Mother cant forget the day she lost her beautiful boy
HINDSIGHT and maternal intuition mean Helen Watson can pinpoint precisely the moment when life for her 15-year-old son began to unravel. There's no consolation in the memory.
She can summon up the scene, see it, smell it - the ''absolutely reeking'' stench of alcohol wafting from the young priest, and the strange discomfort in her boy's demeanour when he arrived back at the family farmhouse that morning.
What she can't do is fix it, though she has devoted many years since to retrieving whatever justice, amends or lessons she might find in the moment.
Her son Peter had spent the night in Ararat at the parish presbytery. He and some mates had been invited there by a visiting priest to watch a movie. It was a blue movie, she would later learn, with booze laid on.
Despite her shock at the priest's rough condition, Ms Watson invited him to stay for breakfast - she was a country-bred Catholic girl, and it would be unimaginable for her not to extend every courtesy to visiting clergy.
Much to her relief, Father Paul David Ryan told her he had to get back to Ararat to say Mass. Meanwhile her son had quietly vanished into his bedroom, closing the door behind him.
In a sense, that was the last she saw of him. ''Peter was just never the same after that day,'' says Ms Watson. ''It was just horrific. He was just a beautiful young boy who was pretty good at most things he touched. And he just changed.''
Helen Watson was the product of a strict 1950s Catholic upbringing. Evenings at home would almost always include kneeling before a statue of Our Lady, offering up a rosary or two.
Her formative years revolved around faith, doctrine and Sunday Mass. Her memory is of demanding ritual and the odd harsh nun, but nothing more malignant.
Despite marrying a non-Catholic, she still cherished her faith and took her two sons to Mass every week, a 20-minute drive to the nearest church from their acreage in sheep and grain country at Tatyoon, south of Ararat.
She also made sure Peter, born in 1975, and his younger brother ticked off all the requisite sacraments, and enrolled them at the regional Catholic college.
Peter had been identified early as a bright student. He loved life on the land - ''it was a great upbringing'', Helen recalls. ''The boys were always out in the paddock with their dad, or playing football or cricket.''
But after the sleepover at the presbytery, Peter developed behavioural problems. As he was their first-born, Helen and her husband Tim (they later split) hoped that maybe he was just negotiating a particularly bumpy part of the adolescent journey.
Then came the violent outbursts. Once he lunged at the throat of the bus driver. On another occasion he smashed banisters at the school. ''These things were very out of character. He was a very gentle person.'' Ms Watson began taking him to see doctors and specialists.
Somehow he got through his VCE. He moved to Melbourne and vanished for long periods, getting into alcohol, smoking marijuana, living a drifter's life and developing psychological problems which saw him in and out of institutional care. Ms Watson managed to maintain contact with him, and one way or another he would find his way back to her. Coming back from Queensland, she met him at the airport and found him in rough shape.
''He was very emotional … he said 'I've done something you'll never believe Mum'.
''And I said no matter what you've done, it's OK. And then he proceeded to tell me.''
It emerged he had been abused.
''And then he told me that if I told a soul he would kill himself.''
The roller-coaster of illness, madness, anger, absence and homecomings continued, punctuated by suicide attempts. Ms Watson gradually pieced together the story - it was not until very late that Peter confided the identity of his attacker - and tried to get psychiatric help for her son.
Then one day in March 1999 he was finally given a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He told the medical staff he was just going to move his car. He was never seen again. He was 24.
''I never stopped looking,'' Helen Watson says. For six years she was left wondering what became of him, though she was almost certain he was dead.
In fact his body was found hanging in a boat shed in Aspendale late in 1999. Police couldn't put a name to it, and he was buried as a John Doe.
But the case preyed on one of the police officers, Rod Owen. When some new fingerprint technology arrived, he tried it out on the records from the body in the boatshed, and came up with a match. Ms Watson finally got the knock at the door she had wished for and dreaded.
She welcomed yesterday's announcement of a parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse by the clergy. ''Hopefully, it means that the church will be held accountable.
''There are lots of ways that can happen - maybe mandatory reporting. [Offending] priests have to be kicked out of the church.
''If abuse has been reported to the church, they need to make the report to the police. Otherwise victims, like Peter, feel guilty, when they are not. When victims continued to stay anonymous, this suited the church beautifully.
''I think if this inquiry will at least put some policies and procedures and some accountability from the church in place, then hopefully - and I can't say it will never happen again - it will reduce the atrocities.''
In 2006, Paul David Ryan, 57, was arrested and charged with indecent assault. He was jailed for a year after pleading guilty to assaulting an altar boy in his parish house. He is also understood to have offended in the United States. In December 2005, Peter Watson was buried at the Tatyoon cemetery.
The funeral ceremony was held in the Catholic church, but it was not a Catholic service - Helen's faith had long-since crumbled.
Helen Watson began a new journey - trying to get answers from the church, and ultimately received a letter of apology from the local bishop.
''The sexual abuse of my son Peter by a Catholic priest, as well as the cover-up, deception and manipulation of the church hierarchy in supporting sex-offending priests has raped my soul. That is why I have lost my faith and trust in the Catholic Church."