As a kid, Don always felt that his whole family knew about the sexual abuse and yet chose to do nothing. As an adult he found out that this was true.
Don was abused in the early 1970s when he was nine years old. At the time his family were living on the premises of a Christian Brothers school. It was the summer holidays so the school was deserted. Don’s family, already a ‘fractured’ group, spent most of their time apart. Don used the school’s sports equipment during the day and slept in a room of his own at night.
Brother Halloran was a Christian Brother who lived and worked at the school. He noticed Don’s interest in sport and complimented him on his abilities. ‘He appeared to be a very nice guy’, Don recalled. ‘He was quite a gentle persona.’
Then late one night Brother Halloran stumbled into Don’s bedroom, smelling of alcohol. He assaulted Don. The same thing happened again the next night. Don didn’t understand what had happened. He felt shocked and powerless. ‘I didn’t know what it meant or what had happened other than the fact that I’d tried to stop it and I couldn’t stop it.’
Confused, Don mentioned the incident to his 15-year-old brother, hoping he might be able to explain what it meant.
‘And he said “I think it means you’re a poof”. And that was the last I ever spoke to anyone about it … And from that I just went into lockdown and I assumed I must have been gay or something, but I didn’t really know what that meant other than in some way I had been complicit.’
Many years later Don discovered that his sister, Rebecca, had also been abused by Brother Halloran. Don’s other sister, Janine, had witnessed the abuse and reported it to their parents.
‘According to Mum, Janine went and spoke to them and said “Something happened to Rebecca”. And my brother was there when she said it and he said “I think something happened to Don as well”. He knew, because I’d spoken to him. Anyway, according to Mum, my father sort of flew off the handle and was going to go and sort it all out but unfortunately she shut him down.’
Don’s mum told the family that she would fix the situation. She rang the family friend who had first arranged for them to stay at the school. He was an esteemed figure in the Catholic Church and Don’s mum ‘hero-worshipped’ him.
‘He basically said “Don must have encouraged it and brought it on himself. He must have invited this situation to occur. And if you never talk about it again he’ll forget about it and you’ll just move on”.’
Don’s mum followed this advice and the rest of the family followed her. Don, of course, could neither forget about it nor move on. ‘Things changed dramatically for me in terms of my confidence and not only the way I looked at myself but the way my family looked at me as well.’
Don said that he felt powerless and lost the ability to stand up for himself. At the same time he felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. It was a crippling combination of feelings – everything was his fault and there was nothing he could do to change it.
‘I lost the ability to compete and win. I used to get into trouble at school because I wouldn’t compete in any meaningful way … I describe it as running with like a lead weight or an anchor behind you. I just felt like I was never able to release myself physically. I just felt restrained all the time.
‘For me, as a kid especially, it was so frightening because I’d gone from being able to compete in a natural way to being impotent, for want of a better term. I couldn’t defend myself physically and I ended up getting bullied as a result of that at school. Talking to you now I feel like there’s something being sucked out of my stomach, like an energy vacuum is sort of sucking something away.’
Don spent his early adult years ‘trying to make sense’ of the abuse. In this effort he received a little support from his sister Rebecca but mostly he struggled alone. When his first marriage broke down he sought counselling and spoke about the abuse in detail for the first time. It was not the most helpful experience. ‘I was able to just sort of get some sense of understanding but really it just opened the wound more than anything.’
But he continued to push ahead, one small step at a time. He confronted his mother about why she never did anything to help him. She said ‘what did you expect me to do?’ and that she’d just hoped he’d forget about it. He spoke to one lawyer who was no help at all, but recently he’s found another lawyer who’s been a ‘wonderful’ support.
Don’s wife, Sally, has also been a strong support to him. Together they’re hoping to bring the Christian Brothers to account.
‘It’s not a money issue, and I know that that sounds cliched. But it is. It’s not a money issue. It’s just about trying to get some sense of acknowledgement and responsibility.’