‘He played a larger role in my life than my own father. My father certainly was a distant person. He was a similar age to Perrit and we were an immigrant family. I don’t think Dad had much education.’
Bern was born into a staunchly Catholic family in the early 1960s in Melbourne. His parents put great trust and faith in the Church, and in their local priest, Father Ron Perrit.
Bern attended the Catholic primary school that Father Perrit was attached to and, at the age of 11, became an altar boy at the church. Perrit paid him extra attention and called him ‘the special one’.
‘They both thought it was a great honour that Perrit had taken me under his wing.’
One time, Bern was mowing the lawn outside the presbytery when Perrit called him inside. Perrit would frequently give him rewards of soft drinks, cakes and cash for doing odd jobs. This time he gave Bern some money, hugged him and rubbed his stomach under his shirt. Bern said it felt very strange but he dared not complain because he was ‘the Father’.
After this incident, Perrit began to assault Bern. He molested him in the presbytery, in his car, on trips away and in various other places, every week or two for the next five years. Bern said he could never remember Perrit without an erection.
‘I was too young to understand the crime, nor did I have the knowledge or ability to verbalise what Perrit did to me.’
Bern couldn’t tell anyone about the abuse, and Perrit continued to buy him gifts and give him special jobs to keep him quiet. Perrit influenced every aspect of Bern’s life.
‘There was a new Catholic boys’ college being set up and he wanted me to go there. He paid for my uniform, paid for the school fees, and I just didn’t produce school reports that were any good and, boy, did I cop an earful.’
Bern left high school at 15 and the sexual abuse stopped. But Perrit continued his psychological and emotional abuse and controlled elements of Bern’s life for many years. He lined up a job for him, then another one when that didn’t work out. He helped him buy his first car, a block of land, and a business. Bern coped with it all by blocking out the past.
In the early 1980s, he reluctantly allowed Perrit to perform his wedding ceremony because of family expectations, and then baptise his first child. But Bern said, ‘I was becoming more emotional, frustrated and resentful of his involvement in my life’.
By his late 20s, Bern had had enough.
‘That’s how I got Perrit out of my life. I ended up writing to him, because I knew I could never tell him to rack off because he would just dominate me. So I wrote it out and kept a copy and showed Sister Roberta. She played some sort of counselling, pastoral role around the parish for people who were in trouble.’
Sister Roberta told Bern she would inform the archbishop what had happened.
‘She said “My concern is that there could be other children” and I just said, “Look, I don’t know”. I think I may have even said at the time “I doubt it”, because I was this one special person …
‘I was absolutely convinced I was his only victim. So it wasn’t that I thought he needs to be stopped. That hadn’t entered my mind. I was convinced I was his one and only victim, there was nobody else. But … having my own children started to trigger off this thing that, you know, the haunting of what happened to me.’
Bern believes Sister Roberta did inform the archbishop, but got no response back. He and his wife then spoke to two separate priests about the abuse but neither of the priests wanted to know Perrit’s name or get involved.
In the early 1990s, Bern found the courage to report Perrit to the police. The police investigated and discovered Perrit had numerous other victims, two of whom were abused for the first time a year after Bern had reported Perrit to Sister Roberta. A prosecution went ahead and Perrit was jailed for child sex offences. He was released a short time later and died without having been removed from the priesthood.
Bern started civil proceedings against Perrit before his death, but his case collapsed after a strong push-back from the Church.
The events have had an ongoing impact on all Bern’s relationships and friendships, including destroying his relationship with his wife’s Catholic parents.
‘I’ve only maintained one friendship with one person I went to school with from primary school days, [a boy] who is also a victim of Ron Perrit … He’s pretty much the only lifelong friend I have … I’m not part of any club or sporting groups or anything like that, and I’ve always been pretty much most of my life self-employed.’
Bern has suffered shame, guilt, anger, depression, panic attacks, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder through his life as a result of the abuse. His wife has also suffered, as have his children.
‘It’s difficult for me sometimes to look them in the eye. I know they acknowledge everything that I’ve done and are proud of that and they’ve said that. But there’s a tremendous sadness for all the kids.’
However, his children and wife are a great support to him, and in turn, Bern continues to stand up and fight for other victims and secondary victims of child sexual abuse.