The father of one of the choirboys who was sexually assaulted by Cardinal George Pell has had an unusually quiet week.
A few months ago he was taking phone calls from The New York Times and The Washington Post, as the media storm surrounding his son’s abuser’s trial whipped up international headlines. He spent last week nervously awaiting the outcome of Pell’s appeal, suffering sleepless nights only to rejoice at it being dismissed.
Sitting in the lounge room of his home in a sprawling development on the outskirts of Ballarat, he told INQ how he had no idea his life would be so profoundly affected by the actions of one man — a man who spent much of his life not far from where the choirboy’s father now calls home.
“Living in Ballarat, a lot of people know him, and have known him from when he was quite young,” he said. “I’m in the dragon’s lair.”
The father, whose name has long been withheld to protect the identity of Pell’s surviving victim, has now been left to consider just how big an impact Pell’s abuse has had on his life. His son, referred to in the trial as R, died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 30. The boy never spoke to his father — or anyone else — about the abuse that occurred at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne when he and his friend were just 13 years old. But his father believes that was the reason his son turned to drugs.
“He went from being a friendly kid that would do anything you would ask him to do, to someone who didn’t give a stuff,” he said. “It wasn’t a very good life. It wasn’t a good way of living.”
R’s trouble with drugs started not long after his abuse occurred. At 14, his behaviour changed so dramatically that his parents took him to be assessed by a psychologist at the Royal Children’s Hospital. The psychologist, whose initial assessment suggested some kind of attention disorder, would later give evidence at the trial, saying had she known about the abuse, her examination would have been different.
By 16, R was addicted to heroin and disappearing from the family home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne for days at a time. During his 20s, he spent time in and out of jail for possession. It was after a brief time away, during which time he had come clean, that he died from an accidental overdose in St Albans. But it wasn’t until a year after his death that R’s father learned that he had been named in a statement by his son’s friend, alleging they were both sexually abused by Pell in the 1990s.
“It was like being hit over the head with a bat, it really was,” he said.
R’s father has long threatened to seek compensation for what happened to his son at the hands of the third most senior Catholic in the world, and is now finalising a civil claim through Shine Lawyers.
“With all the anguish, all the upset and all the depression and anxiety, I’ve got a lot of issues that have arisen since my son’s death,” he said.
But he says he’s ambivalent about the outcome.
“It wasn’t the most important thing in my mind. The most important thing in my mind was getting justice.”
Since learning that his son was abused, he’s been forced to look at his son’s addiction through a new lens. And while he feels justice is finally being done, he still feels anger and betrayal towards Pell and the Church. It’s the hypocrisy that sticks in his throat the most, he says, like how his son was kicked out of the choir for bending the corners of his hymn book — an innocent act compared to the horrors inflicted upon his son by Pell. He also feels anger when he recalls how proud his parents had been to see their grandson up there on the choir stand.
“My mother was proud as punch. And my father. They used to come to church and sit there and listen to the choir.”
Last week, after the appeal was quashed, he made a toast to his son with a glass of Chivas Regal, which was given to him by his son on the Christmas before his death. Going through old mementos of his son, he says he’s undeterred by the prospect of Pell appealing to the High Court, and feels that justice will prevail.
“I used to look at his photo and think, what a waste of a life. Now I look at it and think it was still a waste of a life, but there was a reason why he died. There was a reason why he couldn’t tell us. And the reason was Pell.”