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

Robert Friscic is a big bear of a man whose whole body shakes when he laughs, which he does a lot when he gets nervous.

There is also a childlike quality about him. A large portion of him is still stuck in the 1980s when he says his childhood was stolen from him by a local priest.

But this underdog, with limited means and an intellectual disability, took over the Catholic Church and won.

He filed a civil lawsuit in Victoria’s Supreme Court alleging abuse by Father Anthony Bongiorno.

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

It has admitted that former Archbishop Frank Little violated his duty of care.

Friscic’s lawyers say the settlement, combined with previous payments, makes it the highest price for a historic abuse case.

The warning signs

Sir. Friscic ran away from home in 1981 and sought refuge at the local cemetery in Brunswick.

He was welcomed into the St Ambrose Presbytery by Father Anthony Bongiorno.

“He [Father Bongiorno] showed me where I could take a shower in his bedroom… and he came in with me. And I did not know right or wrong. [He] started washing me all over my body, “Mr Friscic said.

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

Close-up of a man's arm with a cross tattoo and the word 'faith'.
Robert Friscic sought refuge in the local cemetery in Brunswick 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.

Roni Nettleton ran the boarding house where Mr. Friscic lived. She confronted the pastor as Mr. Friscic kept disappearing into the night. She said Father Bongiorno had just brushed it off.

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

So she was seeking a meeting with the Archbishop at the time, Frank Little, but she did not feel he would follow it up.

“He wanted more to assure us that Father Bongiorno was highly respected in his parish … [Archbishop Little] was really in doubt about, you know, that kind of thing. “Did this boy come up with this?”

Also in Mr Friscic’s corner was Victoria Police detective Sol Solomon, the informant in the criminal case against Father Bongiorno.

In 1996, the pastor was put on trial for indecent assault and sexual penetration of three boys.

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

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

Father Bongiorno was acquitted in two cases, and the third fell over. A devastated Mr. Friscic took himself to Westgate Bridge.

“I did not want to live anymore, so I decided to go there and jump off,” he said.

And what stopped him?

“The police arrived.”

One of these police officers was a sergeant Solomon, whom Mr. Friscic cries over now and remembers his kindness before his trademark giggle rolls back to mask the pain.

The story of Maria James

For years, Mr. Friscic took his anger out on the church in unhealthy ways.

“I spray-painted the Catholic Church in their office … and sent threatening emails. It was my way of getting them back,” he said at 7:30 p.m.

But recently, he has channeled his grief into two separate legal issues: the civil lawsuit against Father Bongiorno and a new court case in which he views the pastor as a person of interest in a cold 1980s case.

Maria James was murdered in his Thornbury bookstore, and father Bongiorno was soon seen with blood on his hands and face.

Maria James' bookshop
Maria James’s bookstore in Thornbury. (Delivered to: Victorian Coroner’s Court. )

ABC’s Trace podcast unveiled in 2017 that Mrs. James was to confront the pastor about the abuse of her younger son on the day she was stabbed.

Sir. Friscic testified this year at the new investigation into her death, saying he once asked the pastor about the murder and that Father Bongiorno went into shock over the question.

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

“I was with him for 14 years, so I should know him.”

Record settlements set an important precedent

Meanwhile, Mr Friscic’s civil case dragged on.

Then, a few days before the trial, the Archdiocese of Melbourne offered a settlement – $ 3 million and a promise that it would not reclaim the $ 700,000 it had previously offered Mr Friscic.

His lawyer, Alessandra Pