JOANNE McCARTHY: Guilt and redemption

THE last time I saw John was in late September.

He slipped into a public gallery seat in Newcastle Supreme Court. It was the final public hearing day of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into NSW Police and Catholic Church handling of child sex allegations.

John was one of the regulars. He nodded and smiled to others - victims of child sex abuse and their parents, like him - who have sat in the gallery since the inquiry started in May.

He smiled at me where I sat in seats taken over by journalists. I smiled back.

We first spoke in September 2007. I found his name in some documents and gave him a call. By that stage he wasn't an employee of the Catholic Church any more.

He was guarded, careful.

But we later agreed that even during that first phone call we knew we could trust each other. In my mind he was a tall man with dark hair. People who know and love him will laugh at that.

But in person John was short and round. We joked about that when we first met in person, in 2010.

John's son had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a notorious Hunter priest. He was a beautiful, smiling boy. It is impossible to hear him speak about the crimes committed against him, the priest's predatory entrapment of the boy and his insidious infiltration of the boy's family without being reduced to tears.

Reading sections of the boy's statement to police a few years ago - at his request so I could understand the man he is today - was only possible in sessions. I read some of the statement, put it down to walk outside and look at the night sky for a while to get my bearings, and read some more.

The boy, his parents and his siblings did not have the luxury of escape, as I did. The statement was their reality.

John liked a drink. It wasn't apparent to me at first. We would speak during the day and he came across as the professional that he was. Then he started ringing at night, sometimes late.

The drink would loosen his tongue and the demons he kept under control through the day. The dreadful corrosive guilt.

When his son inexplicably changed from a smiling, sunny boy to a surly teen, John didn't deal with it well, by his own admission. By the time the boy - by then a young man - first disclosed that he had been sexually abused, his father displayed some doubt.

In his late-night calls, John gnawed on that and specific incidents from that time. There was no point in talking about forgiving himself. He never would, and he knew I would never bother wasting his time suggesting it. We're parents. We each have our own reasons for feeling we've failed our children.

His son lived with the consequences of being sexually abused by a priest, and being doubted when he first disclosed. That was and is the reality for so many victims of child sexual abuse.

The family endured the priest's trial years ago. They felt isolated and besieged. The priest was convicted and jailed but denied the crimes until his death.

John sat through sessions of the commission of inquiry as Catholic Church representatives gave evidence about the priest who had sexually assaulted his son. He struggled at times.

He rang me some time ago after he had been to the doctor. Prostate cancer.

He was pragmatic. He worried about the side effects of the proposed treatments. When they eventuated, he rang to confirm them in lurid detail.

He phoned one day, after the commission of inquiry had started, to say the news from the doctors was bad. The cancer had spread. It wasn't that he didn't want to talk about it when I asked what that meant. He just preferred to talk about other things. And so we did.

He ended up in hospital a few months ago after complications, but emerged dry-witted as always.

"How are you going, John?" I would ask him, and others would ask him in the foyer outside the Supreme Court as we'd wait to file in each day.

"Fine," he'd say.

A week ago he was back in hospital. At 11.30pm on Tuesday, October 22, he died. He was in his 60s.

John cried a few times when we spoke. About his son. About the despair he sometimes felt. He cried when Julia Gillard called a federal royal commission. He and I know - knew - how much he contributed towards that goal.

He's cried a few times over the past few months after gruelling days of evidence at the NSW Commission of Inquiry. But it was worth it, he said.

The truth. Finally, the truth.

People who sat with John in the public gallery have sent messages. They have lost one of their own. But he lived to see this day, unlike so many others.

Vale John. Rest in peace.

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