‘One afternoon, I was out the front of the boarding school and there’s a bloke standing up against the pillar sort of having a cigarette. I asked him for a cigarette ‘cause I’d never seen him before and he gave me one. About two, three weeks later he’s my mentor in a prayer group … I went to him to be my mentor, so we were just smoking and drinking instead of learning about God.
‘On my 16th birthday, [in the early 1990s], he bought a bottle of Scotch for us, just got really, really drunk and woke up on his bedroom floor the next day. We were supposed to be in church. So it must have been Saturday night. And then just started masturbating in front of us and sort of stuff like that. I was escaping from something, but I was running to the wrong person.’
As a new student in a Catholic boarding school, Lou found it very hard. For the first three months he cried himself to sleep, but he gradually came to like the school and make good friends. Other students showed him where he could go to have a smoke and when one day Lou asked a man dressed in casual clothes for a cigarette, he did it without realising the man was Father Paul O’Connell, his soon-to-be mentor.
Thereafter, Lou frequently went to Father O’Connell’s room with other boys on evenings and weekends for prayer and bible studies. What initially started as routine meetings about scripture and the gospels soon turned into an opportunity for Father O’Connell to sexually abuse the students.
‘I remember at one stage Father O’Connell was sitting at his desk and then undid his pants. He pulled out his penis and started masturbating. I remember feeling really uncomfortable and not knowing where to look. I ended up turning away.’
Lou thought Father O’Connell used that first occasion to see if the boys ‘would take the bait and follow suit’. On subsequent visits to his mentor’s room, Lou would arrive to find the priest dressed in a white robe, wearing nothing underneath. Over a period of time, Father O’Connell began masturbating Lou and performing oral sex on him. He’d then coerce Lou into reciprocating.
During one school break, Father O’Connell visited Lou at home in Sydney. Lou’s mother was pleased, thinking her son ‘godly and saintly’, but Lou wished she’d been more inquiring about the priest’s visit. ‘It’s not normal for a 45-year-old man to come and visit a 16-year-old kid.’
When Lou was in Year 11, some boys were caught drinking in Father O’Connell’s room. They were each told to write a statement about what had happened and within days, the priest was gone.
About four years after leaving school, Lou told his mother and his then-girlfriend about the abuse. ‘It wasn’t really a disclosure. It was just a drunken rant. Mum thought I was drunk and didn’t know what I was talking about. My ex-girlfriend was a bit worried.’
Lou told the Commissioner that he then blocked memories of the abuse for nearly 20 years, until seeing in a newspaper one day that Father O’Connell had been charged with child sexual offences. He and a friend decided to report their own experiences of abuse to the police. ‘The police couldn’t have been any more helpful. I had so much support from the DPP.’
Father O’Connell was originally charged with eight offences, but after a plea bargain, four of them were dropped. He was sentenced to a short term in prison on four counts of gross indecency with a child under the age of 18, a result which Lou found ‘wasn’t that satisfying’.
The court process, though difficult, was made easier by helpful staff. ‘It was pretty smooth. No complaints, my whole journey - the last five, six years.’ After the criminal trial, staff of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions gave Lou a list of lawyers with experience making claims against institutions, and Lou was currently in the process of pursuing compensation.
Lou described the impacts of the abuse as deep and life-long. He felt ashamed and embarrassed about the abuse and still found it hard to accept that it wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t had a relationship for 10 years and had twice been admitted to mental health facilities.
Although he has seen a psychiatrist and psychologist and found therapy helpful, Lou thought people generally only had a ’50/50’ understanding of mental health and child sexual abuse issues. His mother found it difficult to talk about, so Lou avoided bringing it up.
Lou hoped that coming forward to the Royal Commission would help someone else. ‘It’s very important to me. This sort of thing can be prevented from happening again. If people know what to look out for and stuff like that, that’d be great.’
Despite the priest’s breach of trust, Lou said he was still very religious. ‘Now more than ever. I didn’t lose my faith. It would have been easy. I’m here today, I’ve come through all this adversity because I love my God.’