We were a flock without a shepherd

Patricia Feenan is the mother of Daniel Feenan, the victim of Father James Fletcher who brought charges against him which resulted in nine convictions on 6 December 2004. In April 2005 Fletcher was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in gaol. He died in gaol in January 2006. Pat is the author of Holy Hell which tells the story her family’s experiences. Aurora invited Pat to respond to the announcement that a Royal Commission will be held into organisations’ responses to allegations of child sexual assault, and to reflect on her personal journey.

We were a flock without a shepherd

I learned that the Prime Minister had announced a Royal Commission into child sex abuse on the radio, while I was driving. An interview on the topic of sexual abuse was interrupted to say that the Royal Commission would happen. I put my head on the steering wheel and wept.


Hopefully the Commission will be an effective examination with wide powers and clear terms of reference.  I have been reflecting recently on the current debate around Confession. I was taught as a little girl about examining my conscience. I guess one of my hopes is that the Commission will lead organisations, including our Church, to examine their collective consciences.   


From what I’ve read the Commission will have far reaching powers and the terms of reference will include not just the Catholic Church. However, there’s no denying the statistics that suggest the Catholic Church in our own diocese is probably leading the tally. That’s disgraceful. I’ve said I’m ashamed – and of course I always reiterate that the abuse was bad, but the way the church handled it was dreadful and that caused added pain.  


I really hope the Royal Commission can bring the trust back. Until that happens, I am of the opinion that the Church is going nowhere because we keep getting knocked down with further stories. I want it all out. People get cynical, and there’s a lot of cynicism about all this.


I have always known that Catholic people are really good people, they rally around when there’s sickness or someone’s died or there’s a struggle of some kind. But when my son Daniel told the truth about the abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest, they didn’t rally at all. The ostracism we felt was an enormous burden – on top of what had happened to our beautiful son.


By the time of the court case, years after Daniel’s disclosure, we did have support, although not from priests who knew us as a family. Some priests told me that they had “popped in to wish Jim [Fletcher] well”. They didn’t pop in to wish us well. However, friends and associates did come to be with us – in fact, we were quite a Catholic flock – we just didn’t have a shepherd.


I didn’t understand people’s reservations about it all then, but I think I do now. The most important thing is that what happened to us won’t happen now, because of the diocese’s Child Protection Unit Zimmerman Services and the diocese’s healing arm.  I can guarantee that a victim who approaches the Church now will be treated with respect. I know people will be supported and someone will walk with the victim and the victim’s family for the whole journey. The lack of support we found, initially, is historic but it still hurts – and people carry that kind of pain forever.


People say that in the past, the psyche of the paedophile wasn’t understood. We certainly know a lot more now about their craft and the way they execute their crimes. At the very least they should have been taken out of ministry but they weren’t. I’ve had a lot of time alone to think about all this. It’s not what I thought – things never are.


James Fletcher was warned that he was being investigated by the police. To my knowledge the police didn’t even search his presbytery because anything that could have incriminated him would have been gone. Too much went wrong.


I prayed for James Fletcher’s mother and his family because they loved their son as we loved ours. Ironically, my mother and his mother were friends – both have passed away now.


I don’t hate the Catholic Church, and the book I’ve written certainly isn’t a church bash, but I remain devastated. It was my beloved Church as much as anyone’s. There are really good people out there - and good priests who must be distraught.


I am proud that I’ve written something that people say is valuable, that will help victims and will help people understand the pain and hopefully become more compassionate.  I wrote it as a record and to get it out of my head. I can’t say to people, ‘I hope you enjoy it’, it’s not that sort of a book. I put it aside for a number of years, but with renewed allegations, people said, ‘Why don’t you finish that book?’


Now I am an advocate for other victims and their families, and I’m glad to be able to do that. Sometimes just a phone call, or a cup of coffee and a chat, can make a difference. We didn’t have that.


I’ve got to believe that Zimmerman Services is doing good. I invited Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy to have coffee at Zimmerman House (as it was called) with the families of other victims, so she would know that we have this service available to us for support. She accepted the invitation, and so she knows that people now don’t walk alone the journey that my family and I walked.


I feel that I can’t do much more. James Fletcher picked the wrong woman’s son to abuse! He was our priest, and we did live our Catholic faith; it underpinned our lives, so the betrayal was devastating. My relationship with my God is exactly as it’s always been, I just lost faith in the Church as a structure.


Daniel’s bravery was rewarded, finally, but at what cost?


To learn more, or to order Holy Hell, please visit www.holyhell.com.au

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