A Death in a Family

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A death in the Family

Twenty-two years was not long enough to shelve the horror of a paedophile priest's attacks on a man who finally ended it in suicide. Ron Banks reports.

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A few weeks ago Craig Murdoch's son Nathan killed himself in his father's flat. He was 33 years old. It was a death that Mr Murdoch had been dreading, but the possibility that Nathan might end his life had been part of the family's fears for nearly two years.

In August 2003 Nathan had made an attempt on his own life and had been committed to the Bentley psychiatric hospital. It was while undergoing psychiatric treatment that Nathan revealed to his psychiatrist the events in his life that had led him to try to end it.

When released into his father's care, Mr Murdoch tried to find out from the psychiatrist who had treated him what was eating away at his son's self-esteem and destroying his capacity to live a normal life. The psychiatrist refused to divulge Nathan's confessions, saying there were questions of privacy involved with an adult son and that only Nathan could tell his father what had happened. "Nathan came back to live with me after his suicide attempt and then one night he finally broke down sobbing and told me his story," says his father. At the age of 11, Nathan had been molested and sexually abused by a Catholic priest who had become a family friend.

As a funeral director for 25 years in the Midland district for the firm Bowra and O'Dea, Craig Murdoch had become accustomed to death and grieving and often shared the consolation duties with the friendly priest who introduced himself as Ray Quirk. Mr Murdoch had got on well with Father Quirk and invited the priest home for family dinners.

"He was very friendly with both my boys and when he first asked me, if he could take them to the pictures, of course my wife and I said we didn't mind."

But Father Quirk soon turned his attention only to the elder boy, Nathan, after he discovered that the boy was good at chess. He asked his parents if he could invite the 11-yearold back to the Midland friary for a game or two. It was here that the sexual abuse began and continued over several weeks. Not a very long period, it might be thought, to ruin a life but the seeds of Nathan's lifelong inability to cope were sown.

But Nathan never told anyone that he was the victim of a sexual predator. He kept his secret from his family and friends for 22 years. Even the young woman he married in his 20s was unaware of his past.

When Craig Murdoch finally heard his son's story, at which the depressed 33-year-old lashed out at his father for introducing Father Quirk into the family circle, he was "completely flattened" by the news.

As parents who had also battled to understand why their son was so depressed, both Craig and Celia felt guilty. But it was more the guilt of ignorance - that they had never thought to suspect that the Catholic priest with whom they had been so friendly would have been the cause of their son's distress. "It was like a cancer that got into Nathan's soul," said Mr Murdoch. "When I had asked him why he had never told me when he was a little boy, he told me it was because I had been too strict."

Like most victims of paedophilia, Nathan had felt ashamed that this had happened to him, and had also been threatened by Father Quirk if he told anyone. When Nathan had unburdened himself of his childhood secrets, Mr Murdoch said he hoped his son might have been able to put the pieces of his life together. "We would talk about it in my flat while he was with me but Nathan told me that although his first suicide attempt had failed, he would try again," he said. "I remember him saying, `Dad, if I want to do it, I will, and you won't be able to stop me'."

Nathan refused further psychiatric help and seemed to slip even deeper into depression. "He would stay in his room the entire week," said Mr Murdoch. "The only time he would come out would be for a cigarette but he would never talk much."

Both parents looked for any signs of improvement in their son's condition. There was a good deal of optimism when Nathan began seeing an old girlfriend again.

"We really thought at the time that Nathan might have turned the corner and was recovering," Mr Murdoch said. But their hopes were dashed the night that Nathan took an overdose of sleeping pills to make himself woozy, then took a chair into the bathroom and looped a rope around a fixture. A mate who came round to see him the next morning discovered his body.

After the funeral Craig Murdoch sat down to write the most difficult letter of his life. It was addressed to Perth's Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey. Both he and his former wife wanted the Church to know that their son's life had been ruined by a paedophile priest from St Brigid's Church in Midland.

They also did not want Nathan's death to go unnoticed and hoped that by speaking about their distress, they might alert other parents to the possibility that abuse in early childhood can have terrible consequences in adult lives.

"Over the past 22 years Nathan had bottled up the problems that led to his death," the letter to the Archbishop explained. "A once vibrant, happy boy with a keen sense of humour, who was doing so well at Morley Senior High School, changed to a moody, depressed, unhappy and unco-operative little boy.

"His grades at school went down, he played `hooky' from school and was able to copy his mother's signature to say he was sick etc ... he was obtaining alcohol when he could and seemed to have become quite streetwise and violent. "

The letter also explained how the parents considered that Nathan might be running with the wrong crowd, and that changing schools to the Catholic system might be the answer. But the Murdoch family had been brought up as Methodists, with Craig's own father and mother stalwarts of the Wesley Church in central Perth. Craig's father Ken had been a brilliant musician, a saxophonist who played concerts in the Wesley Church and at services.

Craig and his wife considered their lack of a Catholic background might make it difficult to enrol Nathan in St Mark's College so they turned to their good friend, Father Quirk, for help. With his assistance both boys were enrolled in St Mark's.

"This man was instrumental in getting our boys into St Mark's," says the letter to the Archbishop.

"It was then that Nathan's behaviour spiralled to an all-time low His mother and I had brought our boys up in a decent and loving home with all the love and support they could ever ask for. We tried so hard to get to the bottom of Nathan's behaviour, but to no avail. The one thing that we did not consider was that he had been sexually abused by this so-called Man of God."

Mr Murdoch also reflects in his letter with a sense of bitterness that when Father Quirk died in Queensland some years ago, the Church rang him to inform him of the priest's death. His name was among those on the list of people to be informed.

Before leaving for Queensland, from where he had originally come, Father Quirk had suffered heart attacks and Mr Murdoch remembers visiting him in hospital while he was recovering from one of his illnesses.

The letter to the Archbishop reveals how Nathan eventually told his father the lurid details of "this disgusting animal's requests for oral sex, masturbation and sodomy" which Nathan had to perform - with threats of what would happen to Nathan if he was to tell anyone. "He was very convincing. But I'm sure you've heard it all before and how it works," wrote Mr Murdoch.

He continued: "Nathan sat on this for some 22 years and confided in no one. Not his mother, or his close friends. He was married about 11 years ago and his wife was never aware. He had attempts at other relationships; all failed. Over the years Nathan used alcohol and drugs to try and blot out his nightmares. He had some minor run-ins with the police, but luckily nothing serious."

The conclusion to the letter is a bitter summation of his motives as a parent: "I am writing to inform you of this tragedy that has destroyed the life of our beautiful son. It has also destroyed my love of life and also (that) of his mother and his brother, who are absolutely devastated.

"I just wonder how many other children from the Midland parish had been molested by this vile person before he mysteriously disappeared to Queensland."

Nathan had also left a suicide note, which Craig Murdoch included in his letter to the Archbishop. The note was in the form of a poem, in which Nathan expressed his desire to be free of "the frightening thoughts from my stolen childhood".

Why can't I ever be free of this life I have been forced to endure? I don't see any hope - no future - no cure.

Archbishop Hickey's response to Craig Murdoch's letter was swift - it came back by return mail. "I have received your letter about your son Nathan and the tragic end caused by persistent memories of vile actions by a Franciscan priest. I can only imagine your grief and anger at such a betrayal," he wrote.

"As this is is the first time I have heard Fr Ray Quirk's name linked with child sexual abuse it came as a shock, particularly because there are probably other victims of him out there that have not come forward."

Archbishop Hickey went on to say the Church would investigate the conduct of the late Fr Quirk and nominated Peter Messer, the executive officer of the Church's Professional Standards Group, as the investigating officer.

Archbishop Hickey concluded: "I can only express my profound distress that your son's life was destroyed by one of the clergy."

Craig Murdoch takes some consolation from the Church's prompt reply to his letter but is left wondering what would have happened 22 years ago if Father Quirk's behaviour had come to light. In those days paedophilia among the clergy was rarely discussed in public, and even less frequently exposed and punished. If it had been exposed, Nathan's parents feel they would have known how to help their son recover from the feelings of guilt.

When contacted by Weekend Extra, Mr Messer said that preliminary investigations had not revealed anyone else had complained of Father Quirk.

"We will continue our investigations, which may take some time. But it is difficult after so many years to find corroborative evidence, particularly since both people in the case are now dead. However, if the story does help bring evidence to light that can only be a good thing."