Leo’s mother accepted Father George Senner’s offer for her 11-year-old son to stay the night in the presbytery because, as a single mother, she thought it would be good for Leo to have ‘a fatherly influence’. To later find out he had been sexually abused was terrible.
‘She knows I don’t blame her’, Leo said. ‘She thought she could have left me safely alone with a priest.’
That night, Senner took Leo’s clothes, gave him a robe to put on and suggested they watch TV. After coercing Leo to sit on his lap, Senner asked whether he masturbated and then started fondling his genitals. ‘He put his hand inside me, in my bottom. By this stage I was literally frozen. I was just staring. I remember it was almost as if I was watching myself in the room as it happened. I can still see it now, clear as then.’
Leo rejected Senner’s suggestion that they sleep in the same bed. ‘I said, “No, I don’t want to”. I can’t believe I said that. He said, “I’ve got plenty of room, I’ve got a double bed”. I said, “No, I’ll stay in here”. I went to bed and didn’t take the robe off. I was determined to stay awake all night. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought, “How do I get out of here?” I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t have my clothes, I didn’t know where they were. All I had was this dressing gown and I wanted to run and find a police car.’
In what he said was the longest night of his life, Leo tried desperately to stay awake. He was petrified and believed the priest would kill him if he was caught trying to escape. At one stage he saw Senner’s shadow near his door and his next memory is of being put in the shower and told to ‘give yourself a good wash’.
When Senner drove Leo home, he came into the house and told his mother that her son had cried all night, but he’d had a good time. ‘Now that I think about it, it seemed a cover story in case I did say something to her. If I did cry it could be dismissed easily.’
In the late 1970s, eight months after the abuse, Leo told his best friend what Senner had done. ‘His horror and anger surprised me’, Leo said. ‘And he told me firmly that I should tell my mother.’
Leo’s mother was also horrified and took him to see a nun she knew for advice. On hearing the story the nun asked Leo, ‘What did you do to make him do it?’ Upset and embarrassed, Leo now thought he was being blamed for the abuse.
The nun said she’d talk to someone else about what should be done, but despite being asked several times further, neither Leo nor his mother heard from her again. The next time the nun saw Leo’s mother, she turned and walked the other way.
Over the next few years, Leo’s school grades deteriorated. The abuse also affected his health and he was diagnosed with diabetes and a series of autoimmune disorders that his doctor later told him were associated with ‘the body attacking itself, and consistent with embarrassment, guilt and shame associated with victims’.
Despite his health problems and ongoing thoughts of suicide, Leo maintained a career in the public service for three decades, until had to leave for medical reasons.
In the mid-2010s, he made a statement to police in New South Wales where he was living, and Senner, still in Queensland, was charged. In previous decades, the priest had been jailed for other child sex offences. In response to Leo’s allegations, Senner’s lawyers requested a permanent stay due to the priest’s age and ill health. Leo told the Commissioner that the case is still in progress.
At the same time as making his police statement, Leo made enquiries about pursuing victims’ compensation, but was told he was ineligible because too much time had passed and no conviction had yet been recorded against Senner.
Leo’s lawyers are awaiting the outcome of the latest proceedings before seeking civil redress through the Catholic Church. Leo believes a review of compensation and civil laws should be undertaken so proceedings can be aligned and victims don’t have to go through the often traumatic court process twice.
Leo is now seeing a counsellor which he finds helpful in managing the ongoing effects of the abuse. ‘Her ability to just listen, her ethical standards. She’s trustworthy. It still took me three years to tell her … Unfortunately, I do experience a lot of suicidality. I’m just saying that for people to realise how much the abuse still affects me. I don’t think people realise. The psychological pain doesn’t stop.’
It took him two years, he said, to ring the Royal Commission, but he’s glad he did. ‘For me the most important aspect of all of this is having someone listen to me, someone in authority without judgement, and say, “You’re not lying. It is feasible that all these things happened and what you’ve experienced is what the offender is more likely to have done”. The main box I’ve ticked is to have you listen to me.’