The Hand Of God: Surviving Sexual Abuse


Men Sex & Sexuality
Author Jack Heath

Founding Manhood Online Editor, Jack Heath, speaks of his own experience of sexual abuse, what can be done to help those who have been abused, and the critical need for forgiveness if we are to find true and lasting peace.

(This is a long piece that you might prefer to print out and read.)

It is time to speak. It is time to speak of the sexual abuse that was visited on me by a priest when I was 13 years old. It is also time to speak of the healing and the liberation that flows from forgiveness.

I suppose some people will be curious to know the details of the sexual abuse – we have, after all, developed a morbid fascination with the grotesque. Of the abuse, all I want to say is this: there were a number of incidents varying in gravity and frequency and while none were quite as repugnant as some of the most serious cases that have been reported they were nonetheless gross, traumatic and abhorrent.

And the fact that I might have eventually found some sense of peace with it all is not to suppose or suggest for one moment that those young men who were visited with far grosser forms of abuse should be able to clean the slate as it were through a simple act of will. It was difficult for me and I just hope that through telling my story it might help the many other young men, and perhaps young women, who have been sexually abused.

I hope it might also help the person who abused me and to whom I bear no malice. And I also hope it might ensure that the various religious institutions do everything they can to ensure that the environment they provide for the young men and young women in their care is consistent with the noble ideals of their respective religions, and that they exercise true pastoral care by providing a safe space for those who haven't yet been given the opportunity to tell their story and begin the healing process.

This is my story.

When I was 13 years old, and over a period of approximately seven months, I was sexually abused before I was rescued by my body. I say rescued by my body because almost immediately after what turned out to be the final and most frightening experience, I was diagnosed with hepatitis and confined to bed for many weeks. During this time I ate virtually nothing and got to know very well the taste of bile that sat in the back of my throat. I remember the dark mustard colour of my acrid urine. I remember the first time I got up out of bed to walk and how my knees buckled under me.

For 19 years, I told no one of what had occurred.

I was first stirred to speak up about three years ago when, after a chance encounter with the man who had abused me, a spate of stories began to emerge about sexual abuse by clergy in the United States. I found myself in a conversation with a very good and prominent religious man who was upset about a US documentary that was suggesting as many as one in 10 clergy had committed some form of sexual abuse on children. He was genuinely concerned that people might draw the wrong conclusion that sexual abuse was just as prevalent in Australia, that good men might be falsely accused. He simply did not believe that things were as bad in Australia.

He thought the figure of one in 10 far-fetched but as I started to think of the environment in which I had spent my adolescence – and while I might have difficulty proving it in a court of law and do not want to impugn the reputation of many good men who taught me – I thought one in 10 a very believable number and wondered how many of my schoolmates had also been abused.

A few other incidents spurred me to act. I had a conversation with another good religious man who expressed incredulity at what I said – not that he doubted my word but rather that he didn’t have any idea of what had been going on. I was angry about the assumption that the abuse was limited to one or two religious orders, that the problem belonged with some one else, that the problem was "out there".

A short time later, I indicated that I wanted to make a formal complaint about what had happened. I was told that an independent lawyer would interview me to ascertain the merits of the case. I agreed. At the time, was I working as a Speechwriter for the Foreign and Trade Ministers.

I made my way down to Melbourne and traipsed up a dull flight of stairs into a drab solicitors' office where I waited for about five minutes. I was then shown into a conference room decked out in a panelling redolent of a mid-century public service department. I could hear voices in the adjoining room. I wondered whether they could hear us. Apart from the lawyer, there was no one else present. The lawyer listened and wrote down what I said. He was a good and genuine man who showed me a great deal of warmth.

I then proceeded to tell this man I had never met before the various events that had occurred almost 20 years ago. It was the first time that I found words to describe what had happened. Here was I, a 32-year-old man who spent his working day crafting words for Federal Ministers, now staring out the window at the office towers across the road with tears streaming down his face telling a stranger the story of what happened to him as a young boy of thirteen.

And in all of it, the one question that I remember most vividly, the one question that went to my very quick was "Did you ever talk to anyone about it?" I was stunned.
I blurted out "To whom could I have gone?" I hadn't even so much as considered telling anyone, not even my fellow schoolmates. And in that moment I realised the insidiousness of it all – the sense of total powerlessness that comes from the violation and abuse of a special trust.

As the interview drew to a close the lawyer became angry and said that I shouldn't worry – that they would get this guy. I was surprised by his vehemency and recall urging him not to be too harsh on the perpetrator and that I hoped he might be helped.

