In the late 1950s, Father O’Brien began as the assistant priest in Julian’s family’s Sydney parish. Almost immediately, he started abusing Julian who was a 10-year-old altar boy. ‘I mean, every time I was with him, he was fondling me’, Julian said. ‘He indicated that I had some sort of a problem and that he was assisting me with it. It meant absolutely nothing to me – absolutely nothing. I had no idea what he was talking about.’
Julian told the Commissioner that over a period of years he became practised at dissociation while the abuse was occurring, including giving himself another name so he could believe it wasn’t happening to him. ‘He could have done anything to me and I would not have protested.’
O’Brien successfully insinuated himself into Julian’s family home. Julian’s parents thought the priest was wonderful and were grateful for the lifts he gave to and from altar boy practice and that he often took Julian swimming and bushwalking. On several occasions both Julian and his brother were abused by O’Brien in the bedroom of their home.
Julian’s ability to compartmentalise the abuse remained firm for more than three decades. He asked O’Brien to perform the rites at his wedding, and baptise his four children.
In the 1990s, Julian was attending group counselling to address difficulties in his second marriage. ‘People were saying they’d been sexually abused, things had happened to them as kids and things like that. I thought, well, that’s happened to me. Why are you so messed up, sort of thing? It’s happened to me and I’m okay. Then I realised I wasn’t okay.’
His first disclosure came to the group and then he told his wife for whom ‘the penny dropped’. She suggested he contact the Catholic Church to report O’Brien.
Some months later, Julian met with and detailed the abuse to two staff of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney. One told him the allegations were serious and of a criminal nature, and suggested he go through the Towards Healing process, which he agreed to do. ‘I went away believing that there’d be some follow-up, and absolutely nothing happened for four years – nothing, nothing, not a word, nothing from the Church at all.’
In the early 2000s, Julian wrote to the Archbishop of Sydney repeating the allegation and enquiring about progress. He was given an appointment time with the archbishop’s delegate who arrived an hour late saying he’d forgotten about their meeting. ‘He just treated me with disdain, absolute disdain’, Julian said.
The delegate dissuaded Julian from going to New South Wales Police. ‘He told me that O’Brien was perhaps senile, “Don’t be disturbing your parents with these issues, it happened a long time ago”. He just treated me like a fool. Absolute disdain.’
Feeling frustrated and knowing the priest wasn’t senile, Julian went to visit O’Brien in a nursing home to confront him directly. ‘When I went to his room I asked him would he admit to what he did to me as a child, that I was having no success with the Church, they were just ignoring me, would he please acknowledge what he did to me as a child. He said, “Yes”.
‘He sat down and he wrote out a written acknowledgment that he did abuse me.’ When Julian said he wanted to take the signed piece of paper to the bishop, O’Brien agreed.
However, the archbishop’s office refused to accept the written account, saying it had been coerced. They also said they had no record of Julian’s earlier contact or any involvement with Towards Healing - though this was later recanted. ‘I feel that they were actively seeking to discredit me and not give me any fairness at all … I did not want money; I just wanted acknowledgement.’
Years later, after protracted legal argument, Julian was given $60,000 in compensation by the Church. By then his marriage of 25 years had ‘collapsed completely’. He said his wife ‘got fatigued with it all’, while he ‘wouldn’t let it go’.
Julian’s lawyer told him to forget pursuing an acknowledgement from the Church, telling him, ‘they’re not into apologies’.
‘So I thought if I’m not going to get an acknowledgement in a court case and great costs, I’ll just say, “Well, look whatever they have said, let’s just get it over with”.’
Coming to the Royal Commission was part of ‘completing the process’, Julian said. ‘I made a vow to myself to do everything that I reasonably could. I’m doing it, yes. I’m freeing myself. I’m really freeing myself.’