‘My life’s that goddamn hard … I feel like I’m hanging onto a little bit of string and I’m going to fall off.’
In the early 1970s at eight years of age, Gary began as an altar boy in his local Catholic church in Melbourne. Soon after he started, he and the other altar boys were invited to spend a weekend in the country with the parish priest. On that trip, Gary was sexually abused by the priest. After the weekend the abuse continued.
‘For two years every weekend. Sometimes during the week as well. It was always at the back of the church where we get dressed. We’d go get dressed, he’d be getting dressed, there’d be two or three altar boys, he’d come up and he’d start abusing me in front of them.’
Although other boys were also abused, it was the public nature of Gary’s abuse that made him feel isolated. ‘He just made everyone see I was getting abused … At the end, I thought I was the only one.’
In the days following Gary’s return from the farm he told his mother about the abuse and she responded by seeking advice from another family in their Italian community. ‘My mother probably made a mistake telling that family, because the whole … community decided to shut the door on me.’
Gary feels that his mother didn’t believe him as he had to continue to be an altar boy. She never mentioned the abuse again.
‘As I was getting abused and as it continued on, I thought there was something wrong with me and that’s why I got abused.’
Gary’s outlook and behaviour changed significantly during these years.
‘I thought, “I can’t cope”, and because I couldn’t cope, and I was very embarrassed of it, so I started … controlling people to make things happen for me, just to change the feeling. Make people laugh, do some practical jokes to distract everybody, because the anxiety was … really high and I can’t handle it.’
When Gary began high school he managed to stop attending the church. ‘I made a decision from there because I was changing schools … I said to myself “Oh, I’m out of here”. I didn’t go to church any more since that day.’
High school was difficult for Gary because of his behaviour and antagonism towards all authority. ‘I didn’t listen to the teachers anymore after that [the abuse] … I was a bad influence.’
He failed his first four years of high school and then changed schools. His second high school asked him to leave when he was 16 years old, before he completed his studies.
Gary found work after leaving school but he couldn’t settle into one job. To this day he still needs to be in control of all situations and his anxiety has been debilitating throughout his life.
‘I’ve had a lot of jobs but … about six months and it was over … Either I’d get sacked or I’d be telling them to piss off. The longest job I had was in a factory … It lasted three years.’
He tried to control his aggression and anxiety with alcohol and drugs but soon stopped drinking because of its negative effects on his moods. He also limited his illicit drug use to ones that calmed him.
In the mid-1990s Gary saw the man who’d abused him on the television. He began to tell people of the abuse, including his partner, and reported it to the Catholic Church.
Gary wanted justice and to be heard by the Church. Instead he was provided with a Church-appointed counsellor who told him that his anxiety was a mental illness due to his mother and was not related to his abuse.
‘I went there to get help and they didn’t help me. It got worse.’
This diagnosis caused Gary to suffer a steep decline in his mental health and he became delusional and suicidal. As a result, Gary now lives as a recluse and hasn’t worked for 15 years. He lives on a disability pension and struggles. He feels he was victimised twice by the Church.
‘It took a long time for me to know what was really going on … I took it personally for many, many years.’
His marriage has ended but he is still receiving support from his ex-partner and their teenage child. Gary now understands that the impact of abuse lasts a very long time and that his anxiety is part of that. He also believes that the Church should not be able to provide counselling for abuse victims.
‘I don’t want to believe there is no hope … I want to believe I do have a better life coming.’