Kel’s Catholic parents married in the mid-1960s. They were in their teens, and had many children in quick succession. As one of the eldest, Kel bore the brunt of their inexperience and stress. If his mother flew into a rage, if he was thrown across the room, or had his teeth knocked out, ‘that was God punishing ya’, he said. ‘Everything was God’s fault for some reason. That was the way it was.’
The Catholic primary school Kel attended was in an outer suburb of Melbourne. While the cruelty there was less than at home, he was ostracised for being ‘dirt poor’, and sometimes stripped and lined up with other boys to receive vaccinations and medical checks. He believes that this may have made him more vulnerable to the attentions of the priest who exercised ultimate authority at the school.
Father O’Casey was ‘a big military buff’. He groomed Kel and other altar boys by showing them his military collection, and pornographic magazines, inside the presbytery, and giving them gifts such as model tanks. He used military terms to describe erections, and circumcised and uncircumcised penises, and on the pretext of giving advice would get the boys to talk intimately about their bodies. He discussed masturbation with another priest in front of the boys, and when alone with Kel would discuss the topic at length. He also taught the boys sex education and coached them in cricket.
Kel can remember arriving at the presbytery, and he can remember the actual incidents of sexual abuse which would always happen while he was alone with the priest. However, he cannot recall how an incident ended, or how he managed to leave or walk home. He remembers that the priest justified the abuse, which continued for several years, by saying that ‘God meant you to enjoy sex. The Church was wrong, you and I know this. It’s natural’.
At this time Kel suffered from penis and kidney infections. On one occasion, when he was hospitalised for ‘passing blood’, and in great pain, he overheard a doctor saying it is ‘very unusual for a child to have this’. His mother, who had asked the doctor whether her son would be able to have children, now has no memory of the event. Records verify Kel’s visit, but not his condition which, according to his father, was ‘undisclosed’.
The more Kel was abused, the more trouble he got into at school. Pulled out of class to go to the presbytery or serve at mass, he fell behind in his work and started to rebel. He tried to get expelled and sent to a school which didn’t have priests. Fortunately, his family moved to country Victoria, and so the years of abuse came to an end. His parents were more settled, his siblings could run free, and he was a lot happier. However, he finished primary school with a ‘big hole’ in his education. Virtually unable to read or spell, his lifelong job prospects would be limited to heavy labour.
Kel believes that a child is ‘not of a sexual nature’, and that this innocence cushioned him when he was little. However, after puberty, memories of the abuse played on his mind constantly. Unable to cope or tell anyone, he cut himself so severely that he needed many stitches for a wound which he explained away as a farm accident. It was ‘an outward show of pain’, he said, ‘like a pact with the devil’. Fortunately, in his late teens, ‘life took over’. He distracted himself with outdoor sports, stopped cutting himself, and ‘got on top of it’.
As an adult, Kel tended to take risks which sometimes resulted in major physical injury. ‘When I was young, I’d ride bikes hard,’ he said. ‘Even now, I surf hard. If I get up there and it’s double head high, and it’s pounding, everyone else is leaving the beach, I’ll still paddle out. I shouldn’t, and it’s stupid, but you sort of need to reaffirm to yourself that you’re not a coward.’
Significant physical injuries also happened at work. Kel connects this to conditioning which left him unable to deal with authority. Whether a person is ‘bigger and stronger’, or half his size, an imbalance in power can trigger panic attacks which are ‘very unpleasant and very hard to cope with’. Standing his ground against a boss, or asserting that a work situation was unsafe, was not possible for him. He would knowingly work on unsafe sites, and if injured, would have to return to the same job, despite medical advice, because he lacked the literacy skills required to retrain for another position.
Seeing what his wife went through when she reported her own sexual abuse in her 20s deterred Kel from disclosing his abuse. However, a decade ago, a ‘marital hiccup’ relating to sexual problems ‘brought it all back to the surface’, and he shared his story with his wife and a marriage counselor. He left counselling though, as he did not want to be labelled as ‘someone who needed psychological care’. Concerns about potential costs have caused him to avoid seeking any form of legal redress.
Like his own parents, Kel became a better parent with age, but he still couldn’t be affectionate with his children. ‘When you’ve been beaten, had a hard up-bringing, it’s just not in ya,’ he said. However, with his wife of over 25 years, he has created a home in which his children could happily bring their friends. He still works long hours for low wages, has a body ‘destroyed’ by heavy labour and injury, and can feel depression ‘always there like a lurking darkness’.
‘But what do you do?’ Kel asked. ‘I’ve got to keep going no matter what.’