When trouble started at school for Leon, the teenager felt he had no one to turn to. His family was devoutly Catholic. His mother, ‘would never hear a word against the Church’. His father drank heavily and was physically and emotionally abusive. Leon fitted a lock to his bedroom door.
Leon attended a Marist Brothers school in Victoria in the 1960s, which he described as ‘very strict’.
‘[The Brothers] carried with them straps and sticks and even hit people with pick handles that were used as baseball bats really.’ Leon managed to avoid the beatings most of the time, since he was a good student and quite athletic. But he recalls many instances of behaviour he later realised was sexually abusive. One day he was kept back after a swimming trip and told to do extra laps. In the change room a Brother came in and berated him for being slow to get ready. ‘He actually took the towel from me and dried me. Which was a bit strange.’
Leon came to the attention of the school headmaster, Brother Fontana, when he expressed an interest in becoming a teacher. Fontana called Leon to his office after school. ‘He would talk to me about joining the Marist Brothers. I’d tell him I wasn’t interested … But he would send kids to tell me he wanted to see me after school.’ Leon was 15 years old when these office visits began. They continued for two years.
The sexual abuse started with inappropriate conversations about girls Leon knew and his relationship with them. Fontana talked about temptation and how Leon could resist it. ‘He said he would be someone special in my life. At those times he would walk around behind me and have his hands on my shoulder and rubbing my arms. And from there it just got … worse.’ Father Fontana raped Leon on several occasions.
‘I spent so many afternoons in that office, wishing it was over, wishing I could get out, just go.’
Leon tried to escape the Marist Brothers. He enrolled himself secretly at the local high school for three days, but was informed he’d need his parents’ permission to stay. Leon reluctantly returned to the Catholic school, where he told Father Fontana he would not come to his office again. Fontana replied, ‘This will be confidential between ourselves’. The abuse finally stopped.
‘When I left school I thought at that point I’d put this behind me, that the nightmare was over. I lived in fear someone would find out. It was so shameful and I felt guilty … Eventually I thought nobody had found out … it was okay.’
Leon’s nightmare was not over, merely postponed. He found he couldn’t bear to be in schools and abandoned his plans to become a teacher. He worked for the government instead and built a strong career over 25 years, which took him overseas. But in the early 1990s Leon’s past resurfaced. He returned to Australia and had a mental breakdown. ‘I attempted suicide two or three times and I was sectioned into mental hospitals and I was taking a lot of prescription drugs, overdoses. Don’t know how I got through all that.’
Leon lost his job. One day after drinking heavily he wrote down an account of the abuse and then fell asleep. Leon’s wife read his words. She was the first person to learn of his ordeal in 30 years. Leon had not even told his doctors. Now his psychiatrist confronted him. ‘She told me, “It is what it is and we really need to address it”.’
In the 2000s Leon and his solicitors approached the Marist Brothers. A senior member of the order knew of Brother Fontana and the child abuse allegations that had followed him for years. Leon’s story was believed. He received a written apology from the Marist Brothers, which he considers the most important result of his dealings with the Church.
He was offered the opportunity to revisit his old school to look for closure. ‘We walked around the school and it was okay. But when I went into that office - I just broke down in there.’
Brother Fontana died just after Leon reported his abuse to the Catholic Church. It’s another regretful note for Leon. ‘I never had an opportunity to meet him face to face. Just to say to him, “You know what you did and you know what damage you caused and you know this is wrong and I want you to apologise”. That never happened.’
‘You can never tell and it’s pretty pointless, but I can’t help thinking what might have been different if this hadn’t occurred.’
Leon finds telling his story very difficult, but he wanted the Royal Commission to hear it. ‘I’ve been through so much trauma and stress … I just want to be part of the contribution to something that might lead to something healthy.’