As an adult, Cormac’s work as a counsellor occasionally brought him into contact with child sex offenders. Treatment availability and options were often limited and he’d noticed offenders were sometimes wary of being honest in case something they said resulted in a mandatory report to child protection agencies and police.
Cormac’s own experience of being sexually abused as a child by parish priest, Father Francis Leary, also gave him insight into what it was like for survivors.
‘I have no trouble keeping a victim focus’, he said, ‘but I’ve also learned the basic frailty of victims and perpetrators and how there’s such an important need for us to provide both those groups with all assistance to be able to deal with the challenges they’re facing, whether it’s victims getting over their abuse or perpetrators coming out and seeking help – and being able to do that without punishment necessarily, before they’re detected.
‘No doubt these have all been considered by the Commission. There needs to be changes to legislation. There needs to be services provided that are evidence-based … [In the same way] there’s accreditation for sex offender counsellors, there needs to be accreditation for victim counsellors so they’re not getting anybody who hangs out a shingle or has an agenda, who ultimately re-traumatises them by unprofessional conduct. So it’s just at all levels.’
Cormac told the Commissioner that he suppressed memories of being raped by Father Leary, acknowledging the assaults only when he was in his late 20s. He did, however, recall being an eight-year-old in 1967 and hiding his bloodied underwear from his mother.
Leary’s frequent presence in the family home and his lavish gift-giving annoyed Cormac’s mother but she was always too polite to say anything. Cormac’s disclosure of abuse in the early 1990s coincided with his two sisters revealing they too had been sexually abused by Leary. One sister had been seen as ‘spoilt’, behaviour Cormac now realised was a form of acting out. For his part, Cormac had spent a lot of his childhood in a dissociated state, and was considered lazy in class.
‘Basically I was depressed’, he said. ‘I was dissociated. When I was a teenager I had sexual identity issues. I was completely against the possibility of being gay. Homosexual activity was disgusting to me and yet I was having these dreams. So it was a real struggle …
'I’m certainly confident about my identity now [but] there will always be unfinished business … In my lowest moments my old organising principle or my old way of seeing the world will come through. It doesn’t happen now, but it’s always there, that badness.’
As well as disclosing the abuse to his family, Cormac contacted a bishop from the Sydney diocese where Leary had once served and told him about the abuse. The bishop was ‘fantastic’, Cormac said, and showed great compassion.
‘He was very open. He said he had no knowledge of such things happening to anyone else but at the same time he saw Leary as a problem. He was alcoholic, there were issues with the finances and he was removed for a time, put in treatment I think for alcohol abuse. A lot of my flashbacks are to the smell of alcohol on people’s breath, the smell of sweat – an alcohol-y infusion – and of course the sound of the Irish accent throws me back there, even still.’
By the time of the conversation with the bishop, Leary was dead. Cormac hadn’t thought of making a report to police and it wasn’t suggested. Nor was he interested in compensation but he had supported his sister in negotiating her way through the Towards Healing process.
In Cormac’s early years of work, he’d had close contact with trainee priests in a seminary. He noticed many young men entered the priesthood as a means of escape from life. The seminary itself had become a ‘hotbed’ of sexual acting out where consent was at times questionable or not given. He saw the formation process itself as being highly sexualised, something that contributed to later offending by some priests.
‘The majority of people are really under-developed in their personality. They grow up in a Catholic culture where priesthood is idealised, or joining the Brothers, and they haven’t worked out the multiple problems that might be leading them to choose that life rather than a life of intimacy with a partner. So they go in and they are incubators of pathology. You get a whole bunch of blokes together or a whole bunch of women together, you put a boundary around them from the rest of the world, and you’ve got a hotbed of pathology. And of course sexual pathology is going to come out, particularly if you’ve got a whole bunch of young blokes who may be as young as 18.’
In recommending better access to treatment, Cormac pointed to New Zealand’s innovative programs for victims and offenders of intra-familiar abuse. He also cited relapse prevention as a successful treatment modality.
‘The evidence is very clear’, he said. ‘When you provide evidence-based treatment to known sex offenders it halves the recidivism rate. So we’ve gotten to a point where it makes absolute sense to at least offer treatment to known sex offenders.’