I left the offices and walked down Collins Street. I felt a wonderful lightness of being. Tears ran down my face as I headed towards Swanston Street and caught a tram to visit my brother in Carlton. As I looked at each person on the tram a great warmth of love pumped through my veins. I wanted to hug everybody with my happiness. I suspect people wondered who was this beaming idiot.

Some time later, I can't quite remember how long, I received a slightly warm but guarded letter thanking me for raising the matter and informing me that "appropriate actions were being taken". No name was mentioned. No formal apology was made. No offer of counselling was provided.

Subquequently, when I pursued the matter I was told that the person had been removed from having any contact with boys. I was told that appropriate steps were being taken to ensure this sort of thing did not happen again. I was also told that any counselling costs would be covered.

At the end of that year our child was conceived. Lucy is her name and she truly is of the light. I had spent the year doing the work of two people writing for two Federal Ministers while also covering up the chronic fatigue that I had been carrying for a couple of years as I ascended the career ladder in search of elusive approval. I knew I was exhausted but I didn't yet realise the depths of my anger.

In early January, in an effort to get ready for another year and with the hint of a possible speechwriting job with the Prime Minister, which did eventuate, I made my way to a health resort just out of Melbourne. I remember the periods of rest and gentle exercise. I also remember being massaged by a man whose touch made me recoil inside. I remember a session with a psychologist who infuriated me by his silence and distance. I spoke to him of a range of things in a cold distant way and mentioned my reporting of the sexual abuse. He said that sometimes people found it beneficial to speak or write to the person who had abused them.

In my spartan room, I began to compose a letter to the priest who had abused me. It was a simple letter and it was very clear. I said I gathered he would be aware of the complaints I had made. I told him it was important for my welfare that I now write to him. I told him that what he had done to me was not right. I told him that the reason I had reported him was that I did not want what had happened to me to happen to other young men. I told him that I did not intend to press charges. I thanked him for all the good things he had done for me. I said I forgave him for the sexual abuse. I signed the letter and sent it off.

A few weeks later I received a letter. I recognised the handwriting I hadn't seen for many years. It is not for me to say what the letter contained, suffice to say that I felt very much at peace for having read it. I felt a wholeness. But it still wasn't quite complete. I was angry. It is an anger that has not been entirely removed, notwithstanding the oral apologies that have been made to me by those in authority.

My anger stems from three things. First, it stems from the fact that there were others around at the time of my abuse who, if they didn't turn a blind eye to what was going on, were at best negligent. They have reparations to make as well, perhaps they have. But I do not know.

Second, to this day, I'm not sure that enough is being done for the others who were abused. What hand has gone out to them? What attempts have been made to provide a safe and caring space for them to come forward? It's one thing to put proper procedures and safeguards in place to ensure transgressions are not repeated but what is being done to assist those who have not been given the opportunity to tell their story and begin the healing process? If we do not reach out to these people our denial becomes cancerous. And what's more, we run the very real risk that unless those who have been abused are healed they might do to others what was done to them.

The third thing my anger stems from is that to this date no apology or reparation has been made to my parents who, at great personal hardship, had placed me in the trust of others who ultimately abused that trust. I know some people who have been sexually abused might not want their parents to know. And that is their right. But surely it is incumbent on those in authority, if the abused person agrees, to offer the parents of the abused person a specific apology and to make appropriate reparations.

I suspect my own parents might feel in some way responsible for what happened to me, that they should have known, that they should have asked some question or done something. I can't speak for them but I know they are not responsible. I don't think I should have to ask that some gesture be made to them when it is so clear what needs to be done. My parents are not alone in all this.

But as I now speak my anger on these pages, it begins to dissipate.

Over the past few months, I have been wondering if and when I should speak my part. For a number of years, as a speechwriter, I had been giving voice to the words and thoughts of others and knew that some time my turn to speak would come. I just wasn't sure when that would be, or exactly what I would say. It's interesting that through a few twists and the generosity of some I should find myself now editing an Internet site dealing with men's issues.

The thing that prompted me to speak now was a question that came in over the Internet yesterday from a man the same age as me. He had been sexually abused as a child and was asking whether we planned to deal with sexual abuse in our health and sexuality section. Telling my story seemed to be a good way to start.

And lest I needed confirmation that this was the right thing to do, as I drove home earlier this evening across the Sydney Harbour Bridge I witnessed the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen in this city. Ahead of me, the lights and signs of the city buildings began to glow with a wonderful clarity and intensity that belied the early evening. To my right the entire sky was splashed with a brilliant blood red around a golden circle that hovered near the Glebe Island Bridge.

In finishing up, there are three things I would like to say.

