John Pirona was farewelled yesterday in a moving, uplifting and beautiful ceremony. A huge number of family, friends, colleagues and well wishers spilled out of the building, filling the surrounds with a sea of people who fervently wished they could somehow undo the events which led to this day.
John’s family had a tough job in organising his memorial. To combine their own private farewell with a public desire to honour John, to combine their own Catholic beliefs with the pain of his fellow victims at the hands of Catholic officials, to combine the determination not to allow those who caused John’s suffering to continue to do it to others with the need to celebrate John’s amazing ability to smile and spread joy in the face of such suffering.
Yesterday delivered all those things with honesty, dignity and respect for everyone’s feelings.
The overall impression was of a man who lived life to the full, who was brave, funny and loving, who was very, very human, who tried not to burden others with his pain, and who had everything to live for. And who will be sorely missed.
His family, and I’m sure many others who knew him, are struggling to understand his final decision.
He had so many people that he loved wholeheartedly, who loved him back. A job that he enjoyed, where he was respected and successful. Numerous interests that energised, absorbed and recharged him. A zest for life rarely seen.
And even in dealing with his painful past abuse, he at least was able to know his attacker was in jail for those offences, was unable to target more innocent children and ruin their lives, and could never again pretend not to be a child sexual predator.
Plus John had been receiving help to recover from Mayamarri, now know as Heal for Life.
So why did John have to die?
I didn’t know John personally, though I have spoken to people who knew him. What I can provide is insight into the side of him that is so mysterious to his family and friends, the world of the hidden suffering of victims of catholic church enabled child sexual abuse.
It was not his childhood abuse alone which led to John to the seemingly incomprehensible decision that death was his only choice and that those he loved were better off without him. He should have been able to overcome that with the help of his loving, supportive family, Mayumarri, and all the parts of his life that he enjoyed and which made him feel fulfilled and competent.
But his abuse did not stop in childhood. And it was not restricted to just the sexual abuse by the predator who derailed his life and stole his innocence.
The response of the school, local catholic church leaders, their appalling lawyers, and other church officials up to and including the Pope all heaped additional hidden abuse on John throughout his life. By not admitting his abuse even occurred, by not properly acknowledging his suffering even when forced to admit his abuse, by treating him as the problem, by minimising their own guilt, by trying to force him to blame himself, by callously and viciously fighting against the conviction of a dangerous criminal they had no doubt was guilty, by putting him through hell for trying to exercise his right to recovery, by constantly filling the media with lies about how well they are treating victims or protecting children or dealing with this issue, and by refusing to take effective action on this issue in Australia and around the world .
These, by themselves, are enough to make anyone feel angry, worthless and powerless.
But John’s case, and so many others, combines the original abuse, which destroys a child’s core sense of self worth and human dignity, with ongoing re-abuse, which constantly undermines any progress made towards self worth and survival.
So despite his amazing and seemingly successful efforts to find a purpose and joy in life, his loving and supportive family and the two beautiful girls he adored, and everything else he had going for him, there obviously came a time when the burden of worthlessness and powerlessness seemed too heavy, when his life appeared to have negative value, and when he felt he had no choice but to stop fighting because he wasn’t worth fighting for.
From the outside we can see how very valuable he was, how he was absolutely worth fighting for. But trapped inside his pain, and the guilt and shame he never deserved, John could not see it. That is what was stolen from him in childhood. And that is what a total absence of compassion and honesty from the organisation which enabled his abuse ensured he never recovered from. John didn’t make a choice to leave you. He felt he had no choice.
That is his tragedy. And ours.
Another question John’s family and friends seem to struggle with is whether there is something they could have done, particularly in his last days, that would have saved him or made a difference. I’m sure your love and support and friendship made a huge difference and gave him so many high points to his life. But it is unlikely you could have significantly impacted the very personal fight with his internal demons. Only John, armed with the right tools, could have destroyed those.
How to stop any more deaths like John’s is the job of another day.
Today we remember and honour a wonderful human being who was with us all too briefly, but who packed so much living into his short time.