The ripple effects of sexual abuse and institutional responses to it are often far-reaching. In the 1980s Sylvia’s husband-to-be, Dimitri, was a priest in training, when a much older fellow candidate struck up a close friendship with him that, she said, led to ongoing sexual abuse.
‘Dimitri was a 17-year-old boy and Howard was a 36-year-old man when they met at the seminary. People expressed concern about the friendship and Dimitri tried to distance himself from Howard, but every time he moved away, Howard would follow.’
Sylvia told the Commissioner that Dimitri sought guidance and advice from those within the Church to distance himself from Howard.
‘The general tone was that Dimitri needed to be more understanding of Howard. Eventually he left and then we married [a few years later].’
During the course of their long marriage, Sylvia said, Dimitri would withdraw for hours and even days at a time.
‘I know that comparatively, what Dimitri went through is not as bad as other stories, but the impact on him has been devastating, and on his relationship with our 12-year-old son, because he doesn’t trust himself as a man. Our son is going through puberty, and Dimitri can’t go there at all with him, not even on a jokey level.’
The couple approached Towards Healing in the early 2000s, hoping to hold accountable those who were ‘covering’ for Howard.
‘We thought if it happened to Dimitri, it might be happening to someone else and we also felt it was the only way to have it acknowledged, and to describe the impact on Dimitri. He has to shave his arms and legs because it’s the only way he can feel clean.’
The response from Towards Healing fell far short of what Sylvia and Dimitri had hoped for.
‘Towards Healing doesn’t look at the full context. When they interviewed Dimitri, they asked why he didn’t just punch Howard or tell him to piss off. But when abuse is based in religion, not only do you doubt your beliefs, and your sexuality, it also impacts on your world view with God and what your fundamental beliefs are. He was the son of an immigrant family that were fundamentally religious. He was taught the Church can do no wrong.’
Sylvia believes those involved in Towards Healing should be trained to understand the role of power in the process of abuse.
‘If the person who’s giving you a hard time is within the Church, and the whole organisation supports that person, the victim can become ostracised. I think the Church is unable to investigate itself. The approach in Dimitri’s case was to blame the victim, because they were looking at him as a 30-something year old man, not in the context of a 17-year-old boy.’
Dimitri was diagnosed as bipolar, and Sylvia said he’s been able to survive only with medical intervention.
‘Drugs sustain him, and that’s what keeps our marriage going; but there are times he’s been so depressed that I’ve been concerned he’ll take his own life. Professionally he’s very good, in the world he’s very good, though he finds it difficult to have male friends. Really difficult. He’s so angry, and I don’t know if he’ll ever get past how let down he feels.’