Before Lewis could even walk, his parents had him earmarked for the priesthood.
‘I’ve got all this very strange family expectation stuff’, he said. ‘When we were growing up, I used to play at saying mass.’
In the mid-1960s, when Lewis was 16, he left his small home town and flew to Sydney to begin his training. For the next 12 months he lived with 20 other young novices, all studying for the priesthood under the supervision of student director John Reid.
Reid was a dynamic, charismatic man, full of energy and enthusiasm. He was also a ‘control freak’.
‘All of your mail was read, going in and going out. There were no phone calls. He had complete control over everything: when you washed your clothes, if you washed your clothes, who you spoke to, what you read. Complete control.’
Reid was manipulative and vindictive too. He would send the boys on walks in pairs together, but never the same pair twice so as to keep the boys from forming close friendships. He encouraged them to speak frankly with each other on these walks.
‘Then he would grill the two people subsequently, and get information from each other and then use that against you, sometimes months later.’
From time to time Reid conducted private, one-on-one ‘counselling’ sessions with the boys.
‘He was always sitting at his desk and the light was always shining on you, and then that would progress to issues around helping you with your breathing, because of your singing, or helping you get in touch with your sexuality and stuff like that. And that sort of progressed from putting his hand down your belt to fondling genitals to lying on the bed and being masturbated.’
By committing this abuse within the context of priestly guidance, Reid gave it a ‘sacramental component’ that was very confusing for the boys. It was, as Lewis put it, ‘a real mind fuck’.
After a year, Lewis moved to another training centre where he stayed awhile before moving to a third centre in Melbourne. Shortly after Lewis arrived, Reid was posted to the same centre.
Lewis wasn’t sexually abused by Reid during this time but he did have to suffer the man’s emotional abuse. ‘He was very keen to keep me off guard. He would fairly regularly suggest that I might be homosexual or that I might be schizophrenic.’
In the end, Lewis stayed at the centre a few years and dropped out just before he was set to be ordained. At large in the world for the first time in his adult life, he flew off the rails.
‘Good old alcohol, good old booze, good old sex, good old rock ‘n' roll. Can’t settle to a job, had something like a hundred jobs over a period of years. Promiscuous. And that’s just not who I was when I went into the monastery. I’d taken a pledge and was never going to drink alcohol. I was chaste. And it all went awry.’
Looking back, though, Lewis believes he was one of the lucky ones. He pulled himself together and settled down with a woman who’s been his partner now for the past 30 years. Other kids from the monastery have not been so fortunate.
‘One guy in particular, who was across the hall from me, his kids found him dangling in the bathroom.’
Lewis knows of two other classmates who have killed themselves. He knows of a fourth suicide too, but this one gets a lot less of Lewis’s sympathy. Just before he was set to appear in court to answer for his crimes, John Reid killed himself.
‘And I had this really quite weird emotional response to it, which was, first of all really quite sad, and then this astonishing anger, which I’ve never experienced before or since. You know: “Bastard, he’s got away with it”.’
Lewis decided that it was time to come forward and tell his story. First, he opened up about it to his wife and some close friends. Next he approached the Catholic Church. He has mixed feelings now about the way they responded. The clergyman who guided him through the case was sincere and compassionate, but the representatives of Catholic Church Insurance were antagonistic.
‘What a bunch of complete bastards they are. They are a very, very nasty bunch of people – the ones that I met were.’
Ultimately, Lewis received a payment of $90,000 and an apology from the clergyman. At a personal level, Lewis was grateful for the apology, which he believes was sincere. But speaking from a wider perspective, he thinks the Church’s redress process is too narrowly focused to make any real difference to the enormous, systemic problem of child sexual abuse.
‘The bottom line with all this is that John was a deeply, deeply damaged human being himself. I mean, this is the story, it goes on and on and on. And it will keep going on until everybody who has been damaged does something to stop them passing it on.
‘Because that’s what you do, that’s what societies do: you pass on what is done to you, and if you are brutalised you brutalise your children, that’s how it works. So without interventions on a fairly grand scale nothing is going to change terribly much.’
The only genuine solution, Lewis believes, is education.
‘We need a much richer education system that’s about helping people to understand what it is to be human and how to grow as a human … Education seems to be the only thing that inoculates people against this stuff.’