Julianna came to the Royal Commission on behalf of her son, Sean who, between the ages of 16 and 19, had been a boarder in a St John of God residential facility in Victoria. Sean has a mild intellectual disability and lived at the facility during the week, returning home on weekends.
In the 1980s, Julianna noticed Sean’s behaviour changing. He went from being a ‘nice, chirpy, sort of happy person’ to someone who was withdrawn and fearful. On one weekend home, Julianna told him he’d get sick if he didn’t perk up.
A friend of Sean’s who was in the house told Julianna it was the fault of one of the Brothers and ‘what he does to Sean’. Julianna then asked Sean if that was true and he replied, ‘Yes he does rude things, but I’m not allowed to tell you what happens up there or else I’ll get bashed’.
Sean looked frightened saying this. ‘I backed off’, Julianna said. ‘I just lost it and I was in shock’.
Julianna’s husband, Peter, later took Sean aside and was able to confirm that one of the Brothers from the facility, Brendan Jones, had been sexually abusing Sean for some time.
Julianna and Peter went to the facility and told the prior of the order, Brother Damien, that they thought Sean had been sexually abused by Brother Brendan. ‘I wouldn’t say he was shocked’, Julianna said. ‘He sat there a bit motionless but he was not as concerned about Sean as what he was about the Brother making the final vow … He just said, “Oh, and he’s made his final vow”.’
Thinking Brother Damien would take action, Julianna and Peter concentrated their efforts on finding a new place for Sean and getting him well. However, his behaviour quickly deteriorated to the extent that he needed hospitalisation for three months in a mental health facility.
Sometime later, the executive officer of a Victorian disability advocacy organisation wrote to the Order outlining her concerns about the number of complaints she’d received of sexual abuse by Brothers at the facility. Julianna understood that in a reply the officer was told the Brother ‘in question’ had ‘been given counselling’ and sent to New Zealand.
By the late 1990s, more reports were emerging of abuse by Brothers at the facility that had occurred over decades. Julianna was reluctant for Sean’s story to be made public because she was still concerned for his welfare, however one day Sean suddenly spoke of Brother Brendan saying that, ‘he’s rough and tough and he stuck that up me’.
‘So it was after that I thought maybe this is time to move, because the doctors had said, “Don’t pressurise him or try to interrogate him in any way because it could be bad for him”, so I never, ever did. I left it.’
In the early 2000s, Julianna made a statement to Victoria Police. The matter was investigated by a detective who was ‘very, very good’. As his enquiries persisted it was found that Brother Brendan was preparing to leave Australia and his passport was confiscated.
Sean wasn’t able to voice what had happened to him, but the abuse was corroborated by other residents of the facility who used to try to protect Sean from Brother Brendan. ‘Sean would hide under a table, a desk of something, and he’d be dragged out’, Julianna said.
Despite the testimony of others, the case didn’t proceed. Julianna wasn’t sure what reasons were behind the decision, however she’d heard the matter of abuse at St John of God facilities was an ongoing matter for reinvestigation.
At the same time as going to police Julianna and Peter had engaged a legal company to make a civil claim against the Brothers. ‘It wasn’t a money issue’, Julianna said. She wanted them to be made accountable for the actions of their staff and for the abuse to stop. ‘This guy still isn’t behind bars you know.’
As an outcome of the civil claim, Julianna and Peter received $325,000 on Sean’s behalf from the Brothers. During the negotiation process it was suggested the family contact Towards Healing, but Julianna had spoken to people who’d had bad experiences with that process so chose not to.
Looking back, Julianna said Brother Damien’s lack of response to their concerns about sexual abuse now made sense – because he had himself become the subject of numerous complaints of child sexual abuse.
She was angry still that none of the Brothers had been successfully prosecuted for their abuse, and that the Catholic Church persisted in trying to silence people who spoke out.
‘I must say I’m disgusted with the leadership of the Church’, she said. ‘They’ve put it all under the carpet … and I think it stems from the leadership because they have allowed it to happen. They’ve covered up their own instead of making it a criminal offence. It’s a crime. They have treated it as just like, you know, a little misdemeanour but it’s an actual crime, a heinous crime.’
She was glad she’d been able to speak for Sean. ‘It’s been a way of letting it all out I suppose for the sake of others coming up. So it can be stamped out.’