‘I remember when I was a kid, I’d say, “Oh thanks God for making me a Catholic”, you know, “I’m so glad I’m a Catholic”. It’s like that joke where there’s a bloke goes up to heaven, there’s a fence you know, and on one side of the fence is the Catholics. “They think they’re the only one’s that are here”. It was like that.’
Soon after Willis’s father died in a work accident in the 1960s, the family was befriended by recently-arrived parish priest, Father Paul Hunter. Willis’s mother was grateful for the interest Hunter showed in her two sons, taking them on outings and camping trips. She was unaware that he was also sexually abusing them.
‘I think he targeted us’, Willis said. ‘Two weeks after the death, my mother went working. There was no fall-back in those days.’
The abuse continued over three years until Willis left home for a distant job at the age of 15. He only found out in later years that his younger brother had also been abused by Hunter and that the abuse had similarly involved a period of grooming that progressed to anal rape. Willis also found out that Hunter had been transferred between parishes in New South Wales and had left the priesthood in the early 1990s to get married.
Willis told the Commissioner that there was no one to tell about the abuse, and he would probably have been too ashamed to speak of it even if there had been.
‘I made my first communion, confession, all this sort of thing and so I had a religious background in that sense, so I knew there was heaven and hell. I knew what was happening was terribly wrong but it was my also fault because he is a man of God so I’m the one that’s at fault.
‘So what you do is you get a real foreboding of, look when I die I’m going to go to hell. It’s as simple as that. There’s no question. So what you do even at that young age, you start to set your life out to make sure that whatever happens to you, you don’t die. So you control your life very, very intensely. You look at situations, you look at a big surf, 10 foot and say, “No, I could die in that”. Go on an aeroplane? No. Plane crash. You work those things out. You see a group of people, you stay away. You control your whole life into a situation of almost survival type thing of nothing’s going to happen to you ‘cause as soon as you’re killed you go to hell, you’re going to burn in hell.’
As he worked hard to control external events, Willis felt pressure increasing. In his 30s he had a ‘nervous breakdown’, and saw a doctor who prescribed anti-depressants. As Willis started to talk openly about the abuse he learned of his brother’s experiences. He said he made a conscious decision not to let the abuse overtake him. ‘I started to do something about it’, he said.
‘The first thing I did was I forgave myself. A very important step to forgive yourself, realising that you were a child, this person was an adult. It was not my fault. And the second important thing is to forgive the perpetrator. You must forgive the perpetrator. If you hold any animosity, it’ll hold you back. You’ve got to be able to cleanse yourself and say, “That happened, he took my childhood. He’s not going to take the rest of my life”.’
Willis determined that he’d ‘work things out’ for himself. He had a beautiful wife and son, he said, and he loved his job. Nevertheless, he slept in the garage rather than the house, a legacy he attributed to the abuse. ‘I sleep downstairs and a lot of that is hangover from when you were a child because you see yourself as worthless. You’re a piece of garbage. And so I see myself as, the garage is good enough for me. I’m not worth much more. So you’ve still got that hangover from the days.’
In 2002, Willis and his brother applied for redress through Towards Healing, an experience neither found positive. They were asked to ‘put in a quote’ of what they believed should be paid to them, and forwarded the figure of $350,000, which they based on the abuse and its impact over 30 years. They were offered $50,000. ‘I felt a bit dirty taking it’, Willis said. ‘I went out and bought a car which I sold three years later because I didn’t drive it. But I’d finally had something as a black and white statement of, “I got that because of that”.’
Willis said that the ‘positives far outweigh the negatives’ in his life. ‘In the sense of that Christian lifestyle I’ve been blessed. And I often wonder what my life would have been like if it hadn’t happened – it could have been worse. I’ll never know. It is what it is.’