Burke's story

‘The wall of silence has destroyed any sense I had of the Church as a caring and loving organisation. We, as secondary victims, were not at any time, before or after my brother’s death, offered any support, assistance, counselling or pastoral support by the Church. We, our family, believe the Church leaders pretend to care about victims, but really don’t care at all. We have lost all faith in the leadership of our Church.’

This statement, given by Burke in a written submission to the Royal Commission, sums up what he feels is the failure of the Catholic Church to adequately deal with the fallout of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

Burke’s brother Douglas was born in the late 1940s. When he was in his mid-teens and working as an altar boy, Douglas was raped by a priest a number of times on summer camps run by the Catholic Church. He didn’t disclose the abuse to anybody inside or outside the family for many years.

‘My mother knew something was very wrong, as my sister and I both did. There was something very unusual … we never got to know Douglas’s friends, he didn’t seem to socialise to any great degree. Anyone else in the family, friends were in and out of the house every weekend … but not Douglas’s friends. He really kept to himself. And he was also quite prickly in his personal relationships … I know my mother was always worried.’

As an adult, Douglas became severely dependent on alcohol and developed serious psychiatric problems. In his early 50s he was forced to retire from his job and his health deteriorated. ‘He’d been treated for alcoholism several times, and gone to residential treatment at least twice to my knowledge … the doctor treating him later reported that he was back on the grog within 24 hours of leaving the hospital.’

A few years later, Douglas disclosed the abuse to Burke and his sister, who persuaded him to seek help. But after speaking to some Church representatives, counsellors and medical professionals, Douglas ended up ‘retreating’ and was ‘just drinking himself to death in his home’.

He rejected all contact with the family, refusing to even open the door. Burke managed to get a social worker to gain access and they found him ‘in a terrible mess’. He was taken to hospital. He was in his late 50s.

‘We now know his cough was not a chest infection, it was advanced lung cancer and he was skin and bone. There was no possible treatment at that stage … He had a heart attack while I was there … he had enough morphine to control the pain, but it couldn’t control mine.’

After his brother passed away, Burke spoke to some of the Church representatives and medical professionals that Douglas had dealt with. During this process his own health suffered significantly. He ended up having a heart attack which he attributes to stress induced by the Church’s bullying.

He also said the whole thing shook his faith, not his faith in the fundamental teachings of Jesus, but in the organisation of the Church and those who run it. He says the Church has let them all down and he and his family feel very much like secondary victims of the abuse.

‘There are times when I almost despaired but fortunately I’ve had support, people have helped me get through the rough patches … I must admit that to have a situation where I’ve felt a receptive hearing in comparison to the brick wall I felt from the Church has made me a lot calmer.’

He is grateful that the community is waking up to the problem of child sexual abuse, within religious and other institutions, but he feels the Catholic Church in particular has much more work to do.

‘For the victims that we recognise today it’s probable that any response from the Royal Commission is going to take years. I know victims who are struggling now, absolutely broke … I think the Church is stalling for time, hoping that more of the victims will die …

‘My wife recently reminded me that, near the end of his life, my brother told us both, “I want this to go public. They didn’t care”. By sharing this with you, I am honouring his wishes.’


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