When 10-year-old Rosswell said that if he had to go to the church again he would ‘shoot the priest’, that could have been when the ‘penny dropped’ for his mother.
After that, Rosswell and his family never went to the church again. But he didn’t disclose the sexual abuse he had suffered. And she didn’t ask. After nearly 50 years of silence, he has told the Royal Commission.
Although he doesn’t remember much of his childhood, Rosswell recalls being a happy, intelligent kid growing up in a small town in New South Wales in the 1960s. His mother was very religious. Rosswell doesn’t remember his older two siblings going to church services at the local Catholic church, but he and his younger sister did go. His father’s religion, however, was ‘beer and guns’.
The church was unstaffed and a priest would come every month to hold a service. This priest, whose name Rosswell doesn’t remember, was a sombre but fiery man, who would speak of the wrath of God. ‘He was an authoritarian.’ He was not a local and people revered him.
When Rosswell was about eight years old he was the priest’s ‘helper’. The priest would drive past Rosswell’s home on the way into town. He soon started picking Rosswell up on the way and they went to the church early together. His mother and sister would arrive in time for mass.
The abuse occurred in the small change and storage room at the back of the church. ‘He made me perform oral sex. He entered me.’ This abuse occurred regularly for the next one or two years.
Rosswell’s mother insisted that he keep going to church, despite his objections. One time, Rosswell avoided it by disappearing from the house an hour earlier. However, the priest then started coming earlier to pick him up and that made things worse. Sometimes the priest had been drinking which made him more abusive, Rosswell recalls. ‘He wasn’t affectionate. It was matter-of-fact. It was like … all the emotional significance of having a piddle … it happened for three or five minutes, or 10 minutes or something, it wasn’t like it was perfunctory.’
Although Rosswell feels he can’t blame the priest for all his own actions, the abuse had a devastating effect on the family. ‘I had probably views about intimacy that, you know, a nine or 10 or 11-year-old boy, that were different to most other nine or 10 or 11-year-old boys. And some of those … some of the actions that came out of those views would not be, never were and never will be and never should be acceptable. My sister was affected by that’, Rosswell told the Commissioner, with some difficulty. His younger sister is now depressed and an alcoholic.
After that period of time, Rosswell recalls his family stopped being affectionate. ‘Maybe it was me. I looked at the world differently after that, but it seemed to me that the world was different. Mum and Dad were different and looking at my siblings, they’ve all bolted in different directions … not close even today.’
In Year 10, Roswell did exceptionally well at school without trying hard. His headmaster was impressed and took an interest in him. Roswell read this as a sexual advance. ‘I was old enough, at that stage, to know what gay was and … I just felt that he was grooming me and my reaction to it was quite raw.’
This ‘reaction’, Roswell believes, led to him being held back, and told to repeat the year. As a result, Rosswell left school. He worked in mining, tourism and eventually joined the public service, from which he retired about 10 years ago on a disability pension.
Rosswell married in his early 20s. They divorced 20 years later and didn’t have children. ‘We both had our own demons on that.' Rosswell’s fear, one that he knew he could ‘rationally discount’ was that he might become a perpetrator himself.
When Rosswell was 40, under the pressure of mortgage, marriage and other factors, he spiralled into depression. He had time off work, then sought psychiatric help which led to voluntary periods of hospitalisation and a diagnosis, at the age of 45, of a major depressive disorder. Throughout this, Rosswell didn’t disclose his abuse. However, he concedes, he wouldn’t have wanted it to compromise his worker’s compensation claim he had at the time.
Rosswell has been angry for quite some time. He feels he was made to be an adult when he was only a kid. His life became ‘serious’ at that point. He has trouble with intimacy. He struggles to define the difference between intimate and non-intimate friendship with women.
Having now spoken about his childhood abuse for the first time, Rosswell feels he should talk to his sister and other siblings about this issue. His mother died two years ago and Rosswell feels she probably spent those 50 years with a ‘nagging doubt and moral, sort of, guilt about whether she put me into that situation’.
Rosswell doesn’t want an apology from the Church. It would have no relevance, he feels. The perpetrator priest would most likely be dead. As for seeking compensation from the Catholic Church, he hasn’t yet formed an opinion.