The first is to thank all those who have had the courage to speak up before me and created the space for me to tell my story. But there is one person in particular that I want to thank: Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Sydney. In watching all the television reports of meetings and councils discussing what the various religious orders and wider Catholic Church should do about all the sexual abuse, he is the one man who stood out. When he said he was apologising on behalf of the church he warmed my heart and caused the tears to flood down my cheeks. Not so much because of what of he said but rather how he said it. He spoke with a remorse that was both deep and genuine. I believe he had a real sense of the suffering that had been bestowed on many young people and his compassion shone through. I thank him for it.

Second, there are many men out there who have been sexually abused and who are still struggling with it all. To these men, I want to try and give a sense of the importance of forgiveness. For those who endured far worse than me, that might seem like an obscene hope and perhaps something a fair way down the track. But my experience tells me that without forgiveness we remain trapped. Without forgiveness, no amount of money or any number of convictions, appropriate as they might be, will bring us true peace.

Third, I hope that we can all find it within our hearts to exercise a little more compassion towards those who have harmed us. Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama are two prominent and inspiring embodiments of this ideal but there are countless others whose million acts of kindness go unnoticed each day.

As we head towards a new millennium, I see a great need – particularly within Australia – to stop and reflect. We need to spend more time in silence, in stillness. We need to rediscover a mystical that lies abundant in this extraordinary land. We need to spend time in the desert.

This is not to say that we should withdraw totally from the world, that we should all take to caves or to central Australia to sit in unending meditation. To the contrary, for the great bulk of us, it is about becoming more active in the world.

But what is absolutely critical in all this is that our action is borne of reflection. I now believe that it is only through deep reflection that we come to know right action. When you sit in silence, in stillness for long enough the forks in the road eventually dissolve. The question "Which way shall I go?" loses all significance. What you are left with is a path that stretches before you. And the only question is "Shall I walk it or not?"

I have a very deep sense that, no matter how frightening the darkness, how horrid the histories, how repugnant the abuses, if we genuinely set about to come to terms with our own suffering, to forgive those who have harmed us and to make reparations to those we ourselves have harmed, then we will find true peace.

If we set ourselves this simple but huge task, I believe that one day we will all walk in the light and draw warm comfort from the hand of God – whoever he or she might be.

Sydney, 10 October 1996

Since writing this piece the Catholic Church has announced a range of measures to address the sexual abuse that has occurred. This is a very welcome thing and addresses some of the specific issues raised here. I invite people with similar experiences to post a thread to this piece. I also extend the invitation to parents and the clergy. I hope that in these stories and contributions we might, together, be able to bring about some much needed healing. Thank you.

Here's a list of relevant resources compiled by Dr Nick Cooling, Special Adviser on Men's Health


Tony Phiskie

Eastern & Central Sydney Sexual

Assault Service

Level 5, Building 72 RPAH

Missendon Rd Camperdown

Tel 02-9515 7566


Dympna House Counselling & Resource centre

PO Box 22 Haberfield 2045

Tel 02-9797 6733



Against Male Assault Inc

PO Box 299 Ringwood 3134

Tel 03-98791595


Paul Martin (Psychologist)

37 Milford St St Kilda

Tel 03-9531 3557


Chris Dawson (Mens Counsellor)

PO Box 1031

Fitzroy North 3068

Tel 03-9489 1010


John Moran

Brunswick-Coburg CHC

Coburg 3058

Tel 03-9350 4000



Jonathon Kester (Group work)

57c Victoria Ave Claremont 6010



Gladstone Road Medical Centre (1:1 Counselling & 6 week closed


Dr Wendell Rosevear

38 Gladstone Rd Highgate Hill 4101

Tel 07-3844 9599


Men Against Sexual Assault

Peter Douglas

Tel 07-369 2549


Sexual Abuse Counselling & Support Service

PO Box 14 Wooloongabba 4102

Tel 07-391 6066


A list of therapists & counsellors ia available from:

Catholic Prison Ministry

84 Park Rd Wooloongabba 4102

Tel Louise Samundsett 07-391 2211



Malcolm Tyler Mens Health Unit (Group work)

Glenorchy Community & Health Services Centre

2 Terry St Glenorchy Tas 7011

Tel 03-6233 8900


North-west Sexual Assualt Services

Tel 03-6431 9711


Desiree Taylor (1:1 Counselling, some group work)

30a Cascade Rd South Hobart 7004

Tel 03-6224 1312



Sexual Assault Referral Centre

Tel 089-227 156



Adelaide Central Mission

Tel 08-212 2599


Dr Marie Tudor (Counsellor)

Dulwich Centre, 345 Carrington St Adelaide

Tel 08-8223 3966


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