Mark Hodgetts shares his experience with the wide-reaching consequences of sexual abuse and how it doesn't just affect those directly victimised.
CAITLIN JOHNSTONE'S epic piece on Cardinal George Pell hammered home some truths that I have only dared skate across in moments of darkness. In her own surgically clean way, Caitlin has managed to put her finger on the one clear feeling that all people who know a victim of sexual abuse must feel. It is an overwhelming sense of rage. At times white-hot, at other times running deep in the subconscious, the rage never disappears.
I know that rage. I know it well.
In my teenage and young adult years, I allowed rage to define me.
I was angry at everything — at the school that I attended and at its teachers and “Christian Brothers”. I was also angry at the Catholic community at large for letting it happen and myself for being incapable of doing anything.
We told people what was going on and no one listened.
I was angry for the many boys whose lives were destroyed. I was angry for my parents who believed that they were doing the right thing sending me to that place. I was angry for me because my survival strategy involved underachieving in everything except alcohol consumption.
I was angry because I knew what happened to some and suspected what happened to others.
I started attending St Joseph's College in grade six. I was a bright, curious kid who loved playing sport.
By year nine or ten, I was a dull, sullen, sneering wretch who liked to drink.
I can’t pinpoint a reason why, I can just point to a slow gradual decline into darkness — a decline that was hastened by fear at first and later anger.
The fear came early.
I felt its first touch when I witnessed a fellow student receive “the cuts” from my class teacher. I had never seen this before. The theatre involved was pure psychological abuse of an entire class.
That was nothing compared to what I heard awaited me in Form one.
Whispered tales about the behaviour of a particular Brother who ruled his class with a perverse madness beggared belief. Surely, tales of him sexually assaulting people at the back of the class or savagely beating boys around the head were fantasy or some sort of test for the new kids.
But the tales of him either sticking his hands down kids’ pants and groping their genitals or just kneeing them in the balls for fun came from too many sources.
I spent the entire Christmas holidays dreading being assigned to that monster’s class. I could not sleep. I tried to tell my parents, but how does a 12-year-old make that sound sensible?
Fortunately, the Brother in question moved to another school. Maybe someone complained. All I know is that I dodged a bullet.
Shortly after that, a couple of kids invited me to “extra training” after school with the physical education teacher, Mr Coogan. I was attracted to the idea as I loved sport.
My parents wanted more information — when I asked, there was none forthcoming so I never went.
Twelve months later, it was obvious to anyone that Mr Coogan had a “special relationship” with those two boys and it wasn’t healthy.
Yet, nothing was done. By then, I had found a circle of friends that were not particularly sociable and the immediate danger to me waned. We joked about those two boys and Mr Coogan. Part of me withered every time we did — it could so easily have been me. That was a second bullet dodged.
Things happened all the time.
One day I learnt that a kid a couple of years my junior had put a gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger. It did not take long to hear the rumours of something happening in the change rooms. I can’t describe the feeling I felt then. It was incandescent and pure.
What is a boy going to do?
I’ll tell you what I did. I packed up my identity, hopes and dreams and hid them behind a cloak of faux toughness and outright nastiness.
This insidious sickness was everywhere. My under 15 football coach was a paedophile who played favourites. I dodged that bullet as well.
By year nine, I didn’t care. It was every kid for himself.
By the time that I left St Joseph's, all hope and joy had left me. There was nothing left but sarcasm and anger.
A couple of years later my best friend died in a motorbike accident. He had it coming. He’d been living life on the edge since he was 15. I suspect he had his reasons. He was a very good-looking boy.
It was the final straw.
I hate to say how many people I hurt. I could not love. I was a mess and continued down that road for another seven years.
Finally, I reached a point where I just had to leave Geelong.
When I did, I got the drinking under control, but the rage remained.
By some miracle, I met a girl who “got me”. We married and raised three beautiful kids. The rage dulled but never extinguished.
Alan Swingler (my old football coach) was charged with sexual offences against children. According to the broken rites website, Swingler was kept on staff at St Joseph's after a parent had complained about his behaviour. Imagine that. The rage flared.
In 1994, John Patrick Coogan was convicted of 17 counts of indecent assault and jailed for five years. Critically, one of the victims stated that St Joseph's knew Coogan was a child molester but kept him on staff anyway. The rage flared in me but I had my family. I did not succumb then.
When my kids grew up, I had too much time to think and dwelt on things that I should have put to bed long ago.
These feelings coincided with increased publicity about sexual abuse by the clergy. The publicised crimes rekindled a rage that needed little encouragement. I spiralled out of control and put everything and everyone that I loved at risk.
Thoughts of suicide were never far away. It seems silly writing that but when the rage overwhelmed me and I spiralled down a dark tunnel of depression, it made perfect sense.
The thing is that I knew this was going down and despite my attempts to tell people, I couldn’t stop it. I still think of kids who I know were abused.
My wife got me through that dark period. If it were not for her love, I’m pretty sure I’d be dead.
It must not have been easy. I made it hard.
It has taken five years of rebuilding myself. The rage is still there but I’ve learned.
I’ve learned that I cannot hold myself responsible for the actions of some perverted adults and that I cannot change some things. I’ve learnt that there is such a thing as inner peace and after the conviction of George Pell, I’ve dared to dream that there may even be justice.
Most of all, I’ve rediscovered love.
Here’s to my fellow survivors who suffered emotionally, physically or sexually. We are all scarred in some way but we’re still here. Despite those bastards’ best efforts.
Mark Hodgetts is a former bank manager who switched to freelance writing almost ten years ago. His personal writing on subjects varying from depression through to politics can be viewed at markhodgetts.com.
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