Hank was born into a large Catholic family in the early 1960s. His uncle, Clive Stirling, was a Catholic priest. ‘Having a priest in the family was tantamount to having a direct line to God’, Hank told the Commissioner. ‘He was popular among his brothers and sisters. He was a welcome guest in the house.’ Father Stirling first sexually abused Hank when he was 14 years old.
Hank’s family used to visit Stirling in different parishes as he moved around the state. As Hank grew older he would be sent on holiday visits by himself sometimes. Hank’s first memory of abuse was late at night when he was seated at a table in Stirling’s presbytery.
‘I can remember Clive coming up behind me and [he] put his arms down over my shoulder and held me against the chair. He then put both hands in my groin area and started stroking my penis.’
A few nights later Stirling came into Hank’s bedroom, dressed only in his underpants. He tried to get into bed with his nephew, but Hank resisted. ‘Still standing up, Clive removed his underpants and held my head and forced me to have oral sex with him.’
On another occasion, a road trip, Hank recalls waking in the car to find his uncle masturbating him. The sexual abuse occurred whenever Stirling had the opportunity, and continued for four years.
Hank felt unable to reveal the abuse to anyone in his family or church. ‘I couldn’t talk to my parents or any family members, because when it started I didn’t really understand what was happening. Sex education – there was none.’
‘He never threatened me with harm if I told anybody, but I couldn’t tell anybody anyway. There was the implied threat of eternal damnation for doing it … The dichotomy was too harsh. He was doing it, but he was telling me that doing it was going to send me to hell.’
Hank took the shame, embarrassment and guilt of the abuse onto himself. He became deeply confused by his body’s response to Stirling’s actions. ‘It took me decades to realise that was just a physiological response.’
The impacts on his life have been profound. Initially, Hank lost his religious faith.
‘Listening to him in church giving a sermon condemning homosexuals to eternal damnation, listening to the hypocrisy, just turned me away from the Church completely. I stopped participating and became an atheist, which didn’t impress my mother.’
Hank became withdrawn. He had trouble relating to people and trusting others. He has had lifelong difficulty making friends. Hank had always been a good student, but he could no longer concentrate on his study and dropped to the bottom of the class in high school. He failed his Year 12 exams, and could not complete university studies when he eventually entered as a mature age student.
‘I’ve been possessed with the shame of the events and the half conviction that somehow it was my fault and the guilt associated with that. I’ve been depressed – almost suicidally depressed.’
In the early 1990s Hank decided he had to ‘get it out or I would go crazy’. He disclosed the abuse to a friend, who urged Hank to report Stirling to the police. Hank did so, but found the experience of making a statement difficult and re-traumatising. ‘[The police] finished, said “Thank you”, and sent me home. There was no attempt at debriefing, no offer of counselling, no kind of help if I needed it. And I did. I want to suggest very strongly that that change.’
At this time other men were coming forward to report being abused by Stirling when they were children. Hank’s mother asked him if anything had happened to him. ‘I knew that telling her was going to hurt her, and that was what made it really hard. I strongly suspect it was also an influence when I was a child.’ The revelations have had a divisive effect inside Hank’s family. ‘My grandfather never spoke to me again after it came out.’
Father Clive Stirling received a lengthy jail sentence for the sexual abuse of numerous boys. Hank received a cash settlement from the Catholic Church, but no admission that the Church was responsible or negligent in any way.
Hank has struggled with life, trying to avoid triggers that ‘rip the wound open’.
‘The memories are still as sharp as when I acquired them. I’ve developed techniques over the years to close them off, to isolate them so that I don’t have to constantly put up with them. Sometimes I let my guard down and they get through.’
One of Hank’s techniques has been social isolation. He has taken night jobs, and jobs where he works alone. ‘Whether that’s good or bad I’m not sure.’
‘As a male I was expected to shrug it aside and move on … I think that’s part of why it hit so hard when it did.’
Hank has brought his story to the Royal Commission to help drive change. ‘It has to stop. It never should have happened.’
‘I really hope that the Church can drag itself into the 21st century from the 14th century or wherever it is.’