As a child growing up in Victoria in the 1960s and 1970s, Rowan was so devoted to the Catholic faith that he rode his bicycle across town every morning to serve at mass as an altar boy. It was this sense of devotion that the Church later tried to use against him when he spoke out against a paedophile priest who was preying on the students in his class.
The priest’s name was Father Barnes and his reputation as an abuser was spread throughout the school. Rowan told the Commissioner, ‘I heard whispers from other boys and Barnes had tried me four times’. So at 14 years old, Rowan reported Father Barnes’ behaviour to the Monsignor.
‘He said that I had to leave it with him. I wasn’t to spread the story anymore. I wasn’t to talk about it with anybody … And the worst of all: that if I didn’t listen to his advice I’d be committing a mortal sin and I would go to hell.’
The Monsignor later told Rowan’s mother about the conversation. She confronted Rowan, calling him a liar. ‘This was even though my brother had been taken to hospital for a breakdown. My brother had a horrible life. He was raped by Barnes. Never got over it. The only time I ever saw my brother at peace was lying in his coffin.’
Despite the Monsignor’s threats and his mother’s willful ignorance, Rowan continued to speak out. When he learned that the bishop was visiting he made sure that he was rostered on to do altar service at the bishop’s mass. After the mass he approached the assisting priest.
‘I said to him, “I need to talk to the bishop”. And he said, “What about?” So I told him about how Barnes had approached me, about how others were being molested by him. … He said, “The bishop is well aware of that and is dealing with it” blah blah blah. I said, “Monsignor told me that, and it’s still happening. I need to talk to the bishop”.’
The priest refused Rowan’s request, promising instead that he would talk to the bishop and get back to Rowan. He never did. This was more than Rowan could endure. ‘That cripples you more in the end than the actual deed – the sense of injustice. The sense of people who know better not speaking, or hiding.’
Reading from a victim impact statement, Rowan described the damage that he suffered as a result of the abuse and the silent injustice that followed it: ‘At age 14 I hated myself. I cried in front of the dressing mirror night after night, wanting to die. I thought I was the dirty, filthy, guilty one. … I no longer coped with life. I tried three secondary schools, left home at 16, did drugs, had a complete breakdown at 18, hospitalised in a mental home. Throughout my life since, I’ve suffered depression, anxiety, panic attacks and suicide attempts. Three marriages, over 30 jobs … and battled every day with depression.’
In the mid-2000s Father Barnes was charged with offences against several people, including Rowan. He pleaded guilty and was sent to jail. Rowan said that the police investigation and court process were well-handled and provided him with a sense of closure.
By contrast, Rowan’s experience with the Church’s redress process was frustrating and disappointing. ‘They used the term “Towards Healing” and I thought, you ripper, I can get rid of all this pain. Three appointments later I’m shuffled out the door of the Catholic Insurance Office and that’s it. That just made it worse.’
After that Rowan decided he was ‘sick of being sick’ and would take responsibility for his own healing. He sought help from his friend, Father Greg. ‘My biggest healing in recent times, part of it came through Father Greg, because he was the first Catholic person who looked me in the face and said, “It’s all wrong”, who didn’t try to hide behind the Church, didn’t try to counsel me around it.’
Rowan said that, in time, he managed to let go of his hatred. He now believes that this act of letting go is an essential part of the healing process for victims of child sexual abuse.
‘We’ve got to learn to hate the deed but love the person, because hatred is a killer. And the reason why a number of us got so ill and had mental breakdowns and what have you is because hatred ate away at us on the inside … But part of the process that’s made that really, really hard to do is the Church denying it, and the Church denying the ongoing support for it.’