HOLY HELL: A Catholic family's story of faith, betrayal and pain

Patricia Feenan and her family were devout Catholics. They had complete trust in the godliness and integrity of the church and its leaders, until a black-hearted priest by the name of James Patrick Fletcher took away their son’s innocence forever. 

There was a lot priestly business in the Feenan family home.

John Feenan was the business manager of the Maitland Newcastle Diocese and Patricia was a special minister at the church in Clarence Town.

“I had a traditional Catholic upbringing where the priest was almost like God,” Patricia said.

“I guess [James Patrick] Fletcher groomed the whole family; he didn’t only groom Daniel and his brothers – his brothers weren’t abused – but that was part of this thing . . . to groom us all and he had other families with sons.

“The places where he went had sons. I think we just thought he was good with boys.

“It’s hard to reflect now,” she said haltingly.

“I had four sons; I never got out of the kitchen or the laundry - I was trying to do a bit of teaching, John was really busy in his job and we just tried to do the right thing and attend mass ... live your life like Christians. 

"We had evil in our midst, but we didn’t know it.”

The eldest of four boys, Daniel was brought up surrounded by love.

A champion cricketer, he cherishes the happy memories, especially of playing backyard cricket with his father, brothers and cousins at every opportunity.

But the normally happy boy began to exhibit worrying behaviour as he grew into manhood. His behaviour worsened and was erratic.

“Daniel’s behaviour was pretty worrying as he began to show a fair bit of anger and he started to abuse alcohol,” Patricia said.

“When we knew about the abuse it explained his risk-taking behaviour, which included a suicide attempt.

"A typical victim when you look at the research and the profile of an abused child. 

"We had no idea and eventually he disclosed to me that he was [sexually abused] when I asked the question.

“It was the only question I hadn’t asked about what would explain his bad behaviour and the fact that he didn’t seem to respect himself – he lived life on the edge. I don’t know why I asked that question, it just came into my head.”

Daniel was 24 years old when he made this admission to his mum, but she said some people never let their secret be known.

With the recent announcement of a royal commission men and women in their 60s and 70s have begun to speak out.

“[The announcement] has opened up quite a discussion,” Patricia said.

“Paedophiles operate under silence and their victims stay silent because they somehow put the guilt and the shame onto them – they say no one will believe you and they stay silent and victims just try to get on with their lives, if they can.”

She said it took 11 month for Daniel to give his statement to police – it was that harrowing.

“He was hospitalised a few times during that time and he was fairly traumatised and stressed,” Patricia said.

“It took over 50 hours of sitting with Peter Fox; he took Daniel very carefully and gently through that process.”

After word that Daniel had gone to the police began to circulate, it wasn’t long before disparaging rumours about the Feenans, particularly Daniel, also began to leach through the community.

Priests, including Bishop Michael Malone, chose to give solace to Fletcher.

The Bishop has since apologised to the family.

The priest, as Patricia refers to Fletcher, was jailed for 10 years on nine charges of child sex abuse.

“There could have been many more charges, but the DPP [Department of Public Prosecutions] settled on the nine they thought would have a good chance of successful prosecution.

“He died in jail 14 months after he was sentenced in early 2005.”

 Extract from Patricia Feenan’s book Holy Hell:

“On the day I was to start giving my statement to the police I drove slowly towards Maitland, trying to stay calm so that my words would be coherent.

“I had left myself plenty of time for the half hour drive but as I approached Maitland, I began to get upset.

“Memories of the priest’s involvement in my family began to bubble around in my head and so I pulled into a little park located about 10 minutes from the town centre.

“I was actually physically sick. I was alone. I remembered the meals I’d cooked for him, zucchini pie was his favourite, and the buttons I’d sewn on his black shirts.

“Exchanges of Christmas and birthday gifts and dinner parties for his mother and sister and social gatherings with friends of his were past memories that crowded into my thoughts.

“Dozens of snippets of conversations I had had with him were also recalled and I remembered the times we had asked him for advice when we were worried about Daniel.”

Pat Feenan has written a book on how her family suffered at the hands of a paedophile priest. Pic: MARINA NEIL

Pat Feenan has written a book on how her family suffered at the hands of a paedophile priest. Pic: MARINA NEIL