Suicide common among clergy sex abuse victims in Ballarat

By Konrad Marshall
Brisbane Times
May 19, 2015

Philip Nagel told the Royal Commission on Institutional Child Sex Abuse in Ballarat he had lost a third of his grade four classmates to suicide.
Photo by Pat Scala

Witness Andrew Collins at the Royal Commission.
Photo by Pat Scala

From the witness box Philip Nagel held the black-and-white picture aloft – his grade-four photo from St Alipius Primary School in 1974.

There were rows of boys in uniform, the taller ones smiling and standing up the back, the little ones seated and cross-legged at the front.

They should all be middle-aged by now, like Philip Nagel, 50. But instead, a third of the boys in the image are dead, believed by suicide.

Mr Nagel, the first person called in Ballarat on Tuesday at the opening of the Royal Commission on Institutional Child Sex Abuse, knows why.

He remembers how it started, watching the Christian Brothers at the school playing "catch and kiss" with the younger boys.

He remembers how it escalated into clumsy and confusing, degrading and demeaning sexual abuse in the sick bay.

And he remembers the dread, disgust and fear every time Brother Stephen Farrell would smile at him from across the room.

Even then, suicide seemed like a solution. Twice abused while on a school camp in the Grampians when he was nine, Nagel remembers standing on the precipice of a cliff there called The Pinnacle, wondering if he should jump – if he should lean further into the wind holding him back.

It was – and continues to be – a dark but common option to explore for many men who were abused by a cadre of sexual predators in the church in this region.

Fairfax Media has previously revealed details of confidential police reports that count at least 40 suicides by people sexually abused at the hands of Catholic clergy in Victoria, but that number has only grown.

Andrew Collins, 46, was abused between the ages of seven and 14 by four different men in Ballarat, and is now a spokesman for the Ballarat and District Survivors Group who seek redress and openness.

Mr Collins said his group mostly struggled with poor relationships and substance abuse, receiving help only in emergencies as they "lurch from one crisis to the next".

Ten members of his group have killed themselves in the past 12 months.

"It's a living hell."

Mr Collins himself had a breakdown a decade ago, and still suffers from depression and PTSD. Some days getting out of bed is all he can do – or can't. In this light the commission is a "bubble of hope" that he fears will burst if nothing comes of the effort.

"I've been pushing through for this. Late night meetings with barristers, going over statements. We all have. But we expect to crash afterwards. A lot of people are going to fall after this – it's a danger time."

It is also a time he has longed for since he was a boy, when he was initially afraid to speak up – and then after he found the courage.

When Mr Collins was 14, he finally told his parents and a teacher. His parents did not believe him, and the teacher advised him to stay away from the offender.

His heartbreaking pleas were never given a full hearing then, which is why this forum at the highest level of government is so important now.

"The fact that we are now in a position where we can stand up and speak about this – and be believed – gives us power," he says. "It's life-affirming."

But it is still hard to let go of what happened. Mr Nagel points out how deeply and emotionally the abuse has affected him, and how he has carried the experience through broken marriages and painful daily introspection. 

"I think it certainly created the very hard person I am and it has affected the way I deal with people around me," he said. "I have no friends."

And yet his final act in the witness box was a tribute to those young friends he has lost, the ones in the school photo who could not come to terms with the trauma they felt and the suffering they absorbed.

"For all my classmates and all your classmates who are no longer here with us, I ask that we all stand together now and observe a minute's silence in their memory," he said. And so we stood. "I cannot forget. I cannot forgive. I am one of the survivors."



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