When senior NSW Police Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox told ABC TV’s Lateline programme that the Catholic Church had covered up crimes by paedophile priests, silenced investigations and destroyed evidence to avoid prosecution – the public outrage triggered a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse.
One of the stories that led to this is that of Patricia Feenan’s son, Daniel, a 14-year-old altar boy when first raped by a priest in the Newcastle/Maitland diocese.
Patricia Feenan is a warm and generous woman, a loving mother telling an unimaginably terrible story of the sexual abuse of her son, Daniel, by a Catholic priest trusted by the family. The details are graphic, shocking and are revealed in her book about her son and her family’s experience.
Patricia says she thought long and hard about writing the book, Holy Hell, but felt there was a need to tell the story.
“I was encouraged by interested people to tell it and see what I could make of it, of explaining the impact on a family of clergy sexual abuse. In initially wrote it to try to get it out of my head after my son went through a criminal trial in 2004. I could write it, put it on a shelf and it would be there as a record for the family.”
“But I became very aware that the church was still facing allegations from victims of other priests and there were allegations over cover-ups. I was very upset that things didn’t seem to be getting better so I made the decision to publish – with Daniel’s blessing.”
“I would never do anything without his approval, or the approval of his brothers, so I consulted Daniel a fair bit while writing it and he felt it was a good thing to do. As I was due to publish, Daniel assured me that there would be nothing in the book that hadn’t already been on the front page of the local newspaper through the trial but in those news reports there was no evidence of the impact on the family or the impact on him and his life.”
Some of the incidents of what Daniel was subjected by the family’s priest are graphically detailed in the book.
“We’d faced such a lot of opposition, gossip and innuendo that I guess I wanted to be able to read and maybe experience the pain that we went through and that it might help other victims in the future.”
Patricia Feenan says that one of the problems with the media coverage was that there no reporting of the ‘culture of grooming’ and that discussing it, educating people about it means they’re more aware but also hopefully more likely to tell someone and to seek help.
“The reaction I’ve had from many people, and many victims who are positive and thankful, means I know I’ve helped people. One man wrote that he’d never disclosed his abuse but he read the book and gave it to his mother, telling her ‘This is what happened to me.’
Sadly, Patricia fears that sexual abuse by the clergy continues, and will continue.
“We hear that it’s historical, and I’ll concede that the church is trying very hard now with protocols put in place to deal with victims who come forward now, but when they say it’s historical, that’s true the offence was historical, but the impact is with us every day, and it’s certainly with my son every day of his life. If people understand that more, maybe they can walk some of the journey. Emotional support is what victims want, not ostracisization.”
I’m amazed that for so long the priests had so much power.
Daniel was 24 before he told his mother of the sexual abuse that had happened to him. Having been raised in a traditional Catholic family Pat says the church was such a big part of their lives.”We tried to live our faith. In embracing that, we had our four sons with us, they were all altar servers and my husband eventually worked for the church in this Newcastle/Maitland Catholic diocese. I was a special minister, I cleaned the church, I read on Sundays, I visited sick people with communion so it was an enormous part of our lives.”
“We tried to do more than just attend Mass on Sundays. We tried to bring faith into our lives and the bitterness is that in doing that we had many priests through our home and exposed our children to a paedophile.”
Has Patricia’s faith been destroyed by her family’s experience? Are paedophile priests separate to her faith?
“I think my inner faith is fine, the same as it’s always been, but I don’t need to be guided by a priest now about what I believe and what I can and can’t do.”
“I’m amazed that for so long the priests had so much power. It’s traditional, it’s from Ireland, it’s just the way they were. They held positions of power and advised people on all manner of things that had nothing to do with the faith.”
Patricia Feenan has now cut out the ‘mere mortal middle man’ from her relationship with Catholicism.
“I think I have, I still try and be a good person but I don’t attend church anymore. I don’t attend Mass. That’s very sad, I’m very lonely for the good part of what I had but I’m not lonely for the trimmings.”
Can she still trust priests?
“I can trust individual priests, I know good priests. I guess you never know but I guess I have an inner sense in those priests that have supported me. I think now I’m looking for their honesty and transparency. We were just blind. We had blind faith before.”
“The priest was the priest and he was almost akin to God when I was growing up and this is what has created part of the problem in the Catholic church. But now I treat priests as equal and can have more in depth conversations with them. I don’t associate with many, just a couple, but they know who they are and I trust them.”
Patricia Feenan hopes that a new Pope can embrace the changes that we all face in society.
“I hope he can be kind and compassionate and get people to trust again. I don’t know how he’s going to do that. There are so many people who are upset with the Catholic church so he needs to give a clearer message that people can relate to in 2013.”
“Jesus was a simple fisherman. His message was to love one another as I have loved you and do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. I don’t know where the trimmings and the might and power came from. Perhaps fear. Keeping people ignorant of what is really happening means the power isn’t diluted.”
“People are in the dark about the inner workings of the Vatican and the hierarchy right down to bishops in parishes all over the world, the flock weren’t allowed to know things. We were kept in the dark.”
Betrayed is the obvious word that comes to mind when speaking with Patricia about her feelings about the Catholic church now.
“I have reflections of Mum and Dad and how much they supported the Church. They were good Catholic people, certainly not wealthy in any way but gave so much of their time, and money into the(collection) plate on Sundays and going through the indignity of having how much they gave read out.”
“Even as a small child I can remember Mum and Dad trying to give as much as they could because of the embarrassment when the priest would read from the altar the Easter Dues as they were called, or the Christmas Dues, and when I think about that now I can’t believe that was done. Nobody objected, it’s just the sort of thing that was done. But that’s not Catholic faith!”
Patricia speaks of her son Daniel with warmth and love, but visible anguish.
“Daniel is well and happy, he has three lovely children. But he walks with the pain every day of his life. His journey has been hard. Because there is so much publicity at the moment that coincided with the release of my book, the Royal Commission and the Special Commission of Inquiry – there aren’t many media outlets that aren’t talking about it sometime through the day. I guess they’re triggers for him but he came to my book launch and he spoke. He’s proud of what I’ve done and he said he feels that so many people have hugged him and said ‘well done’ that I think he does feel affirmed and vindicated.”
“People that never had a chance to say to Dan ‘well done’ or ‘we’re proud of you’, former teachers, and people who had the chance to say they were sorry that they didn’t know. He had that, too, when he came home for the book launch. People that he’d worked with over the years.”
We were no match for a clever paedophile priest.
A huge part of the problem surrounding any sexual abuse, but particularly sexual abuse of children, is victims often don’t tell anyone. We encourage our children now more than ever to tell us things.
“We do in 2013 and certainly we always said to the boys, “Nothing that can happen to you is too awful that you can’t tell us,” but I guess we were no match for a clever paedophile priest who had the other argument that, “No-one will believe you. I’m the priest. Bad things will happen if you tell anyone.” It’s disappointing for us as parents that he wasn’t able to tell us but there are a lot of parents in our position who are thinking the same thing.”
“It’s pretty upsetting that ‘paedophile power’ is stronger in some ways that ‘parent power’. We hoped that our children would tell us but it didn’t happen. We were very hands-on parents, we embarrassed the boys often by ringing to see if there would be, for example, alcohol at a party. We were right over the top and the boys told us that.”
“But we didn’t think of the priest. We were very Catholic. He was right under our noses and we didn’t even give him a thought.”
“As the years went by we realised Daniel was very unsettled but we looked for other influences. But it’s out there now and parents do talk to their children about abuse.”
How do ‘Nanny Pat’ and Daniel ensure that her grandchildren, Daniel’s children, will understand body safety and abuse without scaring them?
“I think parents are having those conversations with their kids and we do it at school, too. I’m a teacher and in our child protection we talk about kids feeling uncomfortable and who you can tell if something happens that makes you feel uncomfortable. Years ago we taught ‘stranger danger’ but that isn’t it at all – most abuse happens by someone connected to the family by somebody the kids already know. That’s why they trust them.”
“Kids understand lots these days and they’re very resilient. You can say to a child there are good people in the world, and bad people, and they’ll accept that. You can talk to them about feeling uncomfortable, that if anyone wants to have a secret with you it’s not appropriate. You don’t have secrets with other people unless it’s about a present for your grandmother or mum or dad!”
Suffer the little children, indeed.