine so".
"There was no apology, he was just so removed from what he had done," Ms Welch said.
Bruce was arrested that same day.
Ms Welch recalled four vivid memories of sexual abuse when she was a child.
When interviewed by police, her abuser admitted to nine more.
"When I realised little Jac had been abused even more than I remembered, that was pretty horrific," Ms Welch said.
"But I was fortunate to get a confession and some of the charges were laid based only on his own admissions."
Bruce pleaded guilty in Geelong County Court on May 3 to three counts of indecent assault of a person under 16 and two counts of sexual penetration of a child aged between 10 and 16.
During the hearing Ms Welch read a powerful victim impact statement to the court - and to her abuser.
"I ceased to exist when I was 10 years old. He created a proxy, me - a diminished and broken version of her, my lost self, to move through life," she read.
"Until now his crime has been undetected. He didn't consider that one day I, the proxy, would speak up for her. We have a voice."
The sentencing judge later praised Ms Welch for her courage in reading her statement.
Ms Welch said from the very beginning she knew she wanted to speak in court.
"It was a sense of closure for me and even though I was terrified reading it out, I felt so empowered," she said.
"Finally, I'm being heard and as a kid I wasn't, hence my tattoo which is a recording of me saying 'I have a voice'.
"I had that done about 12 months ago as a reminder every day that little Jac, big Jac, has a voice and to use it.
"And I'm proud that on that day in court, I did."
Ms Welch said now that her secret was out, she felt her "shame" had disappeared. "In going through this process, I realise I don't have to be ashamed of what happened. I was a child," she said.
"Finally I have a sense of freedom and I hope that in me telling my story, I can inspire someone else to do the same."
Ms Welch said she wanted other victim-survivors of child sex abuse to know that "justice can be done".
"Sure, it takes guts and courage and strength and support, but it can be done," she said. "And even if it isn't achieved, the process can be extremely healing."
Ms Welch said when her abuser's sentence was handed down, she ran from the court room and jumped in the air.
"I felt validated because I had served a 40-year sentence and now he was going to serve his own," she said.
"I have now handballed his secret, the shame and the guilt back to him."
In the days after the court case, Ms Welch said she felt strong.
"I will never let anyone harm me again. I will speak out and I refuse to abandon myself, which I did for 40 years," she said. "This is the revised Jacinta because you only get one shot at life and now that I can close this chapter, I want to move forward."
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