LOU Pirona’s son John has a tragic place in Australian history, as the child sexual abuse victim whose suicide in July, 2012 was the catalyst for a campaign that led to a royal commission.
“I have to recognise John’s death was an important cog in the making of the royal commission,” said Mr Pirona this week on the eve of a national apology to thousands of Australian abuse survivors.
While he appreciates and supports the apology by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Federal Parliament on Monday, Mr Pirona will not be there. He will be camping with a friend at Barrington Tops where he took John as a child.
“I will be close to him there,” Mr Pirona said.
John Pirona was sexually abused as a student at St Pius X High School at Adamstown by notorious Catholic priest and teacher John Denham, described by a judge as a sadistic predator. Denham was protected by St Pius principal and priest Tom Brennan, recently acknowledged by the church as a child sex abuser.
It’s appropriate that the government that represents all Australians should express its empathy or regret that circumstances have been allowed to happen in this country that’s enabled children to be sexually abused, causing some of them, like our son, to take their own life.
Denham, 76, was found guilty on October 10 of sexually abusing his 58th victim between 1968 and 1986. John Pirona, a Lake Macquarie fire brigade officer, was 13 when Denham sexually abused him in 1979. In a statement to police John Pirona described the school as brutal, where he feared being bashed if people knew he had been abused.
“Every day to me was just survival,” he told police.
John Pirona, 45, left a suicide letter to his family that ended with the words “Too much pain”.
The then Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited Newcastle on August 8, 2012, the day of Mr Pirona’s funeral, where mourners including Lou Pirona backed the Newcastle Herald Shine the Light campaign for a royal commission.
‘‘No person or organisation should be above or outside the law,’’ Lou Pirona said in front of mourners who included the then NSW Police Minister Mike Gallacher.
Mr Pirona, a retired solicitor, said the dictionary definition of “apology” was an “expression of regret offered for some fault, failure, insult or injury”.
“In that context I think it’s very appropriate that the government that represents all Australians should express its empathy or regret that circumstances have been allowed to happen in this country that’s enabled children to be sexually abused, causing some of them, like our son, to take their own life,” he said this week.
“I think my son, if he were alive, I think John would have, I think he’d appreciate it.”
Mr Pirona said his wife Pam appreciated the national apology.
“But she finishes most of our discussions with ‘But it doesn’t bring John back, does it?’, and it doesn’t. Nothing will do that. Nothing will ease the pain, and particularly of a mother,” he said.
“Pam often says, and I think it’s true, that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church can apologise until they’re blue in the face but they don’t really get it. I don’t think they really get the impact that their actions and failures have had on victims and their families.”
Mrs Pirona wrote to Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright after the bishop in September acknowledged Tom Brennan as a child sexual abuser, and after he issued an apology to Brennan’s victim, former barrister and St Pius X student James Miller, and Mr Miller’s parents.
“Pam picked up on that. Pam wrote the bishop a letter and said this is the first time we have seen an acknowledgement by any person in authority in the church of the betrayal of trust that parents placed in the Catholic Church. That struck a chord with us because kids go to Catholic schools because their parents put them there.”
In its final report the royal commission noted the value of genuine apologies for many survivors.
“They are an important and necessary form of redress for many survivors,” the royal commission concluded.
“We also acknowledge that, for some survivors, no apology could repair the impact of abuse and for some, insincere apologies are more damaging than no apology.”
Mr Pirona said he hoped the national apology acknowledged royal commission chair Justice Peter McClellan’s warning in a speech in 2015, that the societal norm that “Children should be seen but not heard” provided the opportunity for adults to abuse their power over children and silence them.
“It was the old saying, and that’s partly how abusers got away with things, because they could rely on the fact that children were probably taught that, and to just put up with whatever life throws at you,” Mr Pirona said.
As painful as his son’s final words are – “When I was young I was frightened. When I went to school I was bullied and abused by people who should have been nurturing and guiding me” – Mr Pirona said they helped his family deal with his loss.
Although they knew he was one of Denham’s 58 acknowledged victims, they did not realise the depths of his despair.
“I’m just so thankful he left the note because if he hadn’t left that, we wouldn’t have put two and two together, we wouldn’t have known,” Mr Pirona said.
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