This story has been translated and edited from this post on HuffPost Italy.
ROME, Feb 26 -- “I’m coming from Australia to Rome with my psychologist to witness the [Royal Commission] appearance of George Pell regarding paedophile priests in his diocese. I’ll be in the same room. I want to look him in the eye.”
The words of Andrew Collins from the other side of the world. From the city of Ballarat, where Collins, now 46, was born and grew up. And where he was the victim of four priests who raped him repeatedly from childhood to adolescence.
“I prayed to God to stop the sexual abuse, but it didn’t stop. The abuse included anal rape, penetration, touching and molestations. I had faith but they tore it from my heart,” Collins told The Huffington Post Italy. The horrors have scarred him forever: “One day I decided to hang myself. It was my wife who cut the noose to save me.”
Survivors on their way to Rome
Collins is the spokesperson of the Ballarat Survivors Group, an association now asking the Church and the Australian Government not just for justice but for a specific welfare scheme to repair the permanent damage of the victims of paedophilia: the majority of these men, who are now adults, are not able to work, have developed mental illnesses or dependencies on drugs and alcohol.
“Are people in Italy really not speaking about Ballarat?” Collins asks in amazement. “You need to know what happened to us as children. And we want to hear the truth from the mouth of Pell. He was in positions of power in Ballarat when the worst of the abuse occurred. We want to know what he knew and when he found out. We also want to know why the victims weren’t taken seriously and why the Church tried to cover up these crimes.”
Life goes on with difficulty for Collins, one of the few with a wife and children: “I had a trucking company but I collapsed with a nervous breakdown. Since then there are days when I don’t even manage to get out of bed. The doctor has confirmed that I am suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, that’s why I’ll never be able to return to work.”
The abuse occurred from the 1960s to the 1980s. Members of The Congregation of Christian Brothers engaged in schools and seminaries in the area, such as St Patrick’s College, have faced 850 sex abuse claims in which 281 members of the Catholic order have been implicated. To date, the organisation has paid $37 million in compensation and 47 of the victims have committed suicide.
Ballarat is also the home town of one of the most powerful figures in The Vatican, George Pell, who on [Monday, Australian time] will give evidence at The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which began in 2013.
When Collins and the group of survivors discovered that Pell would not be flown to Australia [to give evidence] they were stunned. And not just them. [Federal Member for Ballarat] Catherine King declared to the Australian Parliament, in regards to Pell: “These are not the actions of a man of courage.”
Ballarat launched a crowdfunding campaign to allow these men to be present at the hearing in Italy: they needed to raise $40,000, they raised $200,000.
Thanks to that money, 16 of the victims are travelling to Rome, together with three psychologists to deal with the inevitable emotional crisis. “It won’t be easy to see the symbols of Catholicism everywhere: the tunics, the crucifixes,” confides Collins as he prepares his suitcase. “We are worried about not sleeping. We have all developed big sleeping problems,” he writes during our 4 am chat.
In Australia, people like Andrew are called ‘survivors’. Survivors of the sexual ambushes of paedophile priests (“at one point I was relieved if the teacher took away a class companion instead of me”), survivors of men of the cloth who raped children without anybody intervening, not even the parents: when Andrew spoke to his family about the abuse he wasn’t believed, a further trauma.
In the eyes of those abused, Pell tainted himself with hostile and insensitive behaviour in the diocese of Melbourne with a very low compensation plan for the victims ($50,000). “He battled against the survivors in court so they couldn’t be better compensated. He wasn’t even interested,” accuses Collins.
If, at the Rome hearing, Pell doesn’t answer the questions, confesses the spokesperson, “we will be disappointed”. However, Collins is convinced that now “the choice is his: it’s up to him to decide how he wants to be remembered. He can be the man who told the truth to help try and change the victim support system, or he can be the man who lied and covered up those crimes.”
For days, Ballarat has literally been covered with coloured ribbons tied to railings, on the stairs of buildings, in the schoolyards that once represented hell on earth for hundreds of children. On Facebook, ready to fly to Rome, the group of survivors renamed themselves “Rome Team”. Someone changed the profile photo to the Italian flag. “The support and the solidarity is crazy,” says Collins.