The latest round of royal commission hearings bear witness to despicable cover-ups and blatant disregard for victims. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Testifying against child sexual abuse at royal commission

Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart arrives at the royal commission hearing in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart arrives at the royal commission hearing in Melbourne on Tuesday.

There is a sound you’ll hear often in these hearings. It follows a victim’s swearing in – a secular affirmation, never on a Bible – and precedes their reading of a prepared statement on their abuse. The sound is a quick inhalation of breath, followed by an anguished release. It is swift but unmistakable. It is the sound of emotional preparation, a quick steadying of the nerves.

It preceded BTU’s statement this week, as it did BTO’s. Before BTO began on Monday, he tearfully told the hearing he was ashamed to speak his own name. His name was spoilt, he felt: sullied by the abuse he experienced as a boy at the hands of Father Wilfred Baker. It is sorrowful testament to the suggestibility of children, the way others’ behaviour becomes integrated with a child’s psyche, that today he still blames himself.

It was the 1970s, and BTO was attending Catholic schools in Gladstone Park, a suburb of Melbourne. He was a prepubescent boy when Baker began showing a special interest in him. BTO was flattered. “When I first met Father Baker,” BTO said this week, “I found him
to be very engaging. He took time to listen to me and gave me attention that I felt I was not getting at home. I’d
only recently moved to Gladstone Park and really didn’t 
know many people. I felt special around him and found
 Father Baker and the church a bit of a refuge.”

It is an unmistakable pattern of these hearings – abusers exploiting the nascent egos of their victims; cultivating their need for belonging, guidance and identity. Baker made BTO an altar boy, and he relished the role. It gave him a sense of prestige, membership in a warm and noble club – a community given to the advancement of souls. This was something on which he could base a life. Meanwhile, Baker was not only grooming BTO, but also ingratiating himself with his family – another pattern. Baker would have dinner at BTO’s home at least once a week.

One weekend, the priest invited 12-year-old BTO to spend the weekend at Baker’s parents’ house in Maryborough, a small town in Victoria’s goldfields. It was where the abuse started. “I recall the first time Father Baker abused me,” BTO said. “His parents had gone to bed and Father Baker and I were up playing cards. When we
finished and were going to bed, we went to Father Baker’s room. I recall there were two single beds and I went to the one bed and Father Baker went to the other. He called me over to his bed. I don’t know why I went, and I don’t know why I didn’t say no. I got into his bed; he was kissing me on the lips and touching me all over, including my genitals. I don’t remember what else happened and I don’t really want to talk or remember it. I feel like it was my fault and remembering the details will just make me feel guiltier than I already do.”

The abuse continued, enabled by Baker’s manipulations and BTO’s belief that it was his fault. For some time, he could not tell his parents. “My father was a man’s man,” BTO said. “A tough man. I didn’t want to tell him.” But once he found out, he was supportive.

Naturally, there are countless heartbreaking details in these hearings. One of them is the feeling of guilt and personal squalor that infects the victim. If anyone still wonders why many children do not report their abuse, it’s for the simple fact they often think it’s their fault. Decades later, BTO still feels that way – looks back with sick astonishment at his compliance. It is a terrible legacy of child abuse.

Wilfred Baker assaulted boys for at least two decades, and despite a rancid reputation, was moved constantly between parishes. He was convicted in 1999 on multiple counts of indecent assault – he died last year, facing new charges.

1 . Confession betrayed

December 17, 1967, and the prime minister was missing. Harold Holt had entered the water at Cheviot Beach on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and never returned. BTU was on holiday with Father Ronald Pickering that weekend at Mount Eliza, overlooking the calmer waters of Port Phillip Bay. BTU scoured the bay believing he could locate the PM. He was 12 years old. “I thought I could find him,” he said this week. “Father Pickering abused me on that trip.”

