Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]
November 25, 2021
By Rachael Brown
[Photo above: Melbourne man Robert Friscic has been awarded a record settlement by the Catholic Church of $3.7 million for historical sexual abuse.(ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)]
Robert Friscic is a big bear of a man whose whole body shakes when he laughs, which he does a lot when he gets nervous.
There’s also a childlike quality about him. A big part of him is still stuck in the 1980s when, he says, his childhood was stolen from him by a local priest.
But this underdog, with limited means and an intellectual disability, took on the Catholic Church and won.
He lodged a civil claim in Victoria’s Supreme Court, alleging abuse by Father Anthony Bongiorno.
After two and a half years of litigation, the Archdiocese of Melbourne has offered an out-of-court settlement of $3 million.
It has admitted that former Archbishop Frank Little breached his duty of care.
Mr Friscic’s lawyers say the settlement, combined with previous payments, makes it the highest award for an historical abuse matter.
The warning signs
Mr Friscic ran away from home in 1981 and sought refuge in the local Brunswick churchyard.
He was welcomed into the St Ambrose presbytery by Father Anthony Bongiorno.
“He [Father Bongiorno] showed me where I could have a shower in his bedroom … and he came in with me. And I didn’t know right or wrong. [He] started washing me all over my body,” Mr Friscic said.
Mr Friscic was 11 years old. The abuse continued until he was 18.
“When I was growing up, I always used to say to him, ‘Why did you molest me?’ And he goes, it was because he loved me.”
A number of social workers saw warning signs of sexual abuse and tried to raise the alarm.
Roni Nettleton ran the boarding house where Mr Friscic was living. She confronted the priest when Mr Friscic kept disappearing at nights. She said Father Bongiorno just brushed it off.
“[He said] ‘Oh yes, he calls in you know, I’m supporting the family … and he needs a father figure,'” Ms Nettleton said.
So she sought a meeting with the Archbishop at the time, Frank Little, but she didn’t feel confident he’d follow it up.
“He more wanted to reassure us, that Father Bongiorno was very well respected in his parish … [Archbishop Little] really had doubts about, you know, this sort of thing. ‘Was this boy making this up?'”
Also in Mr Friscic’s corner was Victoria Police’s Detective Sergeant Sol Solomon, the informant in the criminal trial of Father Bongiorno.
In 1996, the priest was tried for indecent assault and sexual penetration of three boys.
Sergeant Solomon told the ABC’s Trace podcast that Father Bongiorno was cold.
“He was not cooperative at all, he didn’t show any remorse for the victims, or any empathy with them or the impact that his actions had upon them,” Sergeant Solomon said.
Father Bongiorno was acquitted in two cases, and the third fell over. A devastated Mr Friscic took himself to the Westgate Bridge.
“I didn’t want to live anymore, so I decided to go there and jump off,” he said.
And what stopped him?
“The police came.”
One of those police officers was SergeantSolomon, who Mr Friscic cries about now, remembering his kindness, before his trademark giggles roll back in to mask the pain.
The case of Maria James
For years, Mr Friscic took his anger out on the Church in unhealthy ways.
“I’d spray paint the Catholic Church on their office … and send threatening emails. It was my way of getting them back,” he told 7.30.
However, recently, he’s channelled his grief into two separate legal matters: the civil action against Father Bongiorno, and a fresh coronial inquest, looking into the priest as person of interest in a 1980 cold case.
Maria James was murdered in her Thornbury bookshop, and Father Bongiorno was seen soon after with blood on his hands and face.
The ABC’s Trace podcast revealed in 2017 that Ms James was set to confront the priest about the abuse of her younger son on the day she was stabbed.
Mr Friscic testified this year at the new inquest into her death, saying he once asked the priest about the murder, and that Father Bongiorno went into shock at the question.
“I believe he did molest Maria’s son and could have done anything to keep his secret … because he keeps secrets,” Mr Friscic said.
“I was with him for 14 years, so I should know him.”
Record settlement sets important precedent
Meanwhile, Mr Friscic’s civil case dragged on.
Then, a few days before the court hearing, the Archdiocese of Melbourne offered a settlement — $3 million, and a promise it wouldn’t claw back the $700,000 it had earlier offered Mr Friscic.
His lawyer, Alessandra Pettit, said the win was four decades in the making.
“Community service workers and or police officers … they tried to get his story told back in the 1980s. And they’d made reports,” she said.
“And it was brought to the attention of officials in the church, and nothing happened,” she said.
As part of the case, a letter was tendered as evidence, written by a Melbourne primary school principal in 1980.
The letter alleged Father Bongiorno was regularly having boys stay with him overnight at the presbytery, that he asked a boy to kiss him, and that all the primary school staff were worried about the priest’s behaviour.
Despite learning of these allegations in 1980, former Archbishop Frank Little went on to to appoint Father Bongiorno to two parishes within the year.
Father Bongiorno died in 2002.
Jason Parkinson from Porters Lawyers says the settlement sets an important precedent.
“I think it makes it clear that the pendulum is well and truly swung in the favour of abuse survivors. But it also shows that you’ve got to fight for it,” he said.
“Suing the Catholic Church is, little by little, like suing the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. There’s lots of smoke and thunder, and disparity of power.
“But when Toto pulls the curtain back, it’s just a humbug who’s pulling levers and turning dials and scaring people.
“The Church does not like going to court because they’re treated like everyone else once they are there — and that’s how they should be treated.”
The Archdiocese of Melbourne declined to comment.
Now, Mr Friscic is just looking forward, thinking about moving into a new place and maybe getting a dog.
“Thank you to everyone who’s stuck by me. Thank you family, because I’ve been a pest to them over the years; Victoria Police, my support people … being around people that care about me, [who are] trying to help me get better, that’s what makes me happy.”