The news about George Pell hit home, as I thought of my uncle, a victim of the church, one who didn’t survive to feel the vindication felt last week.
(A warning to my kind-hearted readers, there’s some heavy stuff in here. If you have any trauma around rape or suicide, please be gentle with your good self and maybe give this one a miss.)
After being convicted of one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child, Cardinal George Pell spent the first of what may be many nights in jail. While he lay there in his jail cell, my darling uncle’s body lay in a morgue.
To speak about today, we must speak about yesterday and all those victims who missed judgement. George Pell devised what came to be known as the Melbourne Response, which kept damage to the church at a minimum by capping the payouts to $50,000 and later $75,000 and requiring victims to sign a silencing agreement. He saved the church untold millions in compensation and incalculable damages in reputation. The Vatican took notice, and it was only a decade or so before he was tapped to manage the entire financial affairs of the Vatican under the lofty title of “Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy”, making him the third-most powerful priest, only two steps down from the Pope.
Meanwhile, down at the other end of this heady world of high finance, my uncle was being handed out a mere $3,000 by the church. Why? As a pay-off for being raped when he was just a little boy by serial paedophile Father Daniel Hourigan.
For this paltry sum he had to sign a strict confidentiality agreement, and from that day on until the day he died last week—via an on-again, off-again battle with drugs, alcohol, depression and paranoia—he was convinced he was being watched and monitored by the church. Maybe he was, who knows, but they almost certainly planted the idea that he was going to be observed carefully, which is in many ways as torturous as the act.
Even if he had have put his head up above the trench and taken them on, he would have faced a monumental task. When Pell moved to Sydney to be Archbishop, he oversaw the development of a cunning and lopsided legal strategy known as the “Ellis Defence”. A victim with the surname Ellis attempted to sue the church for sexual abuse as a child, but because of the tricksy configuration of its legal status as an unincorporated association, the victim could not sue because the priest was dead. Until very recently, the courts could do nothing but throw up their hands. He had no one to sue.
After successfully defending against Ellis, Pell spent a further $1.5 million of the church’s money pursuing him through the courts, subpoenaing his former colleagues, boss and ex-wife for statements in an attempt to sue and destroy him, even though the internal church findings had already found that Ellis had in all probability been abused. Once Ellis finally lost Pell’s vindictive lawsuit against him, Pell then pursued him for costs.
Pell was not seeking money; he was sending a message. It was his masterful manipulation of the narrative for which he was valued at the highest echelons of the Vatican. Even today, even after he has been convicted of raping and molesting children, many very powerful people have come out to defend him. Former Prime Minister John Howard endorsed a convicted paedophile by writing a character reference to try and secure him a lighter sentence. Today. In 2019.
My uncle was the last in a family of ten. My mother was 19 years old when he was born, and he loved her so much that one time when he was about two he smuggled himself into the back seat of her car as she left the family home to travel back to the town where she was teaching. She got the shock of her life and nearly ran off the road when 20 minutes or so down the track he suddenly popped up behind her and said, “I go back and live with you!”
Because he was so much younger, he was more like a cousin than an uncle to me. Seven years my elder, I idolised him, and thought he was a real-life comedian. He was so kind, too. He’d take me, some of my siblings and some of my other cousins on a day out to the two-dollar shops, and after considerable perusing, we’d get to pick whatever we liked. That was back when everything really was two dollars, and I guess it was a pretty cheap outlay for him. For five of us, he’d only need to spend $10 and we all thought he was Santa Claus, but still, he would’ve been just 18 or 19 at the time. What 19-year old spends his spare money and time on 12 year-olds? Such a beautiful generous soul.
Twelve years old. I was the same age as he was when his whole life was yanked out from underneath him.
He made him kneel down next to him and he led him in fervent prayer so that they both might not be sent to hell for the terrible thing they had both done.
My uncle was sweet and funny and kind, but his most outstanding attribute was that ineffable, unfakeable, elusive quality of charisma. He had it in spades. From when he was tiny, if he entered a room, all eyes were on him. And he didn’t mind it one bit.
He was always gay. Even my staunchly Catholic Nana admitted that, when he finally came out in his thirties. It was baked in from the get-go. My mum was the one who was given the onerous task of telling their parents. My uncle had been on a two-week bender and had gone missing for three days when he finally came crying to my mother that he needed to come out to their parents and could she please do it for him because he couldn’t face them.
Mum picked up the phone, quaking from head to toe, and rattled the landline in the tiny little cottage in a fishing town on the Ninety Mile Beach where they had grown up on sea air and bream. After years of the church hammering the terrifying notion of hell for homosexuals into the hearts and minds of my fisherfolk grandparents, it was really difficult for them to hear this. They were petrified for him! To their credit, they evolved, but it was so hard for everyone and it needn’t have been.
That wasn’t the shame that killed him though. It tortured him, sure, but his effusive indomitable spirit was far stronger than that.
No, what killed him was a sunny day in the late ’70s where he was attending an ordination with my grandparents. My uncle had celebrated his twelfth birthday just five days before and was hanging around his mother’s skirts at the afternoon tea when Hourigan persuaded him to come up to the presbytery with him so he could give him a special prayer card. I’m sure Nana didn’t think anything of it. Priests were pretty much considered infallible, and my grandparents were deeply trusting and faithful people.
