Newcastle retired solicitor Lou Pirona has criticised his former college over child sexual abuse

RETIRED Newcastle solicitor Lou Pirona lost a son who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest, and whose suicide in 2012 after “too much pain” was the catalyst for a royal commission.

Now Mr Pirona is speaking up for survivors of sexual abuse at his old school, St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, over a controversial apology at the college on Friday and the Vincentian order’s failure to acknowledge the full extent of crimes committed there.

“I just wanted the survivors to know I support them. I wanted them to know I understand a little bit of the impact of these sorts of things, so it really comes from the heart,” Mr Pirona said.

Survivor Damien Sheridan and son Zakarie, survivor Tor Nielsen and mother Carole, St Stanislaus Old Boy Terry Jones and NSW Greens MP and justice spokesman David Shoebridge will hold a vigil outside the college on Friday from noon. They will protest against an apology during a liturgy at the school where the crimes occurred, which a leading survivor group said would be “inherently re-traumatising” for many people.

Mr Pirona contacted the Newcastle Herald to offer his support to the more than 160 people who have reported child sex crimes involving 16 priests, brothers and laymen associated with the college. Nine of the 16 have been convicted of child sex crimes in NSW and other states, and victims of others have received compensation and apologies.

Mr Pirona’s son John was sexually abused at St Pius X, Adamstown by notorious Hunter Catholic priest John Denham. John Pirona committed suicide in July, 2012.   

Mr Pirona said he was “appalled” that a history of child sex crimes at St Stanislaus was referred to as “moments of darkness” at an event in February to mark the college’s 150th anniversary, only days after notorious St Stanislaus chaplain Brian Spillane was sentenced following eight years of trials involving the college.

“I’m appalled the authorities only referred to what happened there as ‘moments of darkness’. It’s a total denial of the damage that’s been allowed to happen to kids, and particularly in circumstances where they were boarders there and that made them particularly vulnerable,” Mr Pirona said.

“I would reckon most of the former students, certainly of my era, I’m certain most of them would also be appalled the college hasn’t acknowledged the damage it’s done to these boys in a more appropriate way.”

Mr Pirona was a student at St Stanislaus between 1951 and 1955 after winning a college bursary. He was dux of the college in 1955.

“I’ve got to say I had a very good all-round schooling, academically and sporting, at the hands of the Vincentian Brothers and the lay teachers at the college. I enjoyed my time at the school. In those days I would have recommended anyone go there,” he said.

He extended his sympathy to former St Stanislaus Old Boy Terry Jones who said he would never get over the pain of recommending the college to a friend, and later discovering the friend’s son was sexually assaulted by Brian Spillane.

Mr Pirona said the figure of 160 people reporting they had been sexually abused by men associated with the college was very troubling because there were only 210 students when he attended St Stanislaus so he could visualise what the number represented.

“That figure means the equivalent of almost a whole intake was sexually abused,” he said.

In a statement on Wednesday college principal Dr Anne Wenham defended the decision to hold the apology on school grounds because the venue, the school’s performing arts centre, was “only constructed 10 years ago and is used for many different purposes”.

She said the apology would not form part of “the celebration of Mass” but “there will be praying to God for forgiveness”.

Dr Wenham did not comment on why the college decided in February that the apology would be held on June 16, the 280th anniversary of the day Vincentian founder St Vincent de Paul was made a saint.

Mr Sheridan, who was sexually assaulted by Brian Spillane in 1985, was scathing of the decision, saying: “They couldn’t even make an apology without putting a church angle on it.”