Damian describes his parents as strict Catholics, and says there was always a priest or a nun in the family home for Sunday lunch. Both Damian and his brother were altar boys in their small church outside Adelaide. In the early 1960s, when Damian was 10, a Franciscan priest, Father Jerome, arrived in town and Damian was chosen as the travelling altar boy to accompany Father Jerome to outlying communities.
Damian told the Commissioner the sexual abuse started with Father Jerome taking him and several other boys to the local drive-in. ‘He gave us cigarettes and Coke laced with whisky, and the movies he took us to were pretty risqué, not meant for children. We thought it was all pretty cool.’ Damian described Father Jerome as a smooth talker who stood out in their small town. ‘He was friends with the bishop, he knew the Vatican, and he’d travelled around Europe.’
Father Jerome started the sexual abuse by putting his hands down Damian’s pants when they were in the front seat of the car at the drive-in. Damian asked his friends whether Father Jerome had done anything similar to them. They expressed horror and said no. ‘I wasn’t going to admit he did it to me.’ Damian was the first boy picked up for the movies and was always in the front seat.
The sexual abuse soon escalated. On their visits to outlying communities, Father Jerome would stop the car and put Damian’s penis in his mouth. ‘I thought, “Why on earth is he doing that?” I was so embarrassed. I was mortified.’ The abuse stopped when Father Jerome was moved to another parish after about a year.
In the late 1970s, South Australian Police invited the community to report any past instances of abuse they knew of, and Damian’s wife encouraged him to do so. He was told that Father Jerome had worked for the Franciscans in an overseas country, and had died the previous year. Damian also disclosed the abuse to his parents. ‘They were very upset. My mother condemned Father Jerome to hell, which for a strict Catholic, is about the worst thing you could do.’
Damian felt bad that he’d waited so long before reporting the abuse. ‘I carried it as a secret for a long time and I thought it defined me.’
He knew other priests to be good and honest, and he thought Father Jerome was an aberration. ‘I had compassion for this man. I also didn’t want Mum and Dad to find out, and be disappointed that it was them who’d invited him into our home. When I did tell my mother, she was heartbroken.’
Damian has since disclosed the abuse to friends. ‘I thought it was going to diminish my reputation, but it hasn’t. They just accept that it happened.’
Part of the reason for reporting the abuse, Damian said, was because he thought he owed it to his daughter. ‘I looked at her and thought, “How can I expect my daughter to have integrity if I don’t confront this?” So I did.’