Owen believes that if his parents had been raising him and his siblings today, they’d be in prison for the way they treated their children. It was his mother who dominated the family, ordering Owen’s father to flog the kids with a belt. In their household in a small Victorian town, poverty was an issue as well. Sometimes the only food they had was whatever their mother grew in the backyard.
This difficult home life was compounded for Owen by being bullied at school. But during Bob-A-Job Week, when he met Gavin, the caretaker of the local caravan park, ‘he treated me really nice and he stood out as a really, really nice man’.
Gavin invited Owen back to do some jobs and Owen’s dad dropped him off at the park several times. Gavin would put Owen on the couch in his caravan and stroke his penis. Another time, after Owen had gone for a swim, Gavin invited him to get changed in his bedroom and then walked in on him. Owen froze. ‘I don’t really remember … anything happening, but I know that after that day I knew how men had sex.’
After the abuse, Owen’s behaviour deteriorated. ‘Then it become sort of a vicious circle – trouble at home, trouble at school, each feeding into each other.’
Owen didn’t tell his parents. He figured Gavin was his dad’s mate and that he’d get into trouble himself. ‘That was also because I was always in trouble.’
Owen ran away and lived on the street until his money ran out. Then he joined the defence force in Sydney, where he figured at least he had a roof over his head and the chance of a career. Being underage and Catholic, he was placed in the care of Chaplain Ernie Coulter. ‘You were lined up by your denomination.’
Coulter found Owen a sponsor family and became a major part of his life. He taught Owen how to drive, ‘got me drinking the port with him. He was very good friends with my sponsor family’.
Coulter then left the forces and became the priest in the same parish as Owen’s sponsors. He often invited Owen to the presbytery. ‘We’d have a few ports … There’d be a fold-out bunk beside his bed.’
Owen had, at some point, told Ernie Coulter about the abuse he’d suffered as a child, the first time he told anyone. Years later Owen realised that Coulter then ‘pretty much repeated’ what Gavin had done.
‘I woke up with an erection with him, all wet … He’d poured some beer or port on my genitals.’ Owen thought, ‘Oh here we are again … I might as well have been that eight-year-old boy again. I was, like, back there.’ And so he complied.
Owen still struggles ‘to this day’ with the fact that he didn’t resist more, but the authority and status Coulter held in the defence force still held sway over him. Also, Owen was still socially ‘on the outer’ and Coulter was really his best friend. ‘He made me very special.’
Coulter lent Owen money as well, which made it harder to get out of the situation. It caused Owen a lot of stress.
‘Here I was, a fit, strong 16-year-old boy. I could have taken him apart … but it never occurred to me.’
Coulter kept trying to sexually abuse Owen. When Coulter requested anal sex, Owen ended up nearly violently raping him but stopped himself in time.
Owen was immensely relieved when he was posted down south. He didn’t see Coulter again for years but the impact of the abuse went deep. Sleeping and living and showering in close quarters with other men kept him in a constant state of anxiety and stress.
Owen eventually got married to a woman called Jean, who he describes as dominating and jealous. Owen said that she’d regularly sexually assault him and was always demanding sex. Jean knew about the sexual abuse he’d suffered and used it against him.
Owen started getting violent. When Coulter showed up on their doorstep, after Owen was posted back to Sydney, Jean guessed who he was and told Owen to stand up to him. But Owen felt powerless to stop his visits and Jean mocked him.
Owen saw a psychologist at her suggestion and asked him if the sexual abuse was maybe affecting his behaviour. The psychologist dismissed it out of hand, saying that ‘people make a big deal of it’. Owen believes the psychologist didn’t want to hear about stuff that had happened in the military. He felt completely ‘stupid’ for reporting his abuse history and believes now that it had severe consequences for his family. The abuse was never addressed and continued to fester within him.
Despite counselling, Owen’s marriage ended. He was given custody of his stepchildren as well as his own children. His anger and stress spiralled, and he began sexually abusing his stepdaughter. ‘I was a nobody without sex’, he told the Commissioner. He was also physically abusing all his children.
Owen is now in prison for the sexual and physical abuse of his children. He’s also discovered that Ernie Coulter was charged and sentenced for multiple sex offences.
Owen believes that being called to account through the courts, having to face the truth, and doing the long termers program in prison has helped him work things through.
‘The issue with offenders who’ve been abused is loss of identity and, with that, a loss of sense of boundaries.’ Which then means not recognising boundaries in others.
‘Those two things are probably common among most victims … certainly among those who go on to be offenders. That leaves you open to walk right over someone else.’