Benji’s father wasn’t a Catholic but his mother was. Growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s,
Benji and his three younger siblings went to Catholic schools and to the local church every Sunday.
The priest, Father Marcus Hennessey, was a friendly man who hired boys to do odd jobs around the church and parish. Benji recalled cleaning up at the local hall and primary school, his first paid work, as it was for the others Father Marcus employed.
‘He always had this troop of boys around the place doing odd jobs for him’, Benji said.
During Benji’s first year at high school, Father Marcus asked him to become an altar boy. Not long afterwards, he invited him for a weekend stay at his holiday house. Benji and two older boys went on the trip.
‘He sat me in the front seat and it was an old style bench seat; I’d just have my hand on the seat, he’d be driving and he’d just reach across and start stroking my hand, you know.’
Benji thought it was ‘weird’ but said nothing: he was shy and had been brought up to respect priests and the authority of the Church.
That trip was followed by many more. A pattern of sexual abuse quickly developed. It began with Marcus getting into bed with Benji and hugging him, and progressed from there. It occurred not only on the frequent trips away but in the presbytery, as often as once a week.
‘He would get me alone. Then he would take my pants off and then fondle, masturbate and kiss me. I was forced to hold his genitals but my response was to basically play the "dead fish" and not respond.’
The abuse continued until Benji’s last year of school, when it occurred gradually less often and finally not at all. ‘He just lost interest, partly. I was getting older. I was doing Year 12, so had less time ... Basically other things started taking over.’
Throughout the five years of abuse, Benji didn’t speak to anyone about it because he didn’t think he would be believed. His parents knew Father Marcus as someone who had a great deal of respect in the community, who was ‘on a bit of a pedestal’.
‘My dad was probably a bit distant from that sort of thing but my mum was quite keen on it all, and she thought he was having a good influence on us.’
Benji did try to rebel on a few occasions. ‘But [Marcus] was a man with a very sharp temper that could turn quite quickly. And he was physically strong.’ Generally, the priest was ‘mostly affectionate’ with Benji, often telling him ‘You’re the only one’.
That comment ‘just sticks in my head’, Benji said, particularly after it emerged in later years that Marcus was in fact a serial offender. He was eventually jailed for child sex offences.
‘I remember at the time thinking what do I do about this – who do I tell? Who’s going to believe me? So I didn’t do anything - but then you read about the people he got to after me, and that makes me feel not great.’
Benji has still not spoken of the abuse to his family, nor reported it to police. He has not had any counselling. He said he had kept it compartmentalised in his mind, tucked away from other parts of his life. ‘It’s just in the background. I keep myself fairly busy, with work and sport and whatever ... I think I’m fine.’
He has a daughter he is close to but described himself as ‘not overly keen to get into relationships’.
Benji told the Commissioner that he wasn’t sure how the abuse has affected him. ‘I’ve asked myself the question many times … I see it as a sliding doors moment. I ask myself would I be any different – would I be a more open person, would I be a more confident person? Things like that. I can’t answer that question. I just don’t know.’
Benji has also never sought compensation because he doesn’t trust the process. ‘I didn’t have much faith in that to be honest, because it was set up by the Church and administered by the Church and the people running it were paid by the Church.
‘Their first and only priority was to minimise damage and protect themselves.’
He hoped that this might change through the work of the Royal Commission. ‘The Catholic Church, and their employees, should be no different to any other organisation that breaches its responsibilities or breaks the law’.