In the 1970s, Johnny arrived at school one day feeling unwell and was sent by his teacher to the sick bay. The principal, Christian Brother David Suffolk, led Johnny to a room and told him to take his trousers off for an ‘examination’. The 13-year-old was then made to lie on a table and Suffolk sexually abused him. ‘I was very numb and not really conscious of what was happening. I was trembling. I thought, I wish this was over when it was happening so I can go home … He told me to put my pants back on and he rang my mum and asked her to come and pick me up.’
When Johnny later told his brothers what had happened, they replied that the Brother only did that to ‘poofs’ and that Johnny must therefore be gay. Their comments felt like a huge betrayal.
‘I offered that information in good faith. I was sexually inexperienced and didn’t know the difference between tampering and what a principal might have to do. They said, “You asked for it. You followed him in there. You dropped your pants”. I’m thinking why did I tell them? I should have kept it my own secret.’
Soon after the abuse, Johnny moved with his family to another part of New South Wales. He said he stopped studying and doing homework and lost his faith in people. ‘All that vitality I had as a kid, I had to withdraw from the person that I was. I just wasn’t as outgoing and fun anymore … Suddenly I had these feelings of not being complete. I felt used, and also that I had a dirty secret.’
After leaving school, Johnny struggled to find work and feelings of low self-esteem led to further depressive thoughts until he was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Aside from occasional temporary jobs, he lived on income from a disability support pension. He said he didn’t know how large a part the sexual abuse had played in his poor health and living circumstances, but thought it was significant.
In the 2000s, Johnny started seeing a counsellor and after several sessions disclosed that Suffolk had sexually abused him as a teenager. The counsellor suggested he contact Towards Healing and, assisted by his sister and a lawyer, Johnny made application for compensation.
He described the process as protracted and ‘clinical’, and although he received an apology and financial compensation, was dissatisfied that Suffolk had not been called to account. He also felt let down by a system that had to put ‘a benchmark’ and value on his abuse. The amount of $40,000 he received, which included $6,000 in legal fees, felt small compared to his lifelong loss of income and potential. ‘That led me to question my worth again like I did when I was a child.’
Some years later, Johnny reported Suffolk to NSW Police and an investigation led to further reports of the Christian Brother’s sexual abuse of other boys at the school. Johnny heard that Suffolk had retired and was being ‘watched over’ by senior church officials, an odd expression he thought considering the nature of Suffolk’s crimes. At the time of Johnny speaking to the Royal Commission, the police were still undertaking the investigation.
Johnny told the Commissioner he thought sexual abuse matters were better handled by the courts than by internal systems like Towards Healing. ‘I would say that Towards Healing will die a natural death. People are not going to get any closure. The only people who are going to use it are the desperate people. With all that’s come to light, it’s going to go into the courts and be a big messy business for the Church. They’ve done all they can to stop it with their precedents. It’s piecemeal - you wouldn’t call it compensation. If it was commensurate with the injury it would be enormous. The whole apparatus stinks.’