HELEN Keevers died suddenly on Mother’s Day as one of the unsung heroes of the fight for justice for child sexual abuse survivors in the Hunter and across Australia.
The former Maitland-Newcastle diocese child protection officer’s last words to her family on Friday, as she was wheeled into surgery after collapsing with a life-threatening heart condition, were typically courageous, funny and full of concern for her family, said one of her three sons, Lee Davelaar.
“She gave a royal wave and was strong for us,” he said.
She died, aged 63, on Sunday evening after a catastrophic stroke and despite the extraordinary care of John Hunter Hospital doctors and staff, he said.
Ms Keevers played a vital role in supporting Hunter survivors of child sexual abuse within the Catholic diocese, and advising former Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone as he struggled to come to terms with the extent of abuse in the diocese over many decades.
Her work from 2005 was key to some of the most significant milestones leading to the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, said survivor advocate Bob O’Tooole and Hunter woman Pat Feenan, whose family was devastated by the crimes of paedophile priest Jim Fletcher.
“She stood up for survivors and paid the price for it,” said Mr O’Toole.
“She provided the Clergy Abused Network (advocacy group) with a home when we had nowhere else to go. It is very sad. She has always been there for others and has done tremendous work, often in the face of adversity.”
Mrs Feenan was on the diocese interview panel which employed Ms Keevers to manage the Zimmerman Services support centre for survivors. She remembers a “brave, funny, supportive woman with a most wonderful understanding of victims”.
“She was an atheist but she showed more compassion and Christianity than the people who were leading the church at times,” Mrs Feenan said.
“I’m very grateful to Helen for all she did and I am so sad that she is gone. I don’t think it’s going too far to say none of this would have happened (the royal commission and justice for survivors) without her because of the vital role the Hunter played in the campaign for justice, and the need for a Catholic Bishop to really support victims. Helen was the person who helped Michael Malone see the issue as victims saw it, and not as the church saw it.”
Bishop Malone’s public acknowledgement of the church’s crimes, call for a papal apology to abuse survivors during World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney in 2008, and commitment to support survivors rather than the church came after strong advocacy behind the scenes by Ms Keevers.
Mrs Feenan said Ms Keevers’ influence was resented by powerful people within the church.
“She showed tremendous courage in standing up to that,” Mrs Feenan said.
Ms Keevers’ family has been overwhelmed by the response to her death, from survivors, advocates, friends, neighbours and people who worked with her in various roles throughout her social justice career, Mr Davelaar said.
“Everybody has an anecdote about her, how completely selfless she was, and funny and courageous,” he said.
“Helen is what bound us together.”
Ms Keevers is survived by husband Derek Davelaar, her three sons Rob, Lee and Tom, their partners Jill, Michelle and Shana, her grandchildren Harry and Austin and her brother Bruce.
Details of a memorial service next week to acknowledge her life and contribution to the community will be published when confirmed.