‘I think from birth it’s been difficult because, you know, I haven’t had a D-A-D.’
Manny never uses the word ‘dad’. He prefers to spell the word, or say ‘the other person’. ‘He was never there for me’, Manny said. ‘He never gave me one cent, you know. We didn’t have electricity when we were young … He just took the money and spent it on alcohol.’
In the mid-1970s, when Manny was a toddler, his teenage mother left this violent ‘other person’ and raised her growing family in a housing commission house in western Sydney. She was ‘a pretty strong woman’ who taught herself to read and write, obtained a professional qualification, and bought a home for her family when Manny was about 10.
About the same time, Manny started to attend holiday camps run by the Uniting Church. He believes that Dave Howard, the camp leader who lived on site with his family, targeted him because he was a vulnerable child from a troubled suburb. The sexual abuse began after Manny had an accident which required stitches.
‘He said, “you have to stay at my place”, you know, so I stayed at his place, and he gave me these drugs’, Manny said. ‘And then, when I woke up, I knew that something was going on, you know, because my legs were like wide apart and I was face down … I never had sex in my life so how am I to know.’
Dave Howard sexually abused Manny on a number of other occasions. ‘He masturbated behind me, and he basically masturbated on my penis, and he tried to put his finger inside me … He used to get us in our swimming costumes, and then play food fights and stuff like this. And then he would do stuff, you know.’ The incidents, which took place during what Dave Howard called their ‘quiet time’, ceased a few years later when Manny stopped attending the camps.
At the time, Manny believed he was not affected by the abuse. ‘I know it sounds stupid, but I didn’t realise what was happening to me’, he said. However, a year or two later, he began to take large quantities of Panadol. ‘And it made me sick’, he said. ‘It made me very, very sick, and I spewed blood and stuff like that.’
Manny left school in his mid-teens and took up a hairdressing apprenticeship in Sydney. He worked with many openly gay men and became ‘really, really confused’. ‘It was like I was the only straight person around, but they were nice to me, you know, and they weren’t trying to do the wrong thing by me. They weren’t. They were friendly, they were so friendly to me, you know, and then I realised this is different from what this man … this is two different things.’
In the early 2000s, there was talk of sending Manny’s nephew to the same Uniting Church camp. This news, and the thought of having to disclose his sexual abuse to the boy’s father, who might become ‘extremely, extremely angry’ and vengeful, made Manny panic. He decided to report the matter to the police who told him that Dave Howard was a ‘cleanskin’, who had never been caught.
After discussing the pros and cons of a trial with the police, and with a counsellor who had ‘the kindest heart’, Manny decided to drop the matter. He felt that he was not ‘mentally right’ or strong enough to endure the court process and genuinely feared that the stress might cause the death of his sick mother.
Manny also decided not to take legal action against the Church. ‘How’s it going to help me?’ he asked. ‘Money isn’t in my head, you know. Like what is in my head is for something to happen to this man.’
To stop the pain, Manny has thought about killing himself many times. He also abused alcohol until the onset of an illness prompted him to give up drinking about a decade ago. These days, he smokes marijuana ‘because it’s like a medicine’.
‘I just want to be relaxed,’ he said. ‘I just want to watch footy on a Saturday night … When I smoke, you know, it just, it calms me down.’ Manny’s ‘problem with authority’ gives him no confidence that prescribed medications will do him any good. ‘How can I trust anyone?’ he asked. ‘When I first trusted someone it didn’t go well for me, so I want to look after myself.’
Manny also has difficulty with relationships. ‘From then until now … I’ve had a real problem just with relationships in general, and working for somebody. Like I’ve been self-employed for a long time and it’s like I have to be in charge of my own everything.’
Today, Manny is trying to reconcile with the mother of his child. He is ashamed to tell her about the abuse, and is triggered by the religious images in her home. ‘Like they’ve got pictures of Jesus everywhere, and when I see that I get like I want to spit on that poster … I don’t want to disrespect her family, but that disrespected me, do you know what I’m saying?’ He hates Christmas and Easter. He has wanted to ‘smash’ pictures of Jesus in the street. He was once tempted to torch a Uniting Church bus, and sometimes feels that he ‘could snap’.
‘It’s like worse than ISIS, I believe, you know. This is really, really bad, you know. This is extremely bad what’s happened. I just want to say that. That’s all. I feel like my life has been ruined.’