Luke, Chris, Paul and Mark Peterson are four brothers who were abused multiple times over many years by their uncle Geoff, who was a Catholic priest.
At the time, none of the brothers understood what the others were going through. Each boy, and then each man, suffered the impacts of the abuse in his own way. Eventually they came together to take action against the Church and ensure that Geoff could never again harm another child.
The setting for the abuse was the same for all the Peterson boys. From a very young age they spent part of their holidays at the presbytery where Geoff lived. In many ways it was a fun time, with Geoff giving them cigarettes and alcohol and letting them drive his car. But at the same time he subjected them to a regime of sexual abuse.
‘Geoff was psychopathic, there’s no doubt about that’, said Luke, the oldest of the brothers. ‘He would have sex with us four or five times a day – before mass, after mass, it was all planned.’
Initially, the boys didn’t talk to anyone about the abuse, not even each other. There were many complex reasons for this.
In part it was because of fear. Chris, the second oldest, said, ‘From the time I was six he told me that I couldn’t tell my mum because Mum was sick. He told me that I couldn’t tell her because she’d die and I couldn’t tell Dad because my Dad would kill him. So I was terrified’.
In part it was because the abuse, and its secrecy, had become normalised. The youngest, Mark, told the Commissioner, ‘It was just what we did when we went to Geoff’s … and we were told that this is normal and lots of people do this’.
Another reason the boys kept quiet was because of the confusing emotions they felt for their uncle. Mark said, ‘I still felt like I loved him’. He added, ‘Don’t feel like I love him now’.
Each of the Peterson boys was abused by Geoff from roughly age six or seven until their early teens. Afterwards, they continued to visit him for years, and the truth of what he’d done remained unsaid. Then one day it all came out.
By this time, Chris, the second eldest, was in his early 20s and living a wild lifestyle that frustrated his father, Michael. The two of them got into an argument over it. Chris said, ‘I only told Dad because I was in the shit’. His older brother, Luke, relayed the incident in a bit more detail:
‘Dad was giving him this big lecture about his morality, staying out too late, “You’re drinking too much, Chris” and blah blah blah. Anyway, Chris just exploded and said, “Your brother’s been sexually interfering with me ever since I was seven”.’
In the wake of this disclosure, Michael gathered all his sons together and asked if Geoff had abused them too. They all said yes. It was a frightening moment for the boys.
‘When it came out it was terrifying’, said Mark. ‘I felt terribly scared. I’d been found out.’ Paul, the second youngest, added, ‘I think it was terrible. I often say to Mark, it might have been impeccable timing for Chris but it was pretty bad for us’.
For Michael Peterson, the news of what his sons had been through was ‘a complete shock altogether and quite horrifying’. Now that the truth was out it fell to him to do something about it. He confronted Geoff who immediately admitted that he’d abused the boys. Next, Michael spoke to the bishop.
‘I reported it to him and he said that he’d deal with it. I don’t know what my expectations were, to be quite honest. I was a good Catholic and I reported it to the authorities and I believed that that would be helpful.’
The bishop later denied that he ever had this meeting with Michael. The brothers found this to be a particularly cruel thing to do because, as Luke said, ‘It put doubt into our minds that our father had actually done that’.
After Michael’s meeting with the bishop, Geoff was sent away for treatment. He stayed at the facility only briefly then disappeared.
Years went by. The brothers got on with their lives, each doing his best to cope with the legacy of the abuse. There were some impacts that they all shared, such as flashbacks, fraught relationships, trouble with intimacy and a sense that Geoff ‘stole our brotherhood from us’. But there were also many impacts that were unique to each man’s experience.
Luke, the eldest, said he had to go through ‘a huge amount of processing’ in his 20s to come to terms with his sexuality. This gave rise to further problems down the track.
‘Even my brothers, my dad, my mum, everybody used the word homosexual, gay, paedophile all in the same sentence. And I felt like I had this whole education process that I had to involve myself in, just to sort of get my own family understanding that I wasn’t a paedophile because I was gay.’
He also keenly felt the pain that the abuse had caused his parents, saying ‘I can’t think of my mother without almost sort of breaking down’.
Chris, the second eldest, struggled with anxiety. ‘Every single time the doorbell rang or the phone rang I’d have a panic attack virtually because I thought, I’ve been found out.’ He self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana, self-harmed and had thoughts of suicide.
‘When I was six I looked down at him when he took my penis in his mouth and thought “I’m going to hell”, because we were strict Catholics and I just thought, that’s it. And ever since that day I’ve wanted to die. That’s my first thought virtually when I wake up every day. It’s a real effort to sort of live.’
The two younger brothers, Paul and Mark, became workaholics. As Paul said, ‘It keeps our brains busy’. Both had problems with marriage and kids.
Paul said, ‘My marriage broke down because my wife was a very strong woman and when I went to the Church she saw that as weakness as I was admitting that I was a victim. Our marriage wasn’t necessarily perfect but it had been relatively solid, but it destroyed any hope that we had of actually continuing on’.
Mark said, ‘I ended up having two children, two beautiful children, but I never wanted children and that was a bit of an issue between myself and my wife, and I’ve broken up with my wife now. I was worried that I would repeat the behaviour, you know. And I still worry. And I don’t have any feeling like that, but I still feel like, “Is it going to change?” Which is really horrible’.
All the brothers have suffered health problems. As Paul said, ‘Dad’s as strong as an ox in his eighties but we all struggle from stress disorders’.
Despite being ‘strong as an ox’ Michael Peterson has grappled with his own feelings of shame and guilt. He told the Commissioner, ‘There was a lot of self-blame and I felt like I should have known. My wife was greatly hurt, even more grievously in that she was the carer and that was her role as a mother … There was a self-flagellation, I suppose, about what we failed to do. That was amplified by people’s attitudes that knew about it, particularly my own family’.
In the early 90s, Luke and Chris discovered that Geoff was back in town, working alongside young children. They decided to take action. Luke said, ‘We suddenly had the realisation: “Hey, he could still be doing this to kids”.’
Through a family friend they organised to meet with the archbishop. The younger Peterson brothers, Paul and Mark, were wary of the plan.
Mark said, ‘At first I was terrified. I was like, “here we go again”.’ Later his attitude shifted. ‘I spoke to Paul about it and said, “We have to be involved in this to try and contain Luke and Chris”. And we talk openly and laugh about it now, but at the time it was hard.’
The brothers arranged a meeting with the archbishop and insisted that Geoff attend. At this stage they were determined to keep the issue inside the Church and had no thoughts of going to police. It was a choice they later came to regret. Paul said, ‘We really didn’t have a chance and I don’t think we realised what we were facing’.
After a series of meetings with the archbishop and Geoff, the brothers were left with the sense that they were banging their heads against a brick wall. Luke recalled one incident that summed up the feeling:
‘We said things like, “Why did you do it to us? How many other boys did you do it to?” And he had these unbelievable answers to some questions. One of them was like – we said, “We think you should make a list of all the victims in the Church and reach out to these people”. And my uncle says, “We can’t do that; that would be an invasion of their privacy”. ’
Chris added, ‘You got to the point where you thought, Geoff doesn’t get it, the archbishop doesn’t get it, the moral theologian of the Church doesn’t get it. It was frightening’.
Months went by and the brothers were getting nowhere. They realised that they had to push harder if they were going to get results. Luke said, ‘The psychiatrist said to me later, “Luke, until you start using all the real words about what happened to you, no one ever will deal with this stuff”. And when I started using all the sexual terms and what actually happened, with my parents, Mount Vesuvius erupted. And same with the archbishop, and that’s when things started to sort of get going’.
At last the Church took some action. Geoff was removed from his duties and the brothers received an official apology. But their main concern about protecting children had not been answered and sometime later they discovered that Geoff was spending his days visiting a nearby tourist attraction that was popular with kids. That was ‘the last straw’.
Luke and Chris went to the police. They met with a detective and told him their story. Both brothers were impressed with the detective’s response. Chris said, ‘we wanted someone who was as outraged as us. He was more outraged’.
Geoff was charged with more than 30 offences against Luke and Chris. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to six years and served about two. Luke considers the sentence, ‘a bit of a joke’ but he still found the criminal justice process ‘one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done … I felt six inches taller, I just felt like this huge weight had been lifted’.
Sometime later, Paul came forward and also pressed charges against Geoff. Geoff again pleaded guilty. Mark decided not to pursue the police process.
‘I sort of understood with the law you’re going to have to name the exact date and exact time, all that, and I thought, do I want to put myself through all that?’
While Geoff was in prison, the brothers began a mediation process with the Church. They had mixed feelings about whether it was a good idea. ‘It sort of got funny,’ said Chris. ‘It was sort of like the Church started diverting us into compensation. Because we weren’t really into that.’ On the other hand, the brothers did feel that the Church should be held to account for that fact that it had known for years that Geoff was a child abuser and never stepped in to stop him.
Unfortunately, the process turned out to be painful and ineffective. The brothers went through a long struggle to put a monetary figure on their suffering, only to find out later that the Church had put a $50,000 cap on its payments anyway.
Still, they somehow managed to keep their senses of humour. During one of the sessions the archbishop mentioned that he’d visited Geoff in jail. He reported that Geoff was refusing treatment because it required him to look at pictures of naked women and that was against his vows of celibacy. The brothers found this hilarious. Luke said, ‘We actually did laugh, quite a lot. There was a lot of tears but there was laughter as well’.
In the end the brothers got their $50,000 payments from the Church, as well as a smaller amount from the state through victims of crime compensation.
Geoff died several years ago. Nowadays the Peterson brothers devote their time and energy to managing the ongoing effects of the abuse while looking after their families and each other.
They still feel a responsibility to speak out on behalf of victims of child sexual abuse, particularly those who have suffered in the context of incest.
As Chris put it, ‘I think it’s really important that we actually give incest victims a chance to talk because that institution is more protected than the Catholic Church … In the end if you don’t stand up it’s going to keep going, and that’s why we started it. It’s got to be stopped. It’s just horrific. You can’t keep doing that to kids and that’s the end of the story’.