THE man looked down from the fourth floor window to a footpath where he’d decided to end his life.
It was 1997. He was pissed.
He’d made the decision to kill himself in an entirely matter-of-fact way after his pissed barrister mate lurched away to find a toilet.
James Miller stepped onto the window ledge at Newcastle Law School’s King Street Clinic. He was 35.
He was always the boy most likely to achieve. Mind like a steel trap. Confident. Happy. A blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer in a town where his type were gods. Destined for great things.
And here he was on the window ledge waiting to die, with the lights of Newcastle City Hall shining across the park.
“What are you doing?” yelled his mate, Robert Cavanagh, suddenly leaning out the window looking stricken.
“I’ve had enough. I’m jumping,” said Miller in a calm voice.
Cavanagh is a big man. He grabbed Miller by the trousers and dragged him off the ledge. Miller struggled and tried to get back out.
Then Cavanagh did what any mate would do for another mate under the circumstances.
“He punched me in the face and sat on me until I calmed down,” writes Miller in his book, The Priests. He writes about being sexually abused in 1978 by the late St Pius X, Adamstown, principal and Catholic priest Tom Brennan, who went on to be Maitland-Newcastle diocese Vicar-General – the Bishop’s “right hand man”.
“God love him,” Miller writes about Cavanagh and that day.
The Priests was written in 2015 and is released on Monday.
Its genesis was Miller’s decision to sue the Catholic Church. Its completion in January this year brought on the “familiar heavy sadness that roars through my mind”, a suicide attempt and the therapy he has avoided for decades.
He is confronting his past. He is confronting the church. He is making amends with people he has hurt. He is coming to terms with the permanency of the consequences of child sexual abuse. He is doing it all in a very public way after years of secret unravelling that included being disbarred in 2009 – three years after Hunter police contacted him to ask what he knew about child sexual abuse at St Pius X. It was the phone call that “triggered a major change in my mental state” so that “something was definitely broken”, he said.
Miller is speaking out because he wants governments to hit the Catholic Church in Australia where no governments have dared hit it before – by denying funds to Catholic schools while the church insists on celibacy for its priests. He would prefer the funds weren’t removed because he supports the Catholic education system, but his priority is protecting children.
The celibacy rule compromises clergy, exposes them to blackmail within the church and leaves them “cowed into doing nothing or actively covering up these vile crimes”, Miller said.
You need only look at St Pius X.
Miller writes that the violence started on day one in February, 1978, in Brennan’s office while Irish Catholic priest Patrick Helferty watched.
Miller was 15 and newly transferred from Belmont High.
He writes that Brennan caned him for lying about why he was transferred and Helferty laughed because Miller didn’t flinch. Helferty called him a “tough nut”, came in close, ran his hand roughly across Miller’s head and warned he’d been sent to St Pius because surfing and girls were a distraction he’d have to learn to ignore, Miller said.
In The Priests Miller writes that nearly 40 years later he discovered Brennan and Helferty were “lifetime lovers”.
This week he stood by the controversial allegation, saying he relied on evidence contained in his civil action against the church which he declined to make public because it has not yet been put to Maitland-Newcastle diocese.
Rumours of the men’s sexual relationship were raised with the Newcastle Herald by others a number of years ago. Witnesses at Helferty’s funeral described Brennan as a sobbing and devastated man grieving for a dead partner, and not a calm Catholic priest celebrating a soul’s elevation to heaven.
While Brennan’s sister-in-law Patricia Brennan said on Wednesday that she had “never heard such rubbish in all my life” and she was “very proud of the fact” she was the late priest’s sister-in-law, former St Pius X teacher Bill Izzard said “I’d give that quite a bit of credence”.
“I wouldn’t say no to that one. I would form the view the bloke’s telling the truth,” Izzard said.
A Maitland-Newcastle diocese spokesperson said the diocese would not make public details about victims of child abuse but “respects their right to disclose aspects of their personal narrative as they choose”.
Miller does not take issue with the relationship, but the consequences.
Sadistic Catholic paedophile priest John Sidney Denham taught at St Pius X between November 1975 and January 1980 when he was abruptly transferred to Charlestown parish. Priests lived in accommodation on the school grounds.
In scathing judgments in 2010 and 2015 after Denham, 74, was sentenced to a minimum 19 years and five months’ jail for crimes against 57 boys from the age of five between 1968 and 1986, Judge Helen Syme noted Denham “had authority to call students to his office at will and sometimes also called them to his private quarters” where they were molested.
Brennan, who was convicted in 2009 of making a false statement to police in which he denied any knowledge of Denham’s offences, “must have known of this offender’s behaviour and did nothing”, Judge Syme found.
In The Priests Miller argues Brennan did nothing because Denham knew of his relationship with Helferty, when it was still dangerously illegal to be an active homosexual in Australia, and when the Catholic Church not only damned homosexuality as an abomination, but demanded the complete suppression of sexual impulses from its priests. The celibacy rule also leaves priests and bishops in clandestine relationships with women at risk of blackmail within the church, Miller said.
“Denham had the senior leadership of St Pius X right where he wanted them,” he writes.
“Denham protected his position by threatening to reveal Brennan and Helferty as homosexual lovers. I would go further and say that whether he ever actually put the specific threat counts for naught. It would have been enough that Brennan and Helferty believed Denham would do so.”
Denham was approached for comment but did not respond to written questions.
Miller was one of two alleged teenage victims of Brennan, who died of cancer in 2012 only a few months after he was charged with sexually assaulting the other teenager, and after he became the first Australian Catholic priest to be charged with concealing another priest’s crimes.
This followed statements to police from former students, parents and teachers who said they reported child sex allegations about Denham directly to Brennan. Brennan died without entering a plea to two charges of misprision of felony – failing to disclose a serious crime – after two men alleged they were caned by Brennan in 1978 after they told him Denham had sexually abused them.
In The Priests Miller recounts Brennan’s arrogant assertion of rights over his body, and clinical directions in notes delivered by junior boys: “Report to me, second half of lunch, 10B home room”.
He writes that the priest told him - “This must stay between us, James. Everyone has their private moments”, or “This is normal, between men” – and arrogantly dismissed him after clothes were rearranged, hair was smoothed and tissues were discarded.
“Brennan abused me because he enjoyed it. He took pleasure from it. It was pure indulgence in which I was a mere object. Everything about his attitude said he believed he was entitled to behave as he did,” Miller writes.
The impact on the confident teenager’s life was immediately and profoundly negative.
“To be forcefully sexually penetrated against your will, is all violence and shock,” Miller writes.
In his book he details an incident in a classroom after which, “I washed out my mouth from a tap at the side of the building. I was revolted by the taste of Brennan’s tongue, the smell of his breath and a lingering sense of his arms about me. I came close to throwing up”.
The impact of abuse in the 1970s was compounded by the homophobic time and place, Miller writes.
A violent clash with police left the teenager “confirmed in my mind of a basic fact of life in the Newcastle area circa 1978: that going to police for help wasn’t an option”.
He writes that the one person he disclosed to in 1979, Patrick Helferty, responded: “We won’t put up with boys telling lies about Father Brennan or anyone else”.
In The Priests Miller charts the course of a life that from the outside appeared successful – a move from Newcastle, a law degree, marriage to a beautiful woman, and books, Shoot and Demonise: The Death of Ron Levi, on the notorious police killing of a mentally ill man on Bondi Beach in 1997, and a legal textbook, Getting into Law.
And all the while he was unravelling.
His marriage to a Catholic school teacher put him in shocking and irregular contact with Brennan throughout his adulthood. His wife was a relative of both Brennan and a notorious Hunter Catholic school teacher, Tony Bambach.
Bambach was convicted of child sex offences against very young boys in the 1960s, was employed by Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Education Office in the 1970s despite knowledge of the child sex convictions, and committed serious child sex offences against Hunter Catholic school students for 14 years before he was finally convicted of further offences.
Miller writes that his then wife had no knowledge of his dark secret. He details conversations in which he says the powerful priest used his wife’s career in the Hunter Catholic school system as a lever to control him.
He writes that he feared disclosing to her and feared no one would believe him. He writes that the dark secret of his sexual abuse infected his marriage, and eventually destroyed it.
Miller became an angry man. He loved his parents and had a loving relationship with them, but could not speak to them about the sexual abuse.
“I still thought of it as a deeply disgraceful thing,” he said.
He drank to deal with the anger and depression. In relationships with women he was overwhelmed by a paranoid jealousy that doomed them. There is a madness to the jealousy that Miller links directly to sexual abuse.
“It is as if I have a need to be as sexually and emotionally betrayed as is possible,” he writes.
By 1997, and after another relationship ended with a former partner’s parting comment that “You’re screwed up”, Miller found himself standing on the fourth floor window ledge of Robert Cavanagh’s office, ready to step off.
Cavanagh stopped him, and Miller resolved to end relationships with women and concentrate on work, but “it feels as if something has slipped, inside”, he said.
For a few more years he kept the slippage in check. In 2002 Miller started work as a commercial barrister in Sydney’s Blackstone Chambers where Tom Hughes, QC, was head of chambers. For two years he flourished, but by 2004 his past roared back into his present with an Anglican Church child sexual abuse case.
In 2005 he was briefed to represent a man taking civil action against the Catholic Church after he was raped by a teacher in a toilet block at St Michael’s Primary School, Nelson Bay. The rapist was the school deputy headmaster, Tony Bambach, his former wife’s relative.
In late 2006 a phone call from police investigating child sexual abuse at St Pius X “triggered a major change in my mental state”. He said nothing to police but “my mind powered down”.
By late 2008, while appearing in a court case, the mind that had tried to overcome the consequences of undisclosed child sexual abuse for too long, stopped. A judge’s polite questions sounded like “gibberish to my ear, and clearly it is not gibberish”.
“Something was definitely broken,” he said.
In The Priests Miller explains what happens when children cannot talk about the sexual abuse they’ve experienced, the powerlessness and hopelessness, and the consequences when adults try to carry on, until they can’t.
“Insanity is when you are unable to maintain yourself between reality and fiction. The best I can liken it to is to be trapped in a dream but also knowingly mobile – getting around in what you are sure is the real world – and conscious of the fact of the unstable duality of your existence. It can be absolutely terrifying,” Miller said.
He lost his job. He took to heavy drinking. He became homeless. He spent almost the last of his money on a terrifying dash to London, and ended up on a bench in Piccadilly Circus, crying.
“I knew my abnormal psychology was moving towards a kill-or-be-killed proposition; either I deal with it, or it could take me out,” he writes.
Brennan died in 2012. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was announced, and within a short time it would reveal the horrific extent of child sexual abuse within many more institutions than just the Catholic Church.
Miller started writing the statement that would form the basis of a civil suit against the Catholic Church, and the manuscript for his book. He secured a job as in-house counsel for a private education group. By 2015 he found a publisher, by January this year the book was completed, and on a sunny day after strenuous walking with friends he sat down alone and “with no warning, I become teary”.
“A familiar heavy sadness roars through my mind,” he writes in The Priests.
The subsequent drug overdose that left him waking in Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, while his publisher was editing his book, also led to the first therapy in his life to address the consequences of sexual abuse from nearly four decades earlier.
Miller ends his book with the lines “I’m going to fight and I’m going to win.”
The battleground is the Catholic Church and celibacy.
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