Ross described himself as a ‘naive kid’ who had no idea about sex. Born in the late 1960s in regional Victoria, he grew up in a large Catholic family and attended mass every Sunday. He enjoyed the ‘theatre’ of mass so much that at age eight he became an altar boy. His duties put him in contact with Father Carmello who went on to sexually abuse him many times over the next year and a half.
Ross didn’t say a word to anyone about what Father Carmello was doing to him.
‘I was told I can’t tell anybody, nobody will believe you, they’ll just think you’re a liar. But then on the other hand, and this is the hypocrisy of it all, I was also told that I was chosen and I was special and that’s why it happened.’
For reasons Ross has never been able to understand, the abuse ended ‘as suddenly as it started’. In the aftermath his behaviour changed.
‘I started to become dishonest because I think that was a subconscious emotional reaction to what had happened, that I didn’t like to think about what was going on so there was always a – not a different personality, but the confident, cocky clown, which I’ve always been in my family … I’m the funny one, I’m the one that will make light of situations and I think a lot of that was a costume that I wore to protect myself.’
As Ross got older, the impact of the abuse intertwined with his confusion about his sexuality. ‘I had thought that because I was gay I attracted this behaviour from the priest so I was at fault. There was guilt, there was shame involved with being who I was, so I spent a lot of time trying not to be who I was.’
In his twenties he abused drugs and alcohol, indulged in lavish gestures to impress others, and gambled away money that he didn’t have. He feels now that the abuse robbed him of those years.
‘That’s where my anger is directed towards – that whole 15 years, I can’t ever have it back. I can’t ever repair the relationship I had with my father. I can’t ever undo some of those things I did to my own siblings. I can’t take any of that back. I can apologise, I can be as repentant as possible but I can’t undo it.’
Ross began to turn his life around when he was in his early thirties. He came out as gay and also commenced sessions with a psychologist.
‘He was able to draw out of me that I hadn’t been able to deal with my sexuality and I hadn’t been able to deal with sexual abuse. He described it like it was a garbage can, a plastic garbage can and when you keep stuffing rubbish in the top it will eventually split at the sides. That behaviour was me splitting at the sides.
‘I was lucky. I could have ended up addicted to heroin, I could have ended up an abuser myself, I could have perpetuated the abuse, I could have ended up in all sorts of dangerous situations. So he was quite surprised at my strength.
‘And I think I’ve really developed that strength a lot since I came out because I was finally able to be who I was born to be. I was able to form friendships and relationships with other people where I didn’t have anything to hide.
‘And I think I’ve been able to spend the last 10 to 15 years justifying that that guilt and shame was not mine. And the more I’ve got rid of the guilt and the shame the more I’ve been able to be an advocate, be outspoken, be vocal about what happened.’
Now Ross uses his skills and his strength to advocate for other survivors of child sexual abuse.
‘I’ve got a voice and I have to use it. I’m obligated to use it for those who can’t speak or aren’t here to speak anymore.’