At 10 years old, Michael fell victim to Father Anthony Sheehan, a serial paedophile priest who abused dozens of children in Victoria in the 1950s and 1960s. For most of his life Michael believed the lies that Sheehan had told him: that he was the only victim, and that the abuse was somehow his fault.
‘I can remember leaving school and coming down and thinking to meself, “It’s not going to happen today. I’m not going to put him in that situation again”. It was all about me putting him in that situation, not him manipulating me.’
Shame and guilt kept Michael from talking about the abuse for over 30 years. The truth came out one day in the mid-1990s when he received a phone call from his father.
‘Dad rang me and said, “I’ve got some bad news for you”. I said, “Oh yeah, what?” He said, “It’s about Father Sheehan”. And straight off I said, “He’s been charged with child abuse”. And he said, “How did you know?” I said, “I’m one”. And he said, “Holy shit. Well I’ve got some more bad news for you: Luke’s another one”.’
Michael quickly discovered the details: his older brother Luke and a man named Peter Walsh had gone to police and reported that Sheehan had abused them both when they were boys. And they weren’t the only ones. It turned out that Sheehan had abused many children, before and after he got to Michael.
For Michael this was a devastating revelation. He blamed himself, imagining all the lives he could have saved if he’d only spoken up at the time.
Michael joined with Luke and the others in the case against Father Sheehan. Pre-trial procedures got underway and after negotiations Sheehan pled guilty and was sentenced to about three years in jail. He served about a year and a half.
Sometime later, Michael was approached by a senior Catholic clergyman who had heard that he was considering suing the Church.
‘His words to me were, “You’ll never get to court. There is no such person as an archbishop. It is a chair, it isn’t a person, and you’ve got no one to sue. And you’ll never get the Catholic Church into court. And you’re just wasting your life and your time and you need to put it behind you, move on, and not drag the Church into the mud”.’
Michael didn’t sue the Church.
In the mid-2010s he contacted the Royal Commission and they referred him to the Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA) who set him up with a counsellor. With her help he’s managed to accept – at least in his ‘sane moments’ – that he’s not responsible for what Sheehan did to him and the other kids. And he’s starting to look at the abuse in a new way.
‘I saw it as a death. I saw it as I’d lost my childhood and I was in mourning. And I’ve grown through that mourning to a position now where my insane moments are a lot less … and I’m at least sleeping. I’m not having the nightmares that I was having.’