He took him to his bedroom, closed the door, ripped down that poor little boy’s pants, and raped him. When my uncle finally started to talk about it to the family just six months ago, he said he was utterly confused at the time about what was happening. Understandably, he didn’t know anything about sex at all, so it was just this terrifying jumble of overwhelming sensory inputs that he had no conceptual understanding of.
As soon as this brute was finished, he told this little boy that they both had done a very bad thing, and they both should pray for their souls immediately. So he made him kneel down next to him and he led him in fervent prayer so that they both might not be sent to hell for the terrible thing they had both done.
Oh, the rage I feel right now just typing those things. That poor, poor boy. That evil psychopathic monster.
He gave him the prayer card that he promised him, and they went back to the party. And the priest continued to mingle with the crowd, including that little boy’s devout parents, as if nothing had happened. How brazen is that?
No one noticed, or at least those that did notice did not say anything. Because of the way that confession works in the Catholic tradition, it’s highly likely that every one of those priests would’ve known that this kind of thing could happen. Every single one of those priests who were in attendance at that ordination (and there would have been at least a few dozen) knew that sexual predators walked among them, and every one of them would have known that a child alone in the presbytery with a priest was in danger of being raped.
I don’t think many of us Catholics and ex-Catholics have really grokked into that fully yet. But because of the sacrament of confession and the way it builds a network of secrets and compromising material there really is no way that any working priest could not have known that this was a possibility, even back then.
I’ve heard word spreads fast amongst paedophile communities that a child has been groomed, and my uncle quickly became the brothers’ favourite. He was awarded head boarder in his final year. I feel sick in my belly at the thought of that now.
Not long after that, my uncle was sent to a boarding college run by the De La Salle brothers not far from my family home. It was called St Bede’s, and ironically it had been started in 1938 by, among others, one of Australia’s most notorious paedophile brothers, Brother Fintan. But we didn’t know that at the time.
In those days, George Pell was not only the Bishop for the Southern Region of Melbourne, but also the Parish Priest of Mentone, and the Chaplain of both St Bede’s and my all-girls Catholic high school. He would sanctimoniously turn up to do our opening Mass and say all sorts of gross and sexist things, always, always, always referring to us young girls’ futures with the phrase, “When you go out into the world and become mothers, teachers, nurses, wives…”
I don’t really know what went on at St Bede’s, and now I probably never will, but I’ve heard word spreads fast amongst paedophile communities that a child has been groomed, and my uncle quickly became the brothers’ favourite. He was awarded head boarder in his final year. I feel sick in my belly at the thought of that now.
He drank a lot and smoked a lot of weed, but everyone does here when you’re young (in fact it’s almost culturally unacceptable not to), so his addictions went unnoticed for quite a few years. He put on a lot of weight too, perhaps a subconscious attempt to make himself less attractive to predators. But consciously he hated his body shape and he was always on some sort of diet. It wasn’t until he finally surfaced after going missing for three days, and his counsellor insisted that he had to come out to his parents, that the family knew the extent of his drug problem.
But it wasn’t the drink or the drugs that killed him.
It must’ve been about that time that he received his paltry payout in exchange for his silence. And not long after that, my uncle was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. In defiance of all statistical probabilities, two of the ten siblings have it, as well as my great aunty and a first cousin of mine. They say it’s not genetic, but I dunno.
In any case, terrible as it was, it was not the MS that killed him.
On the upside he got sober and he met a wonderful man who eventually became my uncle too. He was the perfect fit, and they built a fabulously eccentric life together full of drag shows and drama and marvellous dinner parties, a quirky side-show being two little doggies they treated like royalty.
My uncle was pretty much back to his old self. He still loved a two-dollar shop, and he would throw a party for us nieces and nephews and give all our kids a “showbag” each of the most wonderfully kitschy bits of crap. His partner gave him the confidence to let the family in, little-by-little, to his fantastically exotic drag queen lifestyle.
I never got to see him in drag. He showed me videos, and I’ve seen plenty of pictures, but I never witnessed him really let rip on stage. Right now just that one singular fact seems utterly devastating to me. There was so much of my uncle that we were only just getting to see! So much of his rich inner world that has been expunged.
I just adored him, but his relationship with me seemed very complicated at his end. He was surprisingly conservative politically, and despite all the church had done to him and continued to do, he was very Catholic up until very recently, so maybe that had something to do with it. He would block me and unblock me on Facebook for seemingly no reason. One time he took me along to his AA meeting and I felt so chuffed that he was being so open with me and I plied him with affection. A few months later, he had me blocked and was avoiding me at family gatherings. Nothing had happened at my end. Another time he invited me to walk with him at the Mardi Gras gay pride parade, and while we were happily strolling along he told me I was the first family member who had walked with him. I was so thrilled to be allowed to be so close! But again, it didn’t last long.
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About half a year ago, his partner made a frantic phone call to my mother and said that my uncle had been getting a lot worse lately and he needed to tell the whole family something that was shocking but which we all needed to know. That was when we found out about the rape. By then, my uncle had become so paranoid that he was convinced that the church had hired people to live across the road and spy on him. Further, his drinking and smoking was exacerbating his MS, and he was getting so high he was having waking nightmares about the priests coming to get him. It was scaring the shit out of his partner, who realised that the only way the love of his life had a chance at getting better was to face up to what had happened. So he told us. About how, forty years ago, a little fellow’s life had been derailed by a monster.
My mum cried her eyes out when she heard. We all did. That beautiful little boy. That gigantic bright light. A life ruined.
A lot of things happened very fast then. There was a lot of healing. His behaviour suddenly made a whole lot more sense to us, and all the arguments and erraticism was instantly forgiven. But every day, in the wake of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, there was more news in the papers about Pell and those paedophile priests, and it was constantly triggering him. He decided he needed more space away from his hectic social life and away from the perceived judgement of his friends and family.
So from bustling inner-city Melbourne, the couple made the sudden and dramatic move up to a sleepy village in far north New South Wales in an effort to give him the time and space he needed to heal. They moved into this beautiful art deco “Queenslander” style house, the kind that is up high on stilts to capture the breeze and keep it cool. They were surrounded by beauty and warmth, and now, in the deafening silence of the country town, my uncle could only hear his demons.
It still proved too much.
About three weeks ago, his partner rang my mum crying and asking her to come up and help them. My uncle was smoking so much dope and taking so many prescription meds that he was catatonic most of the time, and his partner didn’t know how much more he could cope with. Mum got on the next plane, and when she arrived at the airport her brother broke down in tears. She mothered them both up and got them talking to each other, and when she left, she thought he was going to be okay.
He was not going to be okay.
A few days later, his partner was out and got a frantic phone call from a mutual friend interstate saying that my uncle was texting dark messages declaring he was going to commit suicide. In a very wise move, instead of rushing home, his partner rang the police instead. That meant that my uncle would be taken immediately to hospital and then to a mental health facility. The thinking was that, despite all his charisma, he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of it, and would finally get the professional help he needed.
Or so everyone thought.
But he did talk his way out of it. Within a day or two he had staff sitting on his bed laughing at his jokes. When he was summoned to a meeting—where his partner was trying hard to convince the head doctor that he needed much, much more time than a few days’ rest and treatment—he walked in still holding court with giggling nurses and a smiling doctor in tow. “He’s fine!” they insisted.
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He was not fine.
Last Thursday morning, his partner went out to get some lunch things from the supermarket. He was only gone an hour. By the time he came back, my darling uncle was hanging from a rafter at their beautiful art deco Queenslander style house, the kind that is high up on stilts. He had been up there so long he was already purple.
And I am beyond devastated. Beyond sad. Beyond grief-stricken. Beyond angry. There is an eerily unmoving rage within me.
Thursday night, George Pell sat in a jail cell while my uncle lay in the morgue, just one of the many, many victims who died of drug overdose or suicide due to the highly organised paedophile ring that is better known as the Roman Catholic Church. Such is the devastation of young boys’ and girls’ trust being brutalised beyond repair that there are men now barely out of their forties who have lost a third of their classroom buddies to suicide.
It really is hard to wrap your head around what extraordinary ongoing damage has been done to countless generations of Catholics and of Indigenous people through the missions. The Catholic Church has broken so many people, and in turn, their families have been torn apart too. He never had a chance. We never had a chance.
His parents did everything right; they were faithful to the core and the church betrayed that trust in the most unimaginably evil way. Such were the layers of church-instilled shame around homosexuality that got mixed up in the crimes of an evil paedophile that he never had a chance to unpack it all. It was just too much.
Seventeen years after he was raped, his attacker, Father Hourigan, died in mysterious circumstances. On September 15, 1995, detectives charged Hourigan with one count of incident sexual penetration of a boy (not my uncle) and were preparing to lay further charges relating to three other boys. Three days later, on September 18, Hourigan died suddenly and unexpectedly, aged 65.
A death notice said he had died “peacefully”, and relatives attributed the death to a “heart attack”. On September 22, fellow priests travelling to the funeral began hearing via news bulletins on their car radios that he had been charged with child sex offences. But strangely, considering the circumstances, no autopsy was held to ascertain levels of medication, drugs or alcohol to determine if, as many suspected, it may have been suicide. It meant that, even if my uncle had managed to push through and seek justice, because of Pell’s artful dodging with the “Ellis Defence”, he would have had no one to sue.
The Catholic Church murdered my uncle, as surely as if they had tied the noose themselves. It was a long, drawn-out treacherous act and it took forty years to complete, but they did it. They snuffed out that beautiful spirit.
And all I can think about the church right now is, “Burn it down.”
An understanding of what rape is and why it is wrong has only very recently in our species’ history begun moving into the forefront of our collective consciousness, and the church has failed utterly and completely to join the rest of society in that evolution. We must, therefore, discard it for the obsolete cultural relic that it is, like a child’s clothing that has been outgrown.
If you or anyone you know needs support, in Australia you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counseling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, orbeyondblue 1300 224 636.