‘In the hospital he had quite a free range. I can't remember him at all being supervised by any nursing staff or anybody. He just seemed to be able to waltz in and walk around the wards and spend time with patients.’
Father Ronald Pittman was the Catholic priest in the Western Australian town where Van grew up. As an eight-year-old in the late 1960s, Van suffered from a persistent illness and spent days at a time in the local hospital. Van was often alone in his hospital room and would be visited by Father Pittman.
‘He just sort of said, “Oh, you poor thing”’, Van told the Commissioner. ‘Because my bum was that sore from injections it was usually bruised and he used to rub it and say, “Oh!” You know, just say nice things.
‘And I was naive, I didn't know what he was doing.’
The abuse quickly became masturbation and then rape. It was repeated many times during Van’s hospital stays, which were frequent until Van turned 12. Then the abuse stopped. Father Pittman visited his family at home many times, but he did not try to assault Van there.
Pittman frequently invited local children to stay overnight with him at the presbytery. There were rumours about the priest among local kids. When Van was 16 some boys took torches with them on one of these sleepovers. Late at night they were able to catch Pittman in the act of abusing one of the younger boys. ‘I never found out who they told but it was all over the town in two minutes flat.’ Father Pittman was shifted to another parish. As far as Van knows the police were not involved.
For Van the news was a revelation. For the first time he realised what had happened to him was sexual abuse. ‘I thought, "Oh my God, now I know what he was up to”, because the penny dropped and I think then it started to dwell on my mind, because then I didn’t know whether I was normal or not normal.
‘I ended up with pretty bad depression …
‘I ended up in psychiatric hospital. I ended up drinking a lot. I don’t know whether I was an alcoholic or not but I used to drink an awful lot. I’d struggle to have relationships. I was very self-conscious and had low – very low – self-esteem. Very low, I just withdrew back into myself.’
Van felt he could not tell anyone about what had happened. ‘I know back when it happened if I’d told my dad he would have killed me for a start and then he would have killed Father Pittman because that’s what my dad’s like. So in those days you shut up.’
Later in life, while receiving psychiatric treatment, Van confided in detail to one of his nurses. ‘He said he’d pass all that information on to the psychiatrist … I used to meet every day with the psychiatrist for an hour at the end of the day and he never mentioned it to me at all.’
A few years ago Van mentioned the abuse to his local GP. Again the abuse was brushed aside, despite Van’s long history of mental health problems and alcohol abuse.
‘I just dismissed it and thought, “Okay, this is why I don't talk about it because no one believes me”, and this is why I haven't talked about it. Even my wife didn’t know until late last year and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – turn around and tell her what had happened.’
Van’s wife has been supportive, but Van still struggles with the shame he feels and the effects on his relationship. ‘I still can't show the affection I want to … I can’t stand her touching my bottom, that’s one thing, I get upset.’
Van continues to see a psychiatrist, but he has not spoken about the sexual abuse.
Van has learnt Father Pittman has died, but he will consider seeking compensation from the Catholic Church now, to cover his medical bills over the years. Van approached the Royal Commission after hearing some high profile people talking about their own experiences in the media.
‘I'll never forget it, and it’s like it happened yesterday, it’s just there all the time and it’s hard when I haven’t told my wife and kids and my family, because I’ve got no one. Now I can, or at least I can talk to [my wife]. When you just think, “God, you know, what am I going to do?” You can see why people suicide and do all that sort of stuff because they just get driven to it. It’s sad.
‘What happened to me has made me care for people even more … I’ve done everything in my life now to help people and that’s all stemmed from this …
‘I feel now I’ve done my part to say, “Well, it’s happened to me and I don’t want it to happen to anybody else”.’