‘There was some sort of discussion that was usually in jest. It’s amazing what young kids can endure and then laugh about it. I’ve even raised it, in recent years, with some of those same kids that I went to school with, at reunions … and still there’s the dismissal. In jest … And after I’ve reflected on this, I’ve found that to be an extraordinary response from guys that are my age now. To still think back and be entertained by that prospect.’
Ross, who experienced a lot of illness as a child, grew up in suburban Sydney in the 1940s and 50s. Before he was five he was ‘abandoned’ by his parents and put in the care of his grandparents in a nearby suburb. He’s never been sure why. Although his mother and father still provided him with clothes, and he saw them from time to time, ‘I never actually formed a loving and long-standing relationship with my parents’.
And while Ross’s Catholic grandmother was ‘loving and caring’, his grandfather was an abusive alcoholic.
For the last two years of primary school Ross was taught by the Christian Brothers. It was a ‘bit foreign’ to him as most of his friends went to the state school. ‘I felt a bit out of place.’
Some subjects were taught by Brother Gregory Dignam. ‘He actually molested me … directed me to sit at the back of classroom … His molestation consisted of him coming up behind me, hugging me and then he’d put his hands down my pants and insert his fingers in my anus … sometimes genital fondling …’
The sexual abuse went on for two years, all through fifth and sixth class, sometimes twice a week, sometimes twice a month. Dignam never spoke to Ross when he was doing it. ‘Never intimidated me or threatened me with any, you know, “If you tell anybody about this, there’ll be consequences”.’
Ross believes other kids were being molested by Dignam but he never witnessed it. The boys did talk about it, jokingly, without being specific.
When Ross finished sixth class he didn’t see Dignam again. ‘That high school period was productive and fulfilling even though my grades dropped away.’ Ross believes his academic performance was due to the fact that the school specialised in areas that weren’t his strength. He doesn’t feel his behaviour or personality were affected by the abuse. ‘I’ve always thought of myself as being fairly placid and I think that that continued throughout early life.’
Ross got a job in a government department and worked his way up. He married very young and soon became a father. ‘So it was something that I rushed into.’ The marriage ended badly and he lost contact with his children for 10 or 15 years. ‘I don’t even recall what gave rise to the separation, etc. It’s another mystery in my life.’
‘From then on I probably drank too much.’ He also had financial difficulties. However, Ross studied and gained qualifications to further his career. He met his current partner, Sally, whom he told about the abuse. They’ve been together over 30 years.
When Ross was in his 40s he sought help for depression, but never talked about the abuse. ‘I think that I’d forgotten all about it … Only since I’ve been looking at the Royal Commission findings … I’d never really made the connection. But the [current] therapist tells me that there probably is a connection.’
In his 50s Ross retired with clinical depression. Nowadays, despite a range of problems, he looks after himself and rates his health as ‘pretty good’. He reconnected with his children, too. ‘I’ve worked on improving that relationship even as we speak. And that’s worked out pretty well.’ He fears for his grandchildren – that they might be abused. This fear is intensifying.
Two months before he spoke to the Commissioner, and in his 70s, Ross formally disclosed his sexual abuse for the first time. He spoke to lawyers in relation to a compensation claim, which is in process.
‘I don’t really bear any grudge or great animosity towards the Church or the Christian Brothers because I know some brilliant priests … I don’t have that attitude and that’s come as a bit of a surprise to my therapist. I’m told that I’m not angry enough and that I’ve repressed my memories and grief and so on. She’s put into place certain therapeutic methods that are designed to open up that, and they’re quite effective.
‘And I’m going through an interesting period in my life in coming to terms with some of those issues, that I’ve never thought about until now … Better late than never, I guess. I’m really anxious to put this behind me and get on with other projects that I think are important.’