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Sergio's story

‘In the confession room at school he insisted that I sit on a chair near him, and not kneel at the kneeler. He pushed me up against the wall and rubbed himself on me. He said “you have not told me all the facts. You have masturbated. What do you think about when you are doing it?”

‘I was frightened and I felt extremely embarrassed and ashamed. I could feel his hard privates pushed against me. I didn't like the feeling. I said I had not done anything, but he kept pushing and rubbing against me. He had a strange voice, and was red in the face.'

‘People say “Why didn't you tell him to stop? Why didn't you tell your parents?” I couldn't. He was a priest. I thought priests were very close to God. I was ashamed to talk about anything to do with sex.’

Father Willis was a Vincentian, and chaplain at Sergio’s Marist Brothers school in Sydney’s north-west. Sergio’s parents welcomed many clergy into their home, including Willis.

When Willis visited, he’d go into Sergio’s bedroom ‘and insist on sitting close to me. I didn't like him, nor his presence’.

Willis ‘took every opportunity he could to try to convince me that I was too pious, and too “stuck up”, and I should have sex, and that masturbation was not wrong’.

In was the late 1960s, and Sergio was 17 years old, when Willis sexually assaulted him in the confessional. The abuse, ‘was an ongoing thing’.

One time, Willis invited Sergio on a trip down the coast. Sergio did not want to go, but his parents insisted. During this trip Willis grabbed him, and again tried to talk about sex and masturbation. Another seminarian was with them, and told Willis to stop.

Sergio later heard that another boy had also been sexually abused by Willis, and had told his own mother. When she threatened to make the matter public, Willis was moved to another parish.

After school, Sergio joined a religious order, but didn’t stay long. He knew he was homosexual, and did not want to be celibate. When he was in his early 20s, Willis found him, and insisted they go for a drive together.

Willis asked Sergio if he would ever go to a motel room with him. When Sergio said no, ‘He undid his fly and forced my hand onto his penis’, wanting to know ‘if my size is normal’. ‘I felt dirty and if I could have, I would have liked to wash my hands. I avoided him from then on’.

In the mid-1990s, Sergio wrote to Willis. ‘I finally challenged him with his behaviour, and said he should say sorry.’ After Willis replied, denying the abuse, mediation was arranged. Willis appeared frail and ‘said he had considered killing himself when he got my letter’, which shocked and frightened Sergio.

Sergio thought that Willis, who claimed not to remember the abuse, had ‘suffered’ enough, ‘so I agreed that the matter was mediated’. A Church representative asked Sergio to think of something they could do to help him. When Sergio asked for money to put towards his hobbies, he was told they meant counselling, not money. He felt greedy and ashamed for making this request.

Years later, Sergio was contacted by police, as his name had come up during an investigation of Willis. They showed him some documents.

‘I was very angry when I saw one letter between the Vincentians and the Archdiocese, where they were reassured that I was not going to be a threat to them, as I was a person with no resources or influence, and I could be dismissed as an eccentric.

‘I was infuriated with the dismissive, even contemptuous, tone of the letter. They made fun of my suggestion that Father Willis should also be helped, because failing to support him in acknowledging what he had done was a betrayal also of him.’

Willis was deemed too old and infirm to stand trial. Sergio eventually received an apology from the Vincentians, and $100,000 compensation.

Sergio’s mother had been greatly distressed when his sister told her of the abuse (without his permission). ‘I tried to reassure her that I was okay, and that it was never her fault or Dad's. She told me, “Your father never liked that priest, of all the many priests that came into our home”.’ Sergio was very sad that she had passed away before this apology was given.

Although the process of dealing with Willis and the Church was difficult, Sergio is glad he did so. The recognition of his abuse helped him greatly.

‘I want to say that when the Church is honest and humble, and admits the bad effects of the sexual abuse of boys and young men by priests, and says sorry and tries to compensate, then it gives freedom and health back to the victim.

‘When it tries to avoid responsibility, and make the victim feel guilty about telling their story or confronting their abuser, and uses tricks to steer them away from obtaining an apology because it fears the cost of compensation, then it hurts itself.’

Sergio has sought professional support over the years, which has helped him deal with the impacts of the abuse, and his later engagement with Willis.

‘I was able to see that telling my story and confronting Father Willis, and demanding that he say sorry, was an important step towards getting better mentally. Now I can see why I don't like physical touch and why I don't trust people who try to touch me (family is okay).

‘But I can deal with my fears. My relationships as an adult have been mostly unsuccessful, but I can work on that now. I feel so much better mentally and physically. And I feel I have the right to be happy, and not be miserable or guilty.’

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