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Ignatius James's story

Ignatius grew up in a Catholic family in Victoria, and went to a Christian Brothers school in the 1980s where it was mandatory for students to go on retreat in Year 12. While he was on the retreat, Ignatius didn’t want to participate in one of the sessions and went away to have a sleep, but woke to find Father Michael Phelan performing oral sex on him.

‘I pushed him away and he came back’, Ignatius said. ‘I’ll never forget the weird bloody smile, just a sort of, you know, “You’re enjoying this, it’s all right, you’re all right, men like this”.’

The next morning Ignatius was in the shower when Phelan walked in and assaulted him again.

‘He said, “You enjoyed it”. He said, “Don’t kid yourself, because you wouldn’t get hard if you weren’t”. And I’d never had a sexual experience before. I thought, oh I can’t be gay; surely I’m not gay. And then I ran out of the shower and went back to the room and sat there for about half an hour. Then I walked down the whole way to the road and I was going to run away and I sat on the side of the road for ages and didn’t know what to do ... I just sort of didn’t have a clue what to do or what to say, or do nothing. I come back and I basically just sort of blocked it then.’

For some time Ignatius had had plans to join the priesthood, and though his grades slipped after the abuse, he continued with the admission process. In the 1990s, as a final step to being accepted into training, he met with the bishop, but just before the meeting, he saw Phelan with two boys. The priest had his hand on one boy’s shoulder and was making arrangements to have dinner with them and drop them home. Phelan saw Ignatius and said words to the effect of: ‘It will be good to have you as one of us’.

After that, Ignatius told the bishop he was no longer interested in becoming a priest. When asked why, he reported Phelan’s assault on him years earlier.

The bishop then got out a large book and began writing in it while Ignatius was speaking. He didn’t ask any questions about the allegations.

‘He shut the book like that and he said, “Now, I’ll deal with this”. He said, “It’s in my hands, there’s no need to go to the police. I’ll fix it and thanks very much for your help”.’

Ignatius said he’d coped as best he could during his adult life, working in his family’s business and throwing himself into sports. He’d experienced long episodes of depression, often drinking too much and prone to outbursts of anger. His first counselling support had come as a result of contact with the Royal Commission but he wasn’t sure whether it was ‘rehashing something, putting yourself back there’.

Throughout the 2000s, he became aware that the Catholic Church had failed to act upon repeated reports about Phelan’s abuse of children and had shifted him between parishes and countries.

‘I know this might sound silly, but like if I steal cows and you truck them for me, well I get charged with stealing cows and you get charged with an accessory to steal. That might be the charge like accessory to murder or whatever, right? Well how come [the bishop] isn’t charged with accessory to aiding and abetting paedophiles by moving them on? I don’t understand.’

Ignatius hadn’t reported the abuse to Victoria Police nor had he had further contact with the Catholic Church after his initial disclosure to the bishop. He said he wasn’t hopeful of change occurring in the life of the Church or his own.

 

‘One day - like Kevin Rudd did with the Aboriginal community - the Pope will come out and apologise for the abuse and that’ll be it. That’s probably the best that could happen. I can’t see that happening now, sorry. Like, you know, it’s not going to repair my life. I’m 48 and like, I’ve never had a relationship, ever, not for more than two or three days.

‘You ask a question, you know, “When have you been happy?”. And the answer to that is, I can’t remember. Maybe at a footy game perhaps, but happy? What’s happy?’

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