‘I think in a different setting’, Garry told the Commissioner, ‘it would actually be considered a paedophile ring because you’ve got a church and a school acting together to put children in abuse situations’.
The school in question was a Franciscan Brothers school in New South Wales that Garry attended in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a harsh place where a regime of fear and brutal discipline ‘taught everyone not to ask questions, not to challenge. To obey, basically’. So when the Brothers told Garry to serve as an altar boy for the parish priest, Father Rowan, he obeyed.
Garry now speculates that Rowan molested dozens of the boys that the school provided for him. His method was to approach boys under the pretext of helping them change into their robes, and then fondle them. Garry described his own experience as ‘serial abuse’ that lasted from when he was seven until he was 14.
He remembers the exact date when the last, and worst, incident of the abuse occurred, because it happened while he was serving as an altar boy at his mother’s funeral. He said he finds it hard to fathom how Rowan could have attacked him at such a vulnerable moment.
‘If you have even a hint of scruples – any ounce of compassion would say, “Even if this is what you do, you just wouldn’t do it that day, surely”. But he was a criminal and he saw an opportunity and he took it.’
After the funeral, Garry quickly sank into depression. ‘I was just in a real mess that year and I was more and more isolated and I left school one day after a bullying incident, attempted suicide and just didn’t go back.’
Garry didn’t mention the abuse to his dad or siblings, nor did he mention it to any of his counsellors at the time. Looking back he thinks that they always missed the mark when trying to identify the source of his pain. ‘The counsellors I saw around that time linked it to my mother’s death, which was a big event, but … grief is one thing but that incredibly low self-esteem that meant that I wanted to end my life was around the abuse.’
In the years that followed, Garry coped with his trauma by suppressing it. ‘Just don’t go there, just don’t even think about this. Sure I’ve got all these awful feelings about myself but after that suicide attempt the way I worked out that I would be able to get on with life – and I really wanted to get on with life – was to just put a big lid on it.’
In a sense, the plan worked. Garry managed to build a very successful career and raise his kids. But he said that his outward success sometimes belied his psychological trauma, particularly his low self-esteem.
Only recently has Garry been able to speak openly about the abuse. He disclosed it to his kids when they were in their early 20s. ‘That was probably one of the hardest things I did, because as a parent I see myself as supporting them rather than vice versa … But I decided that I would tell them because it has affected me and I want them to be open with me about stuff, so in a way it’s modelling good behaviour.’
Garry also spoke to his brothers about the abuse. The conversation happened several years ago when Garry’s younger brother revealed that he had also been abused by Rowan and wanted to take legal action against the Church. Garry joined his brother in the action. So far it’s been an unpleasant experience. ‘It’s demeaning. And also for me the focus on pathology rather than resilience is just awful.’
As well as awful, the process has been prolonged. Years have now passed without a settlement offered or a court date set. Garry and his brother are getting tired, and Garry wonders if they might give up soon. He is coming to regret his choice to speak up about the abuse.
‘If I knew how hard it was going to be to face these issues of abuse after all these years I may not have done it. Since contacting the Royal Commission in December 2013 I have had longer and more intense feelings of distress than at any earlier time in my life. I have had difficulties accessing face-to-face trauma counselling specialist services … I have faced most of this distress alone. My previous strategy of suppressing the thoughts of my trauma was in many ways a more viable alternative given how distressing it has been.’
Still, Garry remains determined to see the Church held to account. ‘For my healing actually, a really critical part of it is actually knowing when did they know, what did they do about it when they did know and what are they doing about it to make sure it never happens again.’