As Nella placed a photo of her son Dom on the table, she said ‘we have to put a face to this boy’. She pointed to the inscription about love being stronger than life itself. Soon after her son wrote these words, she said, he suicided.
Dom grew up in a close family in Sydney. His parents worked multiple jobs to send him and his siblings to private schools. He was an intelligent boy who enjoyed school, was a ‘brilliant musician’, and won academic prizes in science.
While Dom was at primary school, he accompanied Nella to a church in the eastern suburbs, and served there as an altar boy. ‘And that’s where he met that man, and that’s when he changed so much from that day on’, Nella said. ‘He was still loving … but he changed.’
‘That man’ was Father Jack Reilly. He was ‘very clever and manipulative’, said Rita, Nella’s daughter. ‘He knew exactly what he was doing. He picked the right family who were so devout … He knew my dad worked night shift. He knew all that.’
Nella invited Father Reilly to bless their home, and encouraged him to visit. Under the pretext of assisting Dom with the computer he had given him, he would go into Dom’s bedroom. He also took Dom away to a ‘dug out’ in outback New South Wales.
Dom started to hit his siblings and disrupt the family’s life. He destroyed things, set classroom bins on fire, truanted from school, and on one occasion, shaved his head.
One day, when Nella found Dom crying in his room, he told her that Father Reilly had said that he was no good, would never get anywhere, and wasn’t a man. Later, Nella learned that Dom had just told the priest to stop sexually abusing him, and that the priest had replied by saying, ‘Do you think I want you now? You’re grown up. You make me sick. I don’t want you’.
When Dom was in his early teens, his girlfriend’s mother got the truth out of him, and then told Nella that her son had been sexually abused by Reilly. Nella immediately called the Church, and that night, had two top-level priests from the Sydney Diocese in her home. She expected them to deny the abuse, but was instead shocked when she heard one of them refer to the dug out and say ‘Can you imagine what went on there?’
The Church responded by engaging the whole family in therapy sessions conducted by these same priests. They never mentioned Father Reilly or his abuse. Instead, they blamed various family members for Dom’s dysfunctional behaviour. The father, they said, was ‘no father figure’ because he worked three jobs and was never home. One sibling, they said, was majorly at fault because she and Dom often fought.
The effect was devastating. On the way home, everyone cried. ‘We couldn’t talk to each other. We hated each other,’ Nella said. The sibling who had been singled out became anxious. ‘She doesn’t eat, and then she eats, and then she doesn’t eat. And then she runs from one place to another. You have no idea what that man did to her.’ As Dom moved into adulthood, he became more aggressive and violent. He took a long time to complete tasks and courses, took high dose anti-depressants, and saw a psychologist for many years.
Father Reilly was moved to another church in the same city, and when the family sued for compensation, arrived in court accompanied by a very senior Catholic bishop. ‘For me it was like they kill me’, Nella said, because the bishop supported the perpetrator ‘and not all the people that he abused’.
Nella was also very shocked and hurt to see that the Vatican had sent a senior clergyman to Sydney to help fight the case against her family. She and her lawyer saw the clergyman with the bishop in a room inside the courthouse.
Nella described part of the trial as a nightmare which is still happening now. When referring to the acts of abuse, which numbered almost 400, the Church’s barrister asked, ‘Where was the mother? Where was the mother when all this was happening?’ Nella cried, and was evicted from the court. ‘That was for me, the lowest point I reached … I didn’t know. I didn’t know the word paedophile, what it meant. Didn’t know these things existed’, she said. ‘I take it to my grave those words.’
Dom received a settlement from the Catholic Church in the 1990s, and killed himself later that year. His former partner then took legal action against Nella’s family to obtain her share of the payment.
Two decades have passed. The family still grieve Dom’s loss, and remain deeply affected by the way the Church treated them. Nella is not comforted by the fact that the now notorious perpetrator is in prison for child sexual abuse, because he was never charged for abusing Dom, and will never pay for the crime against her son. She sees no point in being counselled by anyone who has not lost a child, but manages to find sustenance in her faith.
‘I go to church. I just sit in the front, look at the cross. I don’t hear what he says, what the songs are. Just look at the cross, say my prayers … I need that God input in me. I need it.’