Robert Friscic has been offered a settlement of $ 3.7 million by the Catholic Church for historic sexual abuse. Lawyers say his case set a precedent

Robert Friscic is a big male bear whose whole body trembles when he laughs, which he does a lot when he gets nervous.

There is also a childish side to him. Much of him is still stuck in the 1980s when, he says, his childhood was stolen from him by a local priest.

But this outsider, with limited means and intellectual disability, faced the Catholic Church and won.

He filed a civil action in the Supreme Court of Victoria, alleging abuse by Father Anthony Bongiorno.

After two and a half years of litigation, the Archdiocese of Melbourne proposed an out-of-court settlement of $ 3 million.

He admitted that former Archbishop Frank Little failed in his duty of care.

Lawyers for Mr Friscic say the settlement, combined with previous payments, makes it the highest reward for a historic abuse case.

Warning signs

Mr. Friscic fled his home in 1981 and sought refuge in the local Brunswick cemetery.

He was welcomed at the St Ambrose presbytery by Father Anthony Bongiorno.

“He [Father Bongiorno] showed me where I could shower in his room… and he walked in with me. And I didn’t know right or wrong. [He] started washing all over my body, ”Mr. Friscic said.

Mr. Friscic was 11 years old. The abuse continued until he was 18 years old.

Robert Friscic sought refuge in the local Brunswick cemetery after running away from home as a child.(ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)

A number of social workers saw warning signs of sexual abuse and tried to sound the alarm bells.

Roni Nettleton ran the boarding house where Mr. Friscic lived. She confronted the priest when Mr. Friscic continued to disappear at night. She said Father Bongiorno simply swept it away.

“[He said] “Oh yeah, he’s calling, you know, I support the family… and he needs a father figure,” Ms. Nettleton said.

So she sought to meet the then Archbishop Frank Little, but she wasn’t sure he would follow through.

“He wanted to reassure us more that Father Bongiorno was highly respected in his parish… [Archbishop Little] really had doubts about, you know, that sort of thing. “Did this boy make that up?” “”

Also in Mr Friscic’s corner was Victoria Police Detective Sergeant Sol Solomon, the informant of Father Bongiorno’s criminal trial.

In 1996, the priest was tried for indecent assault and sexual penetration of three boys.

Father Anthony Bongiorno interviewed for ABC documentary.
Father Anthony Bongiorno died in 2002. (ABC)

Sergeant Solomon told the ABC’s Trace podcast that Father Bongiorno was cold.

Father Bongiorno was acquitted in two cases, and the third tipped over. A devastated Mr. Friscic made his way to Westgate Bridge.

“I didn’t want to live anymore, so I decided to go and jump,” he said.

And what stopped him?

“The police have come.”

One of these policemen was the sergeant Solomon, over whom Mr. Friscic is now crying, remembering his kindness, before his characteristic laughter returns to mask the pain.

The case of Maria James

For years, Mr. Friscic has expressed his anger against the Church in unhealthy ways.

“I painted the Catholic Church on their desk… and sent threatening emails. It was my way of getting them back,” he said at 7:30 am.

However, recently he channeled his grief into two separate legal cases: the civil action against Father Bongiorno and a new coronary inquest, examining the priest as a person of interest in a cold 1980 case.

Maria James was murdered in her Thornbury bookstore, and Father Bongiorno was seen shortly after with blood on his hands and face.

Maria James Bookstore
Maria James’ bookshop in Thornbury. (Provided: Victorian Coroner’s Court. )

ABC’s Trace podcast revealed in 2017 that Ms James was set to confront the priest over the mistreatment of her youngest son on the day she was stabbed.

Mr Friscic testified this year during the new investigation into his death, saying he once questioned the priest about the murder and that Father Bongiorno was shocked by the question.

“I think he assaulted Maria’s son and could have done anything to keep his secret… because he keeps secrets,” Mr. Friscic said.

“I’ve been with him for 14 years, so I should know him.”

Record settlement sets important precedent

Meanwhile, Mr. Friscic’s civil case dragged on.

Then, days before the hearing, the Archdiocese of Melbourne offered a settlement – $ 3 million, and a promise that he would not get back the $ 700,000 he had previously offered to Mr. Friscic.

His lawyer, Alessandra Pettit, said victory has been underway for four decades.

A young woman wearing glasses and a black blazer, with legal books behind her.
Alessandra Pettit represented Robert Friscic in his civil case against the Catholic Church.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

“The community service workers and / or the police… they tried to get her story told in the 1980s. And they had made reports,” she said.

As part of the case, a letter was produced as evidence, written by a Melbourne primary school principal in 1980.

The letter alleged that Father Bongiorno regularly had boys spending the night with him in the presbytery, that he had asked a boy to kiss him, and that all primary school staff were concerned about the priest’s behavior.

Despite becoming aware of these allegations in 1980, former Archbishop Frank Little subsequently appointed Father Bongiorno to two parishes during the year.

Father Bongiorno died in 2002.

Jason Parkinson of Porters Lawyers says the settlement sets an important precedent.

Canberra lawyer Jason Parkinson
Lawyer Jason Parkinson says suing the Catholic Church is like suing “the great and mighty Wizard of Oz.” (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)

“Pursuing the Catholic Church is, little by little, like pursuing the great and mighty Wizard of Oz. There’s a lot of smoke and thunder, and a power disparity.

“But when Toto draws the curtain, he’s just a prankster pulling levers, turning the dials and scaring people.

“The Church doesn’t like going to court because they’re treated like everyone else once they’re there – and that’s how they should be treated.”

The Archdiocese of Melbourne declined to comment.

Now Mr. Friscic is impatient, thinking of moving to a new place and maybe having a dog.

“Thank you to everyone who is stuck by my side. Thank you to the family, because I have been a plague to them over the years; the Victoria Police, my support people… being surrounded by people who care. me, [who are] trying to help me get better is what makes me happy. “

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