In the late 1960s, Damian began boarding at a Catholic school near Melbourne, which was run by the Salesians. During his first year at the college, his dormitory master, Brother Larsen, would walk up and down between the boys’ beds after lights out.
One night when Damian was homesick and started crying, Larsen came and lay down on his bed, whispering in his ear and asking him if he missed his family. Damian said yes, and Larsen put his arm around him.
Larsen sexually abused Damian around half a dozen times over the next five months, including kissing and licking him. As the Brother became ‘bolder’ he would stick his hand in Damian’s pyjamas and touch his genitals, and one night digitally penetrated him.
A boy called Michael slept near Damian and witnessed some of this abuse. He started calling Damian a ‘poofter’, and asking him why he didn’t send Larsen away. Other boys began bullying and teasing Damian, which made his years at the school ‘intolerable’. Another Brother saw Larsen in Damian’s bed one time, and spoke to Larsen.
The abuse ceased after Damian was summoned into the rector’s office, and asked whether anyone had interfered with him. His parents had been called to the school without his knowledge to attend this meeting – ‘I had my mother and father sitting there, glaring eyes’. He was too scared to disclose what Larsen had done to him.
Damian didn’t even get to speak to his parents after this, and doesn’t know what prompted them to be summoned. Soon after this meeting Larsen was transferred to another Salesian facility. Larsen later left the order and married, but continued to work in the state education sector.
For many years, whenever Damian encountered a media report about child sexual abuse, he would relive over and over what Larsen did to him. When he was in his 40s, he heard a radio piece about child sexual abuse by a Salesian Brother, and this prompted him to tell his mother about his own experiences.
‘She said, “If your father had known that, he would have gone through them like a ton of bricks”. And that was all that was ever sort of said about it.’
He didn’t feel that his mother was very supportive. ‘My psychologist said at the time not to blame my mother, because these people in that era were put on pedestals and they could do no wrong. They were sort of holier than thou and you were led to believe that.’
Their relationship was strained until a couple of years before her death, when ‘she did actually say to me that if I wanted to proceed against the Salesians, she would support me 100 per cent’.
As a result of the radio program, Damian decided to contact solicitors to say he had also been sexually abused by a Salesian Brother. However, at this stage he did not want to pursue any civil action.
Damian participated in Towards Healing, and received $28,000 (minus $10,000 for legal costs and Medicare repayments). He found the Towards Healing assessment process intimidating, and wishes he had not accepted what he now feels was an inadequate payment. Although Damian had legal counsel, he felt Towards Healing was coercive, and that he was put in the spot when it came to agreeing to the settlement amount.
At the conciliation the Salesians’ provincial apologised on behalf of Larsen. Damian was also provided with 10 counselling sessions. This was the last Damian ever heard from the order.
Damian also thought the Salesians would have reported Larsen to police after he came forward. He was surprised when this did not happen. ‘It should be law that they follow through and report this to the police.’
Instead, Damian went to the police himself and made a formal statement. It was three years before Larsen was charged.
In a psychiatric report tendered in court during the court proceedings, it was indicated that the Brother still had sexual feelings towards children. Damian felt this vindicated his decision to go to the police, and later found out that other boys were abused by Larsen.
As part of this case Michael, the boy who had seen the abuse and teased him, gave evidence. It turned out that Michael was a victim of Larsen’s too.
When Damian tried to approach Michael afterwards, the response was ‘standoffish ... Although I did suggest we have a coffee, it was, “Oh, no. I've got to go”.’
None of Larsen’s family was present during the proceedings.
‘And I felt particularly sad for his wife because she was as much a victim of this as I was.’
Damian prepared a victim impact statement, which was read out in court. ‘It was very hard for me but I just felt that I had to let him know what he'd done.’
Larsen was eventually convicted, and given a custodial sentence. Damian was not so concerned with the sentence, but that Larsen had been held accountable.
‘Now he has paid his price and he has to do his time, so to speak. But the people that covered up for him, and the people that have systematically moved other priests around the country and overseas, are still doing this and getting away with it. Yes, they're just as bad.’