Fred’s family moved from regional New South Wales to Sydney in the early 1960s because his father was very ill. Over the next few years Fred’s father was in hospital for lengthy spells. The family was ‘very poor’, Fred said. His mother worked long shifts seven days a week to support them and Fred hardly saw her.
Fred’s father eventually died when Fred was 11. Fred was attending a Catholic boys’ college at the time and his classroom teacher, Father Pinetti, brought the whole class to the funeral.
Fred stayed away from school for several weeks after his father died. When he went back, he was sexually abused by Father Pinetti. It might have gone on for a month, he said, or it might have been six months. ‘I just don’t know. I know I was just terrified, and when I didn’t do what he wanted me to do I was caned.’
Father Pinetti was a big, imposing man, Fred recalled. ‘I was a very quiet, reserved little boy. I probably lacked a lot of confidence’, he said. ‘I probably wasn’t that socialised.’
He didn’t report the abuse – then, or later. ‘When I was young I was too frightened to say anything; as I got older I tried to forget it. I thought it would go away.’
And he isn’t sure what brought it to an end. It might simply have been that he moved to a different class. Or it may have been the result of a visit his mother paid to the school. She was Irish, very short, and fierce. She visited the principal to complain when Fred was punished for a haircut that didn’t look quite right – her handiwork, which she’d done at home to save money.
‘After that things changed for me at the school, because I think they probably realised they didn’t want to deal with my mother again’, Fred recalled.
He was previously a good student, but his marks deteriorated after Father Pinetti’s abuse. By the time he was 18 he’d left school and had an office job in the city. And he was taking Valium, prescribed by a doctor – ‘I think because of the anger I had’, he said. ‘By the time I was 18, 19, I was a bit of a mess.’
Fred went travelling in his 20s, and spent some years away. Back in Australia, he developed a successful career that began with a love of flowers. ‘The beauty of flowers to me is incredible. I just love the beauty of flowers’, he said. His professional success wouldn’t have come without his wife’s support, he said. ‘I think I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without my wife’s confidence in me.’
It was also his wife who urged him to see a psychologist. Fred hadn’t spoken of his abuse to anyone. His two older siblings didn’t know, and nor did his mother. ‘I don’t think really that I wanted to tell my mother, because she tried so hard for us.’
Fred’s wife could tell something was wrong. But it wasn’t for many years, till Fred was in his mid-50s, that he was able to agree with her. The change was prompted by an incident involving his son at the Catholic high school he attended. Trying to find out what had happened and to defend his son brought long-buried memories to the surface.
‘It brought back everything I had been trying to forget’, he said.
Fred’s wife asked him to call her after his first session with the psychologist. ‘That’s when I told my wife, on the phone afterwards – because I couldn’t face her to tell her.’
Fred’s sessions with the psychologist came to end when the psychologist told Fred he should just put the abuse out of his mind. ‘I’m afraid I went home and told my wife I thought he was bloody hopeless.’ He saw another psychologist – ‘an absolute waste of time’. His mental health deteriorated, and he became suicidal. He started seeing a psychiatrist, and this time it was a better match. ’She was actually pretty good … She was probably rough and tough and real’, he said.
Fred told the Commissioner that getting older has helped him see his life more clearly. He has always encouraged his two children to be fit and physically capable. ‘I look back on it now and I think I probably started that with them because I wanted them to be able to be strong and able to protect themselves’, he said.
Now young adults, his children have always played sport. Fred has been closely involved as a coach. The care he gives the kids in his charge makes him feel again the betrayal he suffered from Father PInetti.
‘I treat every one of them with a great deal of respect and a great level of empathy. And I’m no one special; I‘ve never been trained in that area – and I think well, what happened to me wasn’t fair.’
It ruined his life, he said.
‘I’ve never been able to stop and relax. I work all the time, and I don’t mean in paid work. Of a weekend I work from 6 am till dark, outside doing things. When I stop, I remember. I’ve spent my life hating and being angry …. My wife and kids have borne the brunt of this’, he said.
He intends to continue getting counselling. ‘I’m probably a slow learner but I think it took me until 55 to realise that I’d tried keeping it inside all the time and it didn’t work, so what’s the next alternative? … I owe it to my wife to get help. She’s been great to me.’