Ben has been dealt several big surprises in his life. As a 10-year-old, in the 1980s, he discovered he’d been adopted. ‘When my father threw the papers on the table, drunk, and said “You’re not my son” - that’s when I knew I was adopted.’
His adoptive parents were both abusive, in different ways. His father was a violent drunk. ‘I was just his punching bag. I didn’t have to do anything wrong; he’d come home and just bop me.’ His mother abused him verbally. ‘I think I was 12 or 13, maybe, but she called me “someone else’s trash” out in the backyard, for the whole neighbourhood to hear.’
Ben’s parents didn’t tell him that his biological father was Aboriginal. That was another surprise, revealed to him as an adult. It continues to reverberate through his life, as he seeks to connect with his Aboriginal family and culture and to access related services for support with his medical needs.
And they didn’t take any action when he told them he’d been abused by Father Costa, a local parish priest in their small Queensland town, who ministered at the Catholic primary school Ben attended.
Father Costa’s abuse began when Ben was six, and continued for four years.
Ben believes he was targeted by Father Costa because of what he knew about him from confession. He described going to confession every Friday morning before mass: ‘There’d be just the one priest sitting in there, and yourself. The curtains would be drawn and there’d be this little window thing and a dim light where he’d be sitting … Costa through [confession] knew that I did not have a good home life. He knew very well that I was being very heavily abused at home.’
Father Costa’s abuse began as molestation and escalated to penetration. It took place regularly at the presbytery at lunch times and also before Sunday mass, where Ben was an altar boy. ‘He used to have his ways with me before the church service’, Ben told the Commissioner.
Ben’s parents noticed nothing – or if they did, they ignored it.
‘There was even times when there was blood on my underwear, and my mother did nothing about it. Didn’t even ask, or take me to a doctor or nothing. And that was from when Costa was trying to have sex with me.’
One day Ben turned up at the presbytery at lunchtime as usual and the door was answered by the other priest, Father O’Keegan. He asked Ben what he was doing there, and Ben told him what had been happening with Father Costa. ‘He just refused to believe me’, Ben recalled.
Father O’Keegan sent Ben to the school principal, Sister June McIvor, to be disciplined. Once again he told his story and was met with disbelief. ‘What a load of rubbish. Put your hands out’, she told Ben.
The vicious caning she gave him on both hands left his palms so swollen and sore they attracted his mother’s attention that night. She didn’t believe him either. ‘She said “What are you going round saying stuff like that for?”’ Ben remembered.
‘I wasn’t game to tell anyone again’.
Despite the lack of action, Father Costa’s abuse eased off after that. Not long afterwards he was moved to another parish. ‘It’s very common for the Catholic Church to do these stunts – when their priests go wrong they just move them off to another parish and pretend it never happened’, Ben said.
Soon afterwards though another four-year period of sexual abuse began, this time by a neighbour. Ben holds Father Costa partly responsible for this, because the experience of that abuse left Ben so vulnerable. ‘Costa had groomed me very well for other perpetrators’, he told the Commissioner.
As an adult, Ben reported the neighbour to police. Eventually he was prosecuted and convicted. Ben also acted to see Father Costa brought to justice, less successfully. He reported him to Queensland police who carried out an investigation. But by then Father Costa had left Australia for his country of birth, with which Australia doesn’t have an extradition treaty. The investigation was suspended.
With the support of his wife, in 2009 Ben also approached the Catholic diocese in his area to go through the Towards Healing process. Ultimately this resulted in a six figure payout of which nearly half went to his lawyers. Overall, it was an unhappy experience. Ben was pressured not to use a lawyer and to sign confidentiality agreements. There was compensation – ‘shut-up money’ – but no apology. And he was asked to sympathise with Father Costa – ‘We’re all human’, said a nun, at one meeting.
‘That’s when my wife said “Don’t talk to me about human. You’re not the one who has to pick up the pieces when my husband wets himself because he can’t go to a public toilet”.’
Ben is on anti-depressants and other strong medications to control bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. ‘I have a lifelong mental illness, and I’ve got scars on my body to prove that I’ve tried to suicide numerous times, because of it’, he said.
He has not been able to work. ‘I can’t hold a job. I can’t handle pressures, there is a big trust thing involved.’ He has been married for 17 years and says the relationship has had its difficult moments. ‘We have had to separate a few times because it has been too hard to live with me … I’m grateful I’ve got the woman I’ve got, because I don’t think many women would put up with it.’
He has recently decided to re-open his case against the Catholic Church, to try and get additional compensation. ‘It’s not about money at the end of the day’, he said. ‘It’s about the children, who can’t talk for whatever reason … I know a few school friends that have took their lives because of this particular person, Father Costa – so that’s what’s made me come forward: to stand up for the innocent ones.’
He wants to see authorities given more powers to act against perpetrators. You can’t stop them, he said, but you can curb them.
‘I was six years old when it started with me … To have your childhood taken off you is a big thing.’