Betrayal of trust  

Betrayal of trust  

FATHER James Fletcher was known for his “dirty” jokes.
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It could be a punchline or a simple note for one of his parishioners celebrating a milestone, but they had become rather famous through some Hunter Valley parishes.

Like the cartoon card “Father Jim” gave one of his female parishioners for her 40th birthday.

It depicted a couple of elephants and a jibe about them urinating.

Even at the time it failed to get the desired effect the woman laughed with embarrassment rather than joy but fobbed it off as just one of the Catholic priest’s little idiosyncrasies.

After all, he was a close family friend whom she had entertained at her home many times over the years.

Last Monday that same female parishioner sat in East Maitland District Court to hear a jury find the priest guilty of sexually abusing her son.

It had been only a couple of years before, when her son first confided about the years of abuse he had suffered at the hands of Fletcher, that the woman thought about that card and its double meanings.

It was just another card in a deck of lies and deceit which allowed Fletcher to prey on her son while masquerading as a friend, confidante and trusted member of the Church.

“I felt very honoured and thought I was serving the church community,” she told The Herald during the week.

“It felt special and, obviously I know now that he was trying to get to [my son], but it felt good.

“There is just mental shock. That I did so much and went to so many meetings to further the faith development of that little country community.”

She added: “It [has affected] all of our families. This is like a stone in a pond.

“I don’t go to Mass anymore. I went to [a] funeral and I went last Christmas and I don’t know whether I will ever go back.

“Now that to me, that underpins my life, my faith. And it’s very fragmented and I don’t know whether I can ever rebuild it.”

The victim and his mother sat down for several hours with The Herald this week to tell their story.

Court orders mean their identities must remain suppressed.

As her eyes moistened and her hand instinctively reached out to grab her son’s leg, the woman told of the times she rang Fletcher for advice when trying to help her wayward son.

He had been a great kid. Good academically, a fantastic sportsman and a “good style of a bloke” as one investigator described him.

The world was at his feet.

But as he reached his early teens, life changed. He became distant. His anger levels grew and he was severely depressed.

Then one day, aged 19 and on another alcohol binge, he tried to commit suicide.

“I held [my son] for ages,” the woman recalled.

“We were all devastated and [my son] was upset. I was upset. That was the worst moment in my life.

“I rang our doctor, and I rang Father Jim and told him how upset I was. The doctor said he would come and Father Jim said, ‘Well, I’ve got visitors so I can’t get away’.

“He said, ‘Bring him up and I will try and talk to him’.

“So [my son] went up there, and the doctor came to our place and we talked about what on earth was the matter with our lovely son.

“And that night he [Fletcher] assaulted [my son] in the presbytery.

“When I realised all this I thought, how could he do that. I rang and said help.

“It’s wicked. [My son] was very upset the next day and we assumed it was because he tried to end his life. But of course he couldn’t say [what he was really upset about].

“So when he first came out and told us about this stuff so much of it made sense.”

Fletcher was never charged over the incident at the presbytery. But he was found guilty of nine other charges of sexually abusing the boy.

One charge related to a time his parents called the police after their son went missing from a family gathering.

He returned after 90 minutes, but only after frantic family members had searched the streets.

Fletcher, who had called the boy away and assaulted him in a car while the search party looked for him, later told his mother that it was normal for a boy to stray from the family.

“He always used to check and say ‘How’s he going, how’s he going?’. And I’d say, ‘Well he did something strange last night’,” the victim’s mother said.

“[At that party] and [my son] disappeared and he [Fletcher] just said, ‘Aw, you know boys when they have close families, they just start to stray away a bit’.

“And that’s what he said to me the next day. By asking how was he going, that was his check.

“It is that breach of trust that I will never ever get over.

“We had some times in [my son’s] past when he was extremely upset and I spoke to the priest.

“That breach of trust . . .”

Her son added: “One of the things happened on the Saturday night, and you [his family] were all upset about me when we went to church on Sunday. And the reason I was upset was because I was with him [Fletcher] the night before.”

The victim, now aged 28, said he could look back and see how Fletcher had “groomed” him.

At the time the victim knew, as did his siblings and close friends, that he was being treated differently.

“I definitely knew that he was treating me more special. The first time something happened to me, and the second time . . . I was unaware of what was going to happen,” he said.

“I knew he was making me feel special but I thought he just liked me. I had no idea of the reasons behind his efforts.

“It was like experimenting and he was saying to me, ‘This is normal’.

“He kept saying to me, ‘Your father probably did this when he was a kid and he never told anyone’.

“If you tell that to a 12- or 13-year-old boy, and you love your dad, of course you are not going to say anything.

“I got to year 10 and I started to have relationships with girls and I knew it was wrong then but I couldn’t get out of it; I was completely stuck.”

It was not until he was in year 12, and he and Fletcher again argued, that the victim finally got away from the priest’s clutches.

He said throughout the period of abuse, Fletcher threatened to hurt his siblings if he ever told anyone.

“I said I won’t say anything, you have got my word, just leave me alone, just leave my brothers alone, leave us alone I won’t say anything and I never did,” the victim said.

“But it was [when I was about] about 15 or 16 I thought, this is getting out of control. I didn’t feel special anymore.”

The decision to tell his parents, and then the police, was one he grappled with for years.

There were several reasons why he finally decided to speak up, including the fact he knew Fletcher could no longer hurt his family.

“We were on the phone,” the victim’s mother recalled, “and I asked him and maybe I asked the right question for the first time and I said, ‘Have you ever been sexually abused?’. It was the only question I hadn’t asked him. And he said, ‘Yes’.

“And he came home that next weekend and he told us . . . it was with Father Jim. “And we believed him because we thought, ‘Well, that is where his anger is coming from’.”

But it was to be another 18 months, and only after another binge, that the victim’s mother confronted him again and discovered the extent of the abuse.

“On that Sunday in June [2002] I went in to him because I had found out he had been drinking again and I said . . . ‘This has got to stop, we are not saving you any more’ and he said, ‘I can’t get over it and I thought I might talk to the police’,” she said.

“And I thought what a good a idea, go and talk to the police.”

The victim has courageously gotten on with his life. He thanks his partner for much of that. The stability she provides is welcome.

She met members of the family during the trial, and watched her partner’s accused as he sat through the 11-day trial without an emotion.

The only time Fletcher’s demeanour changed was when he wept as his mother gave evidence and when photographs of his genitalia were tendered to the court.

As is his right, he didn’t take the stand to defend himself against the accusations.

Fletcher is now in custody awaiting sentence. His solicitor has indicated he will appeal the convictions.

“I definitely knew that he was treating me more special. The first time something happened to me, and the second time . . . I was unaware of what was going to happen.”

GUILTY: The victim and his mother say Father James Patrick Fletcher abused their trust.