Over a two-year period in the 1950s, Max was repeatedly sexually abused by a parish priest, Father Jim McMahon. The abuse first started when Max was 13 years old and he and other boys were called to help out at the presbytery next to their Catholic school in outer Melbourne.
McMahon was also involved in the local scouting group and became very involved in families’ lives, making himself available to transport children considerable distances on outings and to their various activities.
Max described his parents as ‘brainwashed Catholics’.
‘Mum and Dad contributed to it a hell of a lot, because they thought he was God on legs so every time he came out and had dinner with them or we had meals, they thought he was the ant’s pants. So that’s how it went.’
Max said the abuse became worse when he had to use the presbytery to change from his school to his scouts uniform. He eventually stopped changing and told the scouting leader the reason. The leader then spoke to the monsignor in Melbourne who one day came out to the parish to speak with McMahon. When Max saw the monsignor arrive, he knew why he was there and ‘took off’.
Soon afterwards, McMahon confronted Max after mass. ‘His words were, “You dobbed me in to me boss”. I said, “Yeah, I did”. So I said, “What’s happening now?” He said, “Nothing”. He just told me to “Be careful”. That’s all he ever said. And he said, “It’s no good going any further ‘cause I’m the parish priest and nobody’s going to believe you. Even your mum and dad won’t believe you”.’
Max left school and went to work for a while before enrolling again, this time at a different school. There he was approached by a bishop who volunteered that he knew of Max’s complaint against McMahon. The bishop said he would ‘fix it’ and that if Max ever spoke about it again it would be a ‘mortal sin’ and he’d ‘go straight to hell’. Max said he ‘left it at that’ and ‘felt as though they fixed it’.
In later years it transpired that McMahon had sexually abused many boys and girls over decades. Complaints made about him throughout that time had been dismissed or denied and he’d been moved between numerous Victorian parishes over a 50-year period.
In the 1990s, people started to make reports to Victoria Police about their experiences of being abused by McMahon. Max made his own statement to police. He was aware of at least a hundred other people who’d been abused by McMahon but were unable to make formal police reports because they were embarrassed or concerned for their parents. ‘It probably would have killed half of them and others wouldn’t have believed it.’
Max described the detectives involved in the case as ‘absolutely brilliant’.
‘They went and interviewed him and he admitted everything’, Max said. ‘And he said, “The boys wanted me to do it. They wanted it. They enjoyed it. They kept coming back”.’
In court, McMahon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve more than a year for each charge brought against him. However, he was permitted to serve each sentence concurrently and in the end was released early, something Max thought was ‘a travesty of justice’.
Max told the Commissioner that the abuse had had significant impacts on his life. He’d experienced depression at different times in his life, most acutely when he’d found out about the extent of McMahon’s offending.
He felt deeply uncomfortable if he had to go into a church for weddings or funerals, and was outraged whenever he saw Church representatives, including the archbishop and pope, saying they weren’t ‘responsible for individuals’ within the Church hierarchy.
Max told the Commissioner that when he disclosed the abuse to his wife in the early 1990s, she wasn’t surprised.
‘She said, “It explains all the things that we’ve had during all the years that we’ve been together”. Because I wouldn’t bath my kids, I wouldn’t cuddle me daughter in case somebody thought that I was mucking around. I had a relationship with the kids but it wasn’t a fair dinkum father relationship. I was more like an older brother – take them shooting, take them fishing, go here, go there, but not what you’d call a loving relationship.’
He said he’d always been hypervigilant. Walking down the street with his wife, he’d be constantly ‘guarding’ her, which ‘used to drive her mad’.
‘I got no idea why she’s still here to be honest. She’s just wonderful. So I went through all that for years and years and years, not just when the abuse was going on. It wasn’t until I started talking to her that I started to be normal, or whatever you call normal is.’