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Nathaniel Christopher's story

In the mid-1970s, when Nathaniel was 12, he began high school at a private Catholic college in regional Victoria. Discipline at the school was very harsh.

‘The first year there it was a huge culture shock. The very first day of school, a priest backhanded a guy so hard, he knocked him out cold. We were all little kids. We’d never seen that, not at school, anyway. The nuns at primary school, they’d hit you with a ruler or give you the strap if you really played up, [but] this priest … just walked up and clobbered him.’

One day in Year 9, Nathaniel wasn’t feeling well. ‘Mum and Dad always put it down to growing pains, so you’d go to school anyway.’ Nathaniel’s teacher sent him to the sick bay, which was run by Father Barlow. It was the first time Nathaniel had been there.

‘He fondled and grabbed me, had my pants undone. He made me do the same to him.’ Nathaniel suspects he may also have been abused by Father Barlow when he and his schoolmates were on a retreat with children from other schools.

‘The next thing I remember I was taken home with a head injury and I remember Barlow was fighting with one of the facilitators about whether to take me to the doctor. Not fighting, arguing … His opinion was, just take me home. I don’t remember anything else about that time.’

Nathaniel joined a group at the school, but was unaware that it was run by Barlow. ‘He tried to isolate me on one of those occasions. I remember that pretty clearly, and I gave that up.’ From then on, Nathaniel avoided Father Barlow for the rest of his time at school.

After the sexual abuse, Nathaniel’s schoolwork suffered. ‘Academically it ruined me. I lost it, I think. Up till that point I was a straight-A student. I took a lot of time off school after that with pretend illnesses …’

Nathaniel tried to find an apprenticeship but his father wouldn’t allow it, and Nathaniel finished Year 12. He would have liked to go to university, but his marks weren’t good enough. He found a job and eventually entered the public service.

After a marriage breakdown, Nathaniel met a woman with whom he had a troubled relationship, and this led to him going to prison. While he was there, he came across Father Barlow a number of times. Nathaniel alerted the prison authorities and was moved on two occasions, when Barlow was placed in the same section.

When Nathaniel approached Barlow to see if he remembered him, Barlow showed no remorse and told him, ‘Oh, I remember you. You were a quiet little boy. Didn’t cause trouble for me like the others did’.

After he was released from jail, Nathaniel contacted the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing program. The first person he spoke to told him not to report Barlow to the police, but to follow their process. While he was doing that, another Towards Healing staff member told him he had to report Barlow to the police.

Barlow was charged and pleaded guilty to the abuse of Nathaniel and several other boys. ‘The police officers I dealt with were fantastic. The victims support … prosecutor was good. I think the judge hit the nail on the head with his comments at sentencing. But when I walked away, and the other guys walked away, everybody went [in] separate directions.’

Nathaniel told the Commissioner that at the trial, ‘I saw one guy there that I remember from school. The others I didn’t remember. And he just walked off with his head down’.

Something that made Nathaniel particularly angry was, ‘another guy … told the court through his victim impact statement that his parents wrote to the college when he had troubles there and his brother had troubles there … and this is before my problem there … So [there was] proof that [they] knew about it before then, but it didn’t stop then. It didn’t stop later’.

Nathaniel has had some counselling in the past but has not really talked about the sexual abuse. However, he can now ‘acknowledge some impact on me in my decision-making and the way I’ve done things in my life, but it’s worse in that it doesn’t go away, and as I found when I left court … nobody felt better’.

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