Fran came to the Royal Commission accompanied by her younger son, Blake. Her elder son, Felix, took his own life in his late teens. He suffered from severe mental health issues after being sexually abused at a Catholic boys’ school in the 1990s.
One day, when Felix was 13, Fran found him lying on top of his much younger sister. When Fran asked him what he was doing he said he didn’t know. ‘He locked the door and self-harmed. He was mortified and I took [his sister] to see a social worker … and explained it all and she said, “I believe your son’s been sexually abused” …’
Felix had spent 10 weeks as a boarder at the school when he needed to catch up on his studies because he’d had a lot of time off due to illness. It was during this period that he began being teased by other boys. Fran heard them calling Felix ‘a bum jacker, and that sort of things, coming out of the mouths of [kids] …’
Fran spoke to the headmaster and told him that Felix was acting strangely, walking around the back of the school to avoid running into anyone and sneaking into class. She told him about the taunting. He said, ‘“Oh, boys will be boys”, and I said, “But isn’t that a bit … for this age children? Who talks like that at [that age]” … I still didn’t know’.
Fran heard the boys taunting Felix, but she didn’t know what they meant. ‘I just thought they were being nasty children.’ Fran went up to the school again and spoke to one of the Brothers. She said to him, ‘“I’m concerned about my son”. Little did I realise at the time, that it was the one [who had abused him] …’
Blake, being younger than Felix, was only at the school for a year when Felix was there, but he knew that his brother was bullied. ‘I heard stories about sexual abuse and stuff like that but I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t really understand what was happening.’ He did hear rumours about the Brother who abused Felix. ‘“You don’t want to be caught alone with him”, stuff like that.’
Blake told the Commissioner, ‘You had this mentality of like, if you were damaged goods you’re no good, so you had that shame and not many people would want to talk up about something so shameful because then it just becomes gossip, becomes a weakness …
‘You’ve got to realise the culture of the school at the time. Like, you know, if you were called a fag, you’re isolated, you know? You’re an outcast straight away, even if it’s just a rumour. So you had that … and you couldn’t talk out … When you hear stories about the boarders … and you don’t want to believe them. You did hear … like fudge packer and stuff like that … these boarders, they’d be outcast.’
As well as sexual abuse, physical abuse was part of the school culture. Blake recalled it was, ‘very strict. I got strapped. Very liberal with the straps. I had my socks down and I got three straps for that. Just random stuff …’
Fran recalled an occasion when she took Felix to the doctor. ‘Felix, who did nothing wrong, was strapped across the hand. It was black and blue … I took him to my GP and he said, “I’ve got nothing against a good strap”, and I said, “Look at his hand” … Felix couldn’t cope with it. Not the strapping, but the … you know, “What have I done to deserve this?”’
After Fran discovered that Felix had been sexually abused, she approached the school and was told that the complaint would be passed on to the school hierarchy. Fran’s doctor also told her that the abuse would be reported to the police, in line with mandatory reporting. Fran never heard back from the school, and was never contacted by the police.
Reporting the abuse to the school was hard because, as Blake told the Commissioner, ‘They were also members of the cloth, so you can’t, you know … [If] you’re going to have an accusation, it’d have to be rock solid and your word against a man of the cloth isn’t worth much, you know’.
When Felix began having hallucinations he spent time in a number of psychiatric hospitals, where he was diagnosed with serious mental health issues and prescribed anti-psychotic medications. He loved music, and had dreams of studying at the Conservatorium but Fran recalled, ‘He said to me once that a friend of his was at the Conservatorium … but he said, “I’ll never go, will I” …’
Despite the time spent in mental health institutions, Felix ‘didn’t get well … They did their best …’ He continued to self-harm. He slept a lot. And finally, it all became too much for him and he took his own life.
Fran contacted the free legal service knowmore and told them, ‘“I want justice. Is that a bad thing” … I said, “I want them to be accountable. I actually want their name in the paper” … because he went through hell … Now, when I think of him, I just think, “What a waste”. He was a lovely boy …’
At the end of the private session, Fran told the Commissioner, ‘It’s been liberating to tell, to be acknowledged. To finally be Felix’s voice and to be taken seriously. To be heard’.