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Ivan James's story

‘I know that I blame myself. It’s just the way it is. A lot of people, I’ve been told, do blame themselves but it’s just the way they make you feel and they manipulate you. Even now I’m still scared to talk about it because of the fear of God, literally, that they put into you that if you ever tell anybody you’ll be struck down. It just makes it hard to talk about it.’

Ivan said that when he was growing up as a Catholic in the 1960s in Melbourne, everyone respected the priest above all else. If you had any problem, you’d call the priest. If you needed help you’d talk to the priest.

‘The priest was like God, basically, to people within the parish. Blind faith and trust.’

That level of trust made it very hard for Ivan to speak up when he was sexually abused by his parish priest, Father Dougherty. As the eldest boy in a large family, it was expected that he would eventually become a priest himself and, when he was eight or nine, he started working as an altar boy, a job that he said was fun at the beginning.

Father Dougherty got Ivan to do the early mass, when there were very few people in the congregation and only one altar boy on duty. After mass Father Dougherty would come into the room where the altar boys changed and abuse Ivan, making him touch and rub his genitals until he ejaculated. One time he wanted Ivan to perform oral sex on him and when Ivan said no, he slapped him in the face. Afterwards, Ivan would go over to the park and cry until he felt able to return home. The abuse continued for nearly a year.

‘He said if I told anybody God will punish me, and my parents will get punished, my family will get hurt, and we’ll get kicked out of the Catholics, out of the school, the Church, all that. So I just didn’t tell anybody. And he reinforced that all the time, to make sure that he kept me in control.’

Sometimes Father Dougherty gave Ivan money, which he would hide in the park and spend later so his parents didn’t ask where he’d got it from. He said he still feels ashamed about spending the money, and that in some ways it turned him into a liar and a cheat because he knew that it was wrong. Discipline was strict at home and he would have been severely punished even for crying.

He started behaving badly at school, either playing up or being very quiet, and his grades started suffering. One of the teachers at his Catholic primary school asked him what was wrong.

‘I said “Father Dougherty”, like that. And she goes “Don’t be so stupid, don’t even talk about anything like that”, and that was the end of it.’

The abuse from Father Dougherty stopped when the family moved and started attending a different church. Ivan was still an altar boy, and when his new priest asked him to stay back after mass he refused, ‘because I was smart enough to know what was coming’. The next day when he was out playing, the priest was there and he slapped Ivan so hard he was knocked to the ground. His mother saw but said nothing, telling Ivan she couldn’t say anything against the priest or the Church.

After fighting with his parents for years, Ivan was eventually allowed to go to a public school. He left at 16 and started a life of going in and out of jobs. Now in his late 50s, he has injuries that mean he cannot work at all.

Over the years he abused alcohol and drugs and committed criminal acts. He self-harms sometimes and has often contemplated suicide. He’s struggled with impotence, continues to have sleep difficulties and finds it very difficult to be around other people, even on public transport.

When he was in his late 40s, he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. After many years of nagging from his GP he agreed to see a psychologist, who diagnosed him with a personality disorder. The psychologist was the first person he told about the abuse.

‘One of the sessions she said to me, go home and write down what my life would have been like if … And when I did that it just started coming out on paper. I had blocked it out to be honest, and hadn’t thought of it for years and years and in a way I prefer it that way because I guess I’ve been acting badly in other ways, but at least I wasn’t thinking about it. And this is all painful and it hurts because I have to keep reliving it.’

It’s still very difficult for Ivan to talk about his experiences and while his wife of many years knows he was abused, he is too ashamed and embarrassed to tell her any details. They’ve had marriage problems because, Ivan said, he’s difficult to deal with, and has a lot of mood swings and anger. He has not told his children.

Ivan no longer has anything to do with the Church. He hasn’t pursued compensation but is planning to go to a victims’ support group for further information and is considering filing a police report. Although he doesn’t much like the term survivor, he is hanging in there.

‘I never really thought until recently about why I am the way I am. With the help of psychologists, I’m starting to realise that it’s not my fault. And that’s a big thing for me to say now, that it’s not my fault.’

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