About 40 kilometres of water separated BTU from the site of Holt’s disappearance – his hopes of spotting the prime minister a reminder of the magical thinking of children. His desire to help – and his being near water – was all BTU required to believe he could heroically save Holt. A child’s world is different, and it was through these trusting eyes that BTU interpreted years of abuse at the hands of Pickering.

About a year later, BTU’s distress and confusion led him to discussing the abuse for the first time. He went to a neighbouring parish – St Colman’s – so he might attend confessional. He entered the booth and spilt his anguish. The priest he was speaking to was Father Wilfred Baker. “As soon as confession had finished,” BTU said, “Father Baker wanted to chat to me. We had a conversation in the church about what I had just told him in confession. The conversation was not about the abuse that I disclosed to him; instead, what Father Baker wanted to know was where I lived. I thought this was odd.”

Baker then told Pickering about the confession – it was a tipoff. “By mentioning it to Father Pickering,” BTU said, “Father Baker clearly had no hesitation in breaking the seal of my confession to him … A couple of months after this, Father Pickering asked me why I had gone and told Father Baker about what was happening between us. He told me it was a stupid thing to do and who did I think I was.” The abuse continued.

In 1992, Father Baker joined St James Primary School in North Richmond as parish priest. By now, Baker was whisky-soaked and vicious. His reputation – for depravity and self-destruction – was established. According to the school’s then-principal, Patricia Taylor, “Father Baker had a drinking problem – quite a serious one. When he had been drinking, he was a
very disagreeable kind of person. When he wasn’t drinking, he could be quite charming.

“Father Baker said mass first thing in the morning, about 9 o’clock. After that, he started drinking. By lunchtime, he was generally quite intoxicated. If you had to go and see him in the afternoon, he was often what I would describe as legless. He would struggle to stand, he would struggle to speak coherently, and he would become very verbally abusive.”

But Baker would remain at North Richmond until his arrest seven years later.

2 . Peter Searson

We have heard during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of predatory priests who were gifted manipulators, charming and devious, as we have heard about their protection, conspiracies, impunity. But not all priests were so good at trickery. We also heard of priests whose pathologies were much more evident. Father Baker’s faults were alarmingly obvious, and so too the bizarre behaviour of Father Peter Searson.

Searson was a Victorian priest for a staggering 35 years, during which time he assaulted girls, boys, and women. He often wore military fatigues and carried a gun, had once opened a coffin in front of children so that they might see the corpse inside, and was long suspected of stealing church money.

Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart this week described Searson as depraved and psychotic, an appraisal that comes much too late for his victims.

Searson was eventually convicted of physical assault in the late 1990s, and quietly left the church. He died in 2009, but revelations are still emerging about his crimes.

Searson was protected in numerous ways. Hart this week admitted that the church’s canon law – specifically 1740, which permits the removal of pastors for harmful or ineffective posts – was never applied to Searson, and that Hart himself had removed altar boys from Searson’s dominion but never removed Searson himself from the church.

Searson had also successfully intimidated his victims, and as with most child abuse victims they were reluctant to come forward. Victoria Police also erred in their investigations claiming that indecent assaults didn’t qualify as crimes. A girl’s allegations that Searson had rubbed himself against her back were dismissed, prompting Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana to say this week: “Reading the statement, I thought that quite clearly there was an indecency around it, and to suggest that there was none – and I think somewhere in the documentation or report they suggested it wasn’t a sex offence – I disagreed with. I think the whole circumstance was surrounded with indecency.” 

Some of these men were not subtle – but the cultures of wilful blindness that supported them could be. At least, for now, more victims have been heard.

There are two threads to these hearings: one is to offer a dignified place for victims to voice their stories. It is the state bearing witness. The other thread, more obviously, is an investigation into institutional responses.

This week, Archbishop Denis Hart offered marathon testimony that very nearly stretched over three days. There was a slow, patient accrual of unflattering detail. But that is another story – not the abuse itself but its awful perpetuation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 5, 2015 as "Blind faith".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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