‘Part of my problem has been I really don’t know a lot about it and it’s hard for people, for boys I suppose, to tell their parents.’
In the early 1980s Lisbeth was told by her son Joshua that a priest in their New South Wales regional town had ‘been playing around with the altar boys’.
‘I mean I just burst into tears’, Lisbeth said. ‘And I said, “I’m not upset with you, Joshua”. I said, “I’m just angry with myself”, ‘cause I had a gut feeling about him and I didn’t listen to my feelings and, you know, “You’re all right, mate”. And so I rang – his father was at work – and at six o’clock that evening his father went down to Monsignor Thompson at the parish.’
Joshua told his parents that Father James had put his hand on his leg while they were driving in the car, but that he’d pushed him away.
Monsignor Thompson promised Joshua’s father that he’d investigate the matter. Soon afterwards he came back and said he’d spoken to Father James.
‘Father James [had] said he’d only ever fondled the boys’ genitals, and Monsignor Thompson said that it was his way of showing he loved the boys. “He wouldn’t hurt them, he really loved them and it was his way of showing affection. He didn’t mean any harm and there was no point in going to the police over this because Joshua would be put on the stand, he’d be questioned and it would be much more traumatic for Joshua than anything that had already been done to him.”
‘And I remember being almost, there was no way after what had happened that I was going to have that little boy taken to court, you know. I suppose that was my gut reaction.’
A priest was sent from a larger regional town to speak to the community but nothing came of his visit. The priest recounted a conversation to Lisbeth’s husband in which Father James had said: ‘I don’t know what [they’re] going on about, I only ever made a pass at Joshua’.
As ‘rumours’ went round about Father James and other families wondered what had happened, Lisbeth spoke to another of the priests at the parish.
‘I said, “Why can’t you stand up there and say we have a problem in our community here. This is what’s happened, some of the boys have been interfered with. I would like you to go home and talk to your children and find out they’re all right”.
‘And this priest said to me, “Nobody’s got the right to destroy anyone’s reputation”. And I said to him, “You only want money on your plate. You don’t give a damn about anybody”, and I said, “Where do you think these boys are going to be in 30 years time? They’re not going to be in your church”, and by this stage I’m so angry.’
Eventually Father James was ‘whisked away’.
‘He got taken out of the parish overnight to the point where everybody was shocked. “Where’s Father James? What’s happened?”’
Lisbeth found out he’d been sent to Sydney ‘for psychiatric treatment’ before being installed in another parish in a regional city.
Feeling dispirited with the poor response from the Catholic Church, Lisbeth and the family decided they had ‘to get out of there’, and they moved to the city.
Joshua was enrolled in another Catholic school but after Lisbeth ‘was getting the gut feelings’ that the place was ‘creepy’, she withdrew and put him in a different Christian Brothers school. She later found out teachers at both schools had been convicted of child sexual abuse offences.
In the late 1980s, Lisbeth read a newspaper article that a priest had been arrested for sexually abusing a boy, and recognised it was Father James. He was acquitted of those charges but in the early 2010s was charged for further offences against boys and girls that had been committed over decades at different parishes across New South Wales.
At that point Lisbeth and her husband reported to police the events that had occurred in the early 1980s.
Lisbeth had had counselling ‘from time to time’, chiefly ‘because of the anger’. She recounted that she’d ‘never stopped telling people’ what had happened but was often left with the feeling ‘nobody wants to do anything’. She knew she ‘shouldn’t feel guilty’, but hearing about others’ experiences of abuse by Father James made her think that faced with the same situation again she ‘would do it differently’. She doubted the Catholic Church were ‘going to clean it up’.
‘What I would like to see from the Royal Commission is that this is stopped, that this doesn’t happen and you know what? They’re a law unto their own. I don’t trust them. This business, this whole thing about Towards Healing, I’ve heard that people come out of that more traumatised than they went in.
‘They want to fix it internally, you know. They don’t want to be accountable. But for a long time they were only accountable to the Church and they still think that’s where they are. They’ve got to start coming into the modern world and realising that you know, they are accountable to the law of the land. It’s about justice here. They talk about forgiveness. They want whatever program they set up, it’s about: “You’ve got to forgive. You’ve got to forgive”. How about justice?’