Harrison was born into a large family and, like his elder brothers, received a scholarship to attend a Christian Brothers College in Western Australia. When he was nine years old Harrison was ‘sent for’ by the headmaster who then sexually abused him. ‘It was a shock to me, because I had revered him as being this figure who presided over the school assemblies and was the big … he was God in a sense.’
The abuse continued for more than two years until the headmaster moved to another school. ‘He was very affectionate and I knew it was wrong, but I’d be sent for from my class and I’d go. For some reason I felt I couldn’t raise it with my parents. I suppose I felt that I was coping with it all right.’
Harrison said that the abuse was compounded in the early 1960s when he became an altar boy at the local church. ‘My elder brother and I were set upon by one of the Servite priests in our parish, who would … take my brother Mick and I to the drive-in and it was there that he would take his pleasure, again not raping us, but you can imagine the sort of, we knew it was wrong, but again, didn’t raise it or complain to our parents about it, because again it would have been horrifying for them.’
When his father lost his job, Harrison took on a parental role, caring for his six younger siblings.
‘I had to almost ignore [the abuse] and deny it, because I was just thrown into an adult sort of role.’ He said he grew up fast and ‘became a leading light at school in sport’, becoming involved in every school activity he could think of. ‘I did exceedingly well in a public kind of way.’
Harrison’s world came crashing down when he sat his leaving certificate and tertiary entrance exam. ‘I remember just sitting in the exam and I must have had a breakdown. I couldn’t even answer the papers. I failed everything. Having been the number one pin-up boy in the school, I crashed.’
A second attempt at exams the following year resulted in Harrison’s admission to university and a subsequent successful career in teaching and the arts. He said he didn’t lose his religious faith and continued to recognise the contribution of many good people in the Catholic Church.
In 2011, Harrison was asked to provide support to people who’d been abused by religious figures. This brought up his own memories of abuse, and when he raised his personal experience with the Christian Brothers they held a hearing and settled the matter quickly. He said the Brother at the hearing was good and fair but thought his experience was different to others’ where Catholic Church officials were so horrified by the reality of the abuse that they couldn’t address it.
Harrison recommended a properly-funded survivor centre be set up by the Catholic Church in collaboration with other institutions to honour those who had been sexually abused. In his work with the Church, he’d spoken with many men who’d just wanted to be listened to and believed. ‘That’s what they want. If there’s some recompense or whatever, that’s a bonus.’