Carl was very close to Father Francis Mackenzie, the local Catholic priest in the small Victorian town where he and his family lived. ‘He was a hero of mine’, Carl told the Commissioner.
Carl was proud to be made an altar boy, as a 10 or 11-year-old in the early 1980s. He was happy to help out doing jobs in the church grounds. When he was confirmed, he chose Francis as his confirmation name. ‘I really looked up to him.’
So did his family.
‘This was a man who was taken into our home and loved, because he seemed to be quite interested in us – cared about us. He even became chummy with Dad and got Dad’s trust, you know, where Dad said “Well, I’m working away a lot. It’s good that the boys have got someone they can talk to”. Yes, he was very good at what he did …
‘He groomed the whole family.’
Carl and his younger brother Joey spent many afternoons doing jobs for Father Mackenzie. Their family didn’t have much money so they appreciated the treats he rewarded them with. He let them play on his computer. He gave them ice-cream. It tasted a little funny, but Father Mackenzie explained that was because he was diabetic so had to buy a special kind. He encouraged them to lie down if they felt tired – and they often did – though always on top of the bed, not under the blankets.
At the end of an afternoon with Father Mackenzie, sometimes Carl’s bottom was so sore he couldn’t get on his bicycle to ride home. Kids teased him for pushing it, so he let the tyres down – ‘So I had an excuse to be pushing my bike’. It was the easiest solution, because riding was just too painful.
Father Mackenzie was drugging Carl and raping him while he slept. The abuse took place over a period of about two years, until Father Mackenzie was moved to another parish. Carl was 13 or 14 by then. ‘I remember being really lost when he left.’
It took many years for Carl to realise what had happened, even though there were clues that something had: his sore bottom, and the haemorrhoids he developed as a teenager. Also:
‘One of the earliest and most disturbing memories I have is that when I was younger, when the abuse was happening and I didn’t know exactly what had been happening, I remember … getting home and going to the toilet, feeling like I really needed to go, and I passed the smallest amount of something. I didn’t know what it was, and it wasn’t until a little bit later as a teenager I realised that was semen. That was sperm inside me.’
As a young teenager, Carl turned to alcohol and marijuana. ‘I just wanted to be numb … When I was about 18 and started to remember again, I realised I’d actually taught myself to forget.’
Initially, Carl worried that he might go on to abuse others. He kept away from friends with children, ‘because I feared there was something in me that was going to come up, because of these things I couldn’t explain … I thought potentially I was a horrible monster, actually, for a long time.’
Carl considered seeking out Father Mackenzie and asking his advice. Instead, he left his home town and moved north. He found work, and remained there for some years. ‘For a long time it was just about getting wasted and trying to find someone to come to bed with me. I had absolutely no idea about relationships.’
He had other issues as well, in particular with anger and anxiety, which made it impossible for him to settle down.
‘I used to run away a lot, when I couldn’t cope. When things got too hard I’d throw my hands up in the air because it was either that or I’d flip out … I was always fighting or flighting’, he recalled.
‘I’ve had periods where … [work] became too stressful, or life would be too stressful; I’d leave the job and go and I’d go and work out bush labouring for two or three months, and then I’d come back again. But I never committed – so I’ve started so many things, and not quite finished.’
Eventually Carl came to understand that he’d been sexually abused by Father Mackenzie. But he didn’t disclose to anyone else. His anger issues were ongoing: he’d get into fights, damage things, hurt himself. He was in a relationship by then, and sometimes would get so distressed and angry he’d just leave, go and camp out somewhere in his car for a few days, until he felt calmer.
Several years ago he finally told his partner, Amy about the abuse. ‘I had to tell her, because it was just killing us. It was killing me.’
He also told his younger brother, Joey. ‘I said “Something happened … and I don’t know how to talk about it, but I need to”. I said “I think it was a priest” … Joey said “I remember the ice-cream too” …
‘It meant a lot. I knew he wasn’t making it up and that meant I wasn’t making it up.’
Since then Carl has had counselling from a child sex abuse support group. With their help he is pursuing a civil claim against the Catholic Church. He has learned that Father Mackenzie died in the mid-1990s, shortly after being charged with other offences against children.
Becoming a father, Carl told the Commissioner, gave him the impetus he needed to take such difficult steps. ‘It was life-changing. I knew I had to figure something out. I had to become a better man if I was going to be a dad. I guess it was the start of me trying not to hate myself too much, because hating myself was going to hurt [my child] …
‘To this day I still don’t know how to put it away for a long period of time without it just ruining me. More often I have to think about it and confront it. It can be exhausting sometimes – it can really be exhausting, but it’s better than waiting for the time bomb to go off.’