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Marcus Alan's story

‘It’s not something that just happens in the past, it’s something that perpetually seeds itself in the present.’ That’s how former Catholic priest Marcus explains how child sexual abuse is recalled by victims.

He understands why some victims of paedophile priests in Victoria have taken their own lives. ‘The relatively mild stuff that happened to me throws me off balance. Those guys had to live with something much more severe and every time they recall … they’re reliving the experience.’

In the 1970s, after being groomed for several years by Bob Williamson, the first non-religious principal of his Catholic school in Queensland. 11-year-old Marcus was sexually abused at least six times.

He remembers the three venues of ‘our secret’: the tuck shop, open only once a week; the pool changing rooms; and, ‘ironically’ in the ‘dark and peaceful’ religious education room.

Called out of class to help with odd or ‘sham’ jobs, Williamson would lower Marcus’s shorts and couch his genital fondling in ‘educational’ terms.

But while ‘packaged as being this kindly, caring, pleasant thing’ with ‘nothing to say that it was right or wrong’, the abuse suddenly stopped. ‘I had no frame of reference for it. Sexual abuse wasn’t anything anybody talked about’, said Marcus, who came from a large family of devoted Catholics.

‘So I just had this really strange and unpleasant and discomforting memory that just remained active in me for years and years.’

He later joined the priesthood but it was not until his late 20s that Marcus realised he had a responsibility to act because Williamson was still working in the Catholic school system.

Marcus approached Father Bannon, a senior clergyman experienced in canon law, who confronted Williamson. He denied the abuse and there the matter rested.

‘At that stage what I said is, “Look, my concern is that you need to be watching him to make sure he is not doing any harm. He’s in the system. I’ve let you know what happened to me”.’

However, with the disclosure to Father Bannon, ‘basically I started letting the genie out, and once it’s out it doesn’t go away’.

Over several years, realising that Father Bannon had protected the interests of the Church, Marcus decided to address the issue for his own mental health. So one day, nearly two decades after the abuse, he approached Williamson himself, seeking three things: an apology, an explanation and ‘a token, like restitution’.

By this time Marcus, whose own investigating had found no evidence of Williamson abusing other boys, was above him in the Church hierarchy. On the confidential basis agreed, they talked for hours.

‘Regardless of how true it is of what happened’, Marcus said, Williamson’s version of the admitted abuse ‘did seem to match the context of what I experienced as a child’.

Unlike media portrayals of paedophiles, Williamson was not ‘a monster’, Marcus said. ‘I’m very much aware that some of what I believe about things is what I want to believe because I’d rather not have to believe the alternative.’

Williamson also admitted that he had stopped the sexual abuse after his confession was heard by his parish priest, Father Hennessy. Marcus said that Hennessy kept Williamson in the confessional for two hours and didn’t let him out until he was satisfied that the abuse was going to stop.

‘I think it’s important you [the Commission] know that, that here is one priest who knew he had a mechanism, knew he had one shot, and acted on it. And seemingly acted effectively.’

Marcus is an advocate of the confessional, a place where perpetrators can go that serves as a preventative mechanism against further incidents.

‘The whole point of the seal of the confessional is that it’s about reconciliation and the priest is not to conduct himself in any way that could in any way create an obstacle to a person being reconciled to God basically, and by extension to the community.’

So the priest was free to ‘do what he could, directly’ with Williamson, ‘but then not free to do anything that could harm’ him afterwards.

‘Of all the flawed mechanisms we have – and every one of them is flawed – I think the one we least understand at the moment is the preventative mechanism and to me that’s where our main money has got to be.’

When Marcus explained that the abuse had left him with ‘lifetime consequences’, Williamson offered to pay for counselling. Marcus was pleased at the willingness for restitution but rebuffed it, concerned about perceived blackmail.

Around this time, Marcus – counselled through the Church with someone who knew what ‘goes on with the celibates because it is an absurd way of living, but that’s another story’ – met the woman who would become his wife. He soon left the Church.

He also disclosed the abuse to his parents then aged in their 70s. His father accepted it. But for his mother, who had worked alongside Williamson in school-related groups, it was ‘utterly incomprehensible and her first knee-jerk reaction is that I must have got it wrong’.

Now in his 50s with his own family, Marcus suggests the Catholic Church should insist on mandatory education for families ‘in what grooming looks like’. Presently, those in the hierarchy of Catholic education still have ‘absolutely no comprehension of what’s happening, let alone what to do.

‘One thing I will say to you is you would be very prudent to completely mistrust the Church still, at this point in time’, Marcus said.

Despite doing what he could about Williamson, Marcus still hasn’t reached ‘peace of mind’ more than 30 years later. It wouldn’t hurt for the Royal Commission to pass on intelligence on Williamson, he agreed, so that ‘if he has lied’ about not abusing anyone else, then more action can be taken.

These days Marcus considers himself ‘lucky in terms of knowing what happens to people because what happened to me, it’s livable and in fact I can subvert it to being a resource for empathy. But for other people what happened to them was barely livable at the time and then it becomes a life sentence’.

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