Lowell James's story

‘I come from a home life that wasn’t warm and fuzzy. My mother, although caring, was not close to my brother or myself, and she was subject to continual verbal abuse from our father and occasional physical abuse as well … We lived in fear of our father’s bad temper and toxic, violent rages.’

Lowell’s mother enrolled him and his brother in a youth group run by the Anglican Church in Sydney, in an attempt to give them some normality and positive role models. At the beginning Lowell loved it. It was the mid-1960s, and he was nine years old.

He was soon befriended by a senior leader of the group, Stephen Mack. Lowell said he relished being with an adult who seemed to care about him and his problems, and he came to regard Mack as a friend and confidant.

When Lowell was 11, the youth group went on a weekend camp. Lowell shared a tent with Mack and during the night, he put his hand inside Lowell’s sleeping bag and masturbated him ‘for what seemed like an eternity’.

‘Mr Mack isolated me the next day from the other campers in his car on the pretence of having to go and get supplies. The blame for what happened was placed entirely upon me. Mr Mack said his hand had just brushed by me and that I had an erection, so I must have enjoyed it. This was followed up with “You can’t tell anyone or you will be in trouble and your father will go ballistic”. I felt I had nowhere to turn for help.’

Over the next few years, Mack engineered situations to isolate and sexually abuse Lowell. He blamed himself for allowing it to happen and said he felt ‘riddled with shame’. It also left him profoundly confused about his own sexuality and his faith in God.

‘The need for secrecy, hiding, lying, guilt, sheer terror sent me to a place in which I felt I had no escape. Mr Mack stepped up his activity when he knew it was safe and I was caught in his evil net and had nowhere to turn. He performed sodomy, oral sex, masturbation all the time with this “It’s my special way of showing how much I care for you”.’

Lowell said the abuse occurred on hundreds of occasions – inside the church and in various rooms around it, in the youth group storeroom, in a coffee shop, in his car and on camps.

Mack’s grooming was thorough, including befriending Lowell’s mother and reaffirming Lowell’s rift with his father. Lowell likened it to being a victim of Stockholm syndrome. The abuse continued until he was 16 when Mack started to lose interest in him.

He said the impacts were debilitating and as a teenager he often had suicidal thoughts. ‘The abuse hangs over my life and arises like a dark shadow from which there is no escape. When it arises it brings back all those feelings of insecurity, fear and withdrawal.’

Rather than turn to alcohol or drugs, his coping mechanism was to work extremely hard and achieve as much as he could. He made life busy so he didn’t have time to think about his past.

However, in the late 90s, Lowell was prompted by events in the public sphere to disclose the abuse to his parents and his wife. It didn’t go well, with his parents providing little support and his wife filing for divorce. He lost his house and had to take over primary care of their son, meaning he had to give up his job.

He also reported Mack’s actions to the rector at the church where the abuse occurred. By this time, Mack had been convicted of abusing other children and the rector referred Lowell’s case to his superiors. However the Church’s response was to offer Lowell just 10 counselling sessions, no apology and no follow-up. Lowell said the experience was very upsetting and negative. The only good that came out of the counselling was that he stopped blaming himself for what had happened and started to understand he was a victim.

He said caring for his son made him understand the absolute trust that children place in adults and how that trust was so severely betrayed for him.

Nearly 20 years later, with a new, supportive partner, Lowell received an unexpected phone call from the Professional Standards Unit of the Anglican Church. They were reviewing cases that had been badly handled and Lowell’s file had reached the top of the pile.

This time, he said, his case was ‘brilliantly handled’. He requested and was granted a meeting with the archbishop, who he said was very generous with his time and genuine in his apology. The Church also gave him $100,000 and paid for 12 months of counselling.

He has found the counselling very useful this time, and it was a great help in preparing to come forward to tell his story. His main challenge, now that his working life is over, is to find new coping mechanisms.

‘One of the things we’ve come to terms with this time is I had never realised where I withdrew to, but it wasn’t a place of safety, it was a place of absolute fear and terror and isolation, and that’s why it’s just extremely hard to get out of …

‘It’s great that this is being discussed publicly now and the Royal Commission, this hopefully will stop this happening to kids in the future, but it also creates a huge amount of anxiety for those that have had to live through it.’

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