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Burton's story

When Burton’s son Sid took his own life in the 2010s, more than 30 years after he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest and teacher at his school, the death had a profound impact.

It was felt nationally as well as in ‘permanent and unremitting’ grief for Sid’s siblings, parents, wife, and children.

Burton and his wife, Sheila, examined their actions, considering what they may have missed in Sid’s behaviour as a boy and whether they could have prevented his death, which they feel was anchored in the abuse he experienced.

‘I’ve got to say that until this happens to you, or to us, they were matters of interest … but the impact doesn’t come home,’ Burton said.

‘I was still going to mass. We were … good Catholics. I can tell you we are not any more. We have strong views about the Catholic Church and the hierarchy, not just because of what happened to Sid but because we see what’s happened to a lot of people.’

Burton has not been to mass since his son’s death. Sheila abruptly stopped her work of decades in a profession she ‘loved’. ‘It’s amazing how many of our friends and acquaintances have dropped off,’ Sheila said. ‘It’s a bit harsh.’

Burton sent a lengthy statement to the Royal Commission detailing the traumatic effects of Sid’s loss. This included the family’s grief at the ‘negative way’ Sid viewed himself, ‘when in reality he was a valuable and valued member of the family and of the community and a loving and loved father to his children’.

He also told of learning, for the first time, details of the abuse via Sid’s police statement and the reasons for his silence. At the time Sid had feared his devout parents, busy with the demands of a large family and work, would not believe him.

Burton wrote about the legal machinations and hypocrisy by the Church. How on one hand Sid had received a general apology from the local bishop and later compensation, but on the other the Church had threatened to deny the legitimacy of his claim. And this while simultaneously ‘holding out to the District Court and the public at large’ its support for victims of child sexual abuse by Church personnel in general and the perpetrator in particular.

When the family learned about the court case, ‘I regret to say that we did not specifically ask [Sid] for details’, Burton wrote. ‘I think that we just thought that he had come to grips with what had happened and that he would tell us more about it when it suited him.’

The sexual abuse, by ‘a big bullying priest in a school where Sid was entitled to feel safe and cared for’, occurred on several occasions in the late 1970s, when he was about 12, at a New South Wales high school rife with fighting among students and corporal punishment by teachers.

‘My blood boils when I think of what that bastard did!’ Burton wrote.

Attempts to ‘combat whatever dark and negative thoughts he had were of no avail ultimately’, Burton said of psychological and psychiatric, self-healing and meditative help, as well as programs Sid attended for survivors of child abuse and trauma.

Sid’s long period of non-disclosure, marked by swings in mood and behaviour and substance abuse, makes both Burton and Sheila fearful that their other sons may have been abused. The numerous denials to Burton and Sheila that anything happened might be them ‘trying to save us’, they said.

‘You don’t know about your other boys. It’s so awful, really. That’s when you think what a lousy mother you were,’ Sheila said.

Although Sid had complained of ‘brutal’ teachers at his school, Burton remembers dismissing it as similar to his own boarding school punishment from the Brothers.

Burton suspects, from interactions with police and other professionals, that Sid may not have revealed the full extent of his abuse.

‘I don’t know. It was bad what happened to him. I was never sexually abused but once I was in a picture theatre … and some bloke came and sat down next to me … Shortly afterwards he put his hand on my thigh. I froze.’

Although Burton walked away that day he never forgot it. ‘I had nightmares about that from time to time – such non-intrusive contact.

‘And then I think, “If I felt that bad, God knows how he felt” … It’s chilling.’

Neither parent can believe that teachers and Brothers involved with the school, particularly the principal who was later convicted of lying about the perpetrator’s activities, did not know about the paedophile priest at the time.

‘What happened to Sid and many other boys was preventable,’ Burton wrote. Sid’s was one of numerous suicides by former pupils who had been molested by the same perpetrator.

Burton came to the Commission, he said, to ‘represent Sid as best I could – and his family, my wife and the kids’. At family gatherings, Sid is always remembered ‘and nearly always [the conversation] ‘results in all of us wondering why he did what he did … and what anyone of us might have been able to do to save him’.

Burton recommended that all clergy be bound by mandatory reporting of any suspicious behaviour in relation to children, and also suggested there be no privilege attached to offences disclosed during confession.

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