Marco Fabbro as a young boy.
Marco Fabbro as a young boy.

Boy’s sad downfall after horrific abuse

Marco Fabbro was sadistically raped by a twisted paedophile priest at Melbourne's prestigious Xavier College aged just 11 years old. The violent and horrific experience left him humiliated, disgusted, ashamed and really, really angry.

"At school, I turned to the Church because there was a sense of belonging and love that I wasn't getting in my family. I became a choirboy, I looked up to the divinity and Christianity and the belief system very avidly," Marco tells news.com.au.

That was until the day his innocence was stripped away from him in a brutal and sadistic attack in 1971 on the grounds of Xavier College's preparatory school Burke Hall in a small room behind the Jesuit priest Father John Byrne's office.

Marco has tried to block details of the attack from his memory; of being whipped and sexually assaulted on a leather couch by Father Byrne during school hours while the 59-year-old priest mumbled Latin behind him.

"I became very rebellious, very angry," Marco says. "At school I was what you would call the class clown or the 'village idiot' because I didn't want to be taken seriously, due to the seriousness of what happened."

 

Marco Fabbro fought for 15 years to get an apology and compensation from the Catholic Church after he was brutally sexually assaulted aged 11.
Marco Fabbro fought for 15 years to get an apology and compensation from the Catholic Church after he was brutally sexually assaulted aged 11.

 

Soon after, Marco was sent to St Ignatius College Riverview, an exclusive Catholic boarding school on Sydney's lower North Shore which includes former prime minister Tony Abbott and former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce as alumni.

It was here, Marco says he was further vilified and brutalised, belted with a leather strap and made to strip while boarders slept in the dormitory next door.

Last year, Brother Victor Thomas Higgs, 81, was convicted of abusing six boys aged 12 in the 1970s and '80s while a teacher at St Ignatius. The court heard the former Jesuit priest would summon his victims to private locations where he ordered them to undress and would molest them, progressing to sexual penetration on some of the boys.

According to Broken Rites Australia, an organisation set up to help people hurt by the Catholic Church's sex abuse crimes, Higgs had been transferred to the Sydney school from St Ignatius College in Adelaide - where he had sexually abused boys - and later to Xavier College in Melbourne as boarding house supervisor.

He was jailed for at least seven and a half years in November last year.

Like many others who had been molested as children, Marco, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse by priests, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of his sexual abuse at Xavier College.

"By 18, I'd been expelled by two schools, thrown out of two pubs and thrown out of home," he tells news.com.au. "I was extremely angry and self-destructive. I could not look people in the eyes. I had so much guilt.

"I was humiliated by what had happened … the abuse. I was a bit of a mess.

"They (priests) say, 'If you do not do the right thing by people and the Church, you are going to hell'. They twist the children's minds. I remember having this image of hell, like a black soul. It's a guilt trip."

Marco ended up failing his HSC, lost friends and all sense of self-worth and self-respect. Totally demoralised, he hitchhiked around Australia for many years.

 

Victor Higgs, 81, was jailed for repeatedly indecently assaulting six teenage boys at St Ignatius College Riverview in Sydney between 1972 and 1980. Source: NineNews
Victor Higgs, 81, was jailed for repeatedly indecently assaulting six teenage boys at St Ignatius College Riverview in Sydney between 1972 and 1980. Source: NineNews

 

By 1996, Marco was ready to get some answers, some recognition and justice from the Catholic Church - the institution he blamed for destroying his childhood and teenage years.

He was one of the first people in Australia to contact the Melbourne Response - an organisation established to give support and compensation to victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests - shortly after it was set up by Cardinal George Pell, now himself a convicted paedophile.

Shortly after setting up the Melbourne Response, Pell went on to sexually assault two alter boys in the city's St Patrick's Cathedral after a solemn Mass in December 1996, crimes for which he is now languishing in a suicide-proof prison cell awaiting sentencing in March.

Pell's legal team has lodged an appeal to his conviction.

This twisted irony is not lost on Marco, who says the organisation should be immediately dismantled - views echoed by Chrissie Foster whose two daughters Emma and Katie were raped by Melbourne priest Kevin O'Donnell, totally destroying their lives.

Emma became addicted to drugs, had eating disorders and self-harmed before overdosing on medication at 26. Katie was hit by a car after a drinking binge in 1999, leaving her brain damaged. Their late father Anthony, a campaigner against sexual abuse, fought for years to get justice for his daughters.

After news of Pell's conviction became public this week, Atchbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli admitted to ABC Melbourne the Church had engaged in cover ups and attempts to obstruct victims seeking redress and compensation.

During the interview, Archbishop Comensoli apologised to victims but refused to immediately dismantle Melbourne Response, saying calls were still coming through and he wished to keep its support arm, Carelink.

But Marco says victims of sex abuse by Catholic clergy should not touch Melbourne Response with a "10-foot pole". Instead, he urged them to contact police and Broken Rites Australia.

 

Chrissy Foster has called for the Melbourne Response to be dismantled following George Pell’s conviction for child sex crimes. Picture: Tony Gough
Chrissy Foster has called for the Melbourne Response to be dismantled following George Pell’s conviction for child sex crimes. Picture: Tony Gough

 

"I was one of the first survivors to actually approach the Melbourne Response in 1996, a couple of months after (it) was set up." Marco tells news.com.au.

"I had battled with what happened to me for a very, very long time. I went to the Church to seek an apology and recognition and acknowledgment of what happened to me.

"I went to an office in Melbourne. I went to see the commissioner (Peter O'Callaghan QC). That particular commissioner had explained to me a number of things that caused me to be effectively dissuaded from pursuing the Church.

"He said I was unlikely to get an apology. I left feeling very demoralised, very defeated. It was not a nice experience."

The stigma of being branded a liar who no one would believe reinforced what was instilled in Marco as a child, and he did not pursue the matter further for a few years. However, eventually he decided to battle on and he again approached the Church, determined to get justice.

He contacted the Melbourne Response a second time, speaking to Mr O'Callaghan, who hit the headlines in August 2014 when he told the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse that he had never reported sexual abuse complaints against priests to the police.

"He said, 'It will be hard to substantiate what happened to you'," Marco told news.com.au. "He more or less implied that no one would believe me, that I had a whole lot of issues."

Complicating matters further, according to the Melbourne Response, was Marco being abused by a priest who was part of the order of the Jesuits, and the abuse happened at a school - this did not come under the remit of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.

"He said they did not deal with complaints coming from an order," Marco tells news.com.au.

"This happened at Xavier College in Melbourne in the 1970s. At that time, the Church knew there were paedophiles there (at the school), and they were left to do what they wanted to do.

"There were many problems at that school. It was not a one-off, there was a lot of abuse."

Undeterred, Marco started compiling evidence. He dug out an old 1971 Xavier College yearbook and found six boys who he recognised from his schooldays.

In 2005, Marco lodged a complain with the Catholic Church's Professional Standards Office (the PSO) in Sydney as part of Towards Healing Process to which he says the reluctant Jesuits signed up to after pressure.

He was assigned a female lawyer who managed to track down four of the boys, one who had also made a complaint against Fr Byrne, who died in 1974 aged 62 never facing any penalty for his despicable crimes that damaged so many young lives.

"I looked through old school books with photos," Marco said. "I picked out six names of kids I remembered at the time. I gave them to her thinking, 'These kids, adults now, might be able to shed light on what happened to me'.

"She came back and amazingly said, 'Your case has been substantiated'. And it was accepted by the Jesuits. She had contacted these six people and managed to get through to about four of them. One of them had put in a complaint themselves of being abused at the school at the same time."

 

It took Marco Fabbro 15 years to get an apology from the Catholic Church.
It took Marco Fabbro 15 years to get an apology from the Catholic Church.

 

On December 23, 2005, Father Geoffrey King, who was in charge of professional standards for the Australian Jesuits, wrote to Marco, stating: "I must say that your account of events at Burke Hall bears very much the ring of truth …

"It is certainly true that John Byrne was moved from Burke Hall during 1972, and there seems good reason to suspect that it was as a result of some problematic behaviour on his part."

However, it wasn't until December 2011 that Marco finally received an apology and compensation - four decades after the horrific attack and a long, drawn-out and painful 15-year battle with the Catholic Church.

Two years later, Marco gave evidence to Victoria's parliamentary inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse which investigated Xavier College's alleged past of institutionalised brutalisation and sexual abuse of children in its care. At the time, the then principal Dr Chris Hayes told the ABC that the school was a "very different place" back then.

In 2017, convicted paedophile Vili Kovac, a former teacher at Xavier College, was jailed for four years for indecently assaulting a student in the 1960s, however, by then many other teachers implicated in child sexual abuse - including Fr Byrne - were dead.

For years, Marco campaigned for justice for survivors and was the Sydney area co-leader of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) offering support to others which unsurprisingly took a toll on his mental health.

"I had phone calls in the middle of the night," Marco tells news.com.au. "People who were suicidal … Some had drug overdoses or alcohol destroyed their lives.

"There are so many people who have been abused who don't talk about it. The real statistics are a lot more than we know - in families and state-run institutions. But the Church has a particular level of moral responsibility, moral and spiritual guidance.

"They make excuses to downplay the damage within the Church that the Church has done.

"The real situation will never be known, how many children were abused."

 

Marco Fabbro campaigning on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse outside Melbourne’s St Patrick's Cathedral where disgraced cardinal George Pell sexually assaulted two alter boys.
Marco Fabbro campaigning on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse outside Melbourne’s St Patrick's Cathedral where disgraced cardinal George Pell sexually assaulted two alter boys.

Marco says the sad fact was that many paedophiles within the Church had now gone overseas, working in so-called Third World communities in Fiji, South America and Africa where child sexual abuse was still being brushed under the carpet.

"Since the arrest and news of the conviction of George Pell, there have been a lot of inquiries from survivors," he tells news.com.au.

"My advice to anyone (seeking redress) would be to not go near the Church with a 10-foot pole because on my personal experience in '96 and the other reason - it was obviously set up by Pell who is a convicted paedophile himself.

"The Melbourne Response, over the years of it operating, has been a system particularly obstructive and limiting - not only the amount of reparations the complainant can have and to deter complainants from going through the court system - but to minimise any adverse publicity that might result for the Church."

Instead, Marco advised survivors to contact the police and Broken Rites Australia, which can offer support and advice.

"It's bringing to light and bringing the truth of this abuse problem in the Catholic Church," Marco said.

On George Pell's conviction, Marco said: "It was a shock. It was incredible to believe that a paedophile could rise to such a high rank within the Church.

"It was also a shock because my immediate reaction was, 'What are the implications for Catholics and society generally?'

"A lot of powerbrokers in our society and a lot of the elite in our society identify as being Catholic.

"Many of the judiciary, politicians - powerful members of our society, they really need to do some soul-searching about what they can do with their belief system."

 

- If you or a loved one needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, if you have been affected by abuse within the Catholic Church contact Broken Rites Australia on (03) 9457 4999, if affected sexual assault, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency always call Triple-0.

 

Continue the conversation on Twitter @MrsBecFranks



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