Hidden story reveals a friend's shocking past


A friend came to my office unannounced recently. He is someone I see infrequently, although our work, political and social lives intersect. He arrived with a two-page, tightly written letter that was shocking and distressing. It was a chronology of the sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church, things he had not spoken about or acknowledged for more than 40 years.

To understand the insidious nature of systemic abuse, in all its forms, we need to acknowledge the power the Catholic Church exerted over its congregations. My experience and that of my friend, growing up in poor Catholic families, was that the church was inviolate. The ancient rituals of the Latin Mass (such a foreign and inaccessible ceremony); our duty to attend every Sunday; the annual St Patrick's Day parade through the city, marching like a battalion in school uniform behind the open-top Rolls-Royce of Archbishop Mannix; and locally the unquestioned authority vested in the parish priest - all symbols of the church's power and control over our daily lives.

It was simply inconceivable that you would complain or seek redress, let alone question what was occurring, particularly if you were a child. The church was all-pervasive, prepared to intervene in our communities' spiritual and political life without invitation or accountability. I well recall heated arguments in my home between my father and his brother over the Labor Party split, a political divide that lives on today between me and my cousin.

I was the victim of systematic physical beatings at the hands of the Christian Brothers. I was violently strapped so many times I could not hold a pen for days. These actions went unchallenged.


My friend's road was infinitely worse, the victim of a sexual predator. His plight was made even harder by the crippling hold of the church on his family, who were dependent on it for financial support and food assistance. Into this web of dependency came a seminarian, later priest, who used his trusted position and the family's lack of access to services to become my friend's tormentor for almost a decade.

Much of the early abuse happened in the family home. Imagine, if you can, a little boy of 11 afraid to return home from his paper round, hoping that his sexual predator was not visiting. Increasingly, he avoided home and made excuses for his absences. He started drinking alcohol at an early age - anything to avoid contact, futile as that was.

The priest took him away on weekends and school holidays, with the ready approval of his parents, since holidays away for poor families like ours were simply a dream. For my friend they were a nightmare. He was abused daily and twice shared around with other paedophiles, a plaything for their deviant urges. He was abused on countless occasions in his early teenage years.

He told his story to me through a torrent of tears, his face twisted in disgust, grief and shame. Was he in some way to blame for these atrocities? Why did he not do something about it? But then, what realistically could he have done against the sheer might of this institution?

My friend buried the hurt and pain and somehow put together a life for himself with a loving marriage, a caring family and a successful business career. He was luckier than so many others. But the torment is never wholly gone. Alcohol has been a big part of his coping armoury and I think some of his protracted and debilitating medical conditions can be linked to his abuse.

The recently launched Victorian parliamentary inquiry was a trigger to reopen these deep wounds. He heard about it driving back to Melbourne from country Victoria. He had to pull over, unable to continue the journey for some time as that dark past again consumed him.

When he complained to the Catholic Church investigatory body this year, it challenged vigorously his claims and his authenticity and wanted evidence and details of dates and venues of the abuse. When the church finally conceded, it quickly offered monetary compensation outside the courts.

The legal hierarchy of the church could not understand that he did not want money. Rather, he wanted acknowledgment that a terrible wrong had been done to him. Instead, the church further victimised him. Insurance companies and lawyers should never be the gateways into a caring, truly apologetic system dealing with abuse.

My friend suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He is under expert medical care, counselling and medication.

The Catholic Church has finally recognised that it cannot hide from its dark past. The royal commission announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard will shine a forensic light into the darkest recesses of the church - a place where an 11-year-old boy was robbed of his innocence and youth. The church needs to take down the battlements, stop hiding behind lawyers and legalese and reach out and seek forgiveness from those it has permanently scarred.

This is not an anti-Catholic article; some of the finest people I have ever met have been Catholic clergy, mostly Jesuits, imbued with the noblest ideals of equality and social justice.

My friend's story is merely one of thousands that will doubtless emerge as this national inquiry conducts its work. These victims are our friends and neighbours, who have somehow built a life from this most fundamental betrayal of trust.

Richard Wynne is the Labor member for the state seat of Richmond and was housing minister in the Brumby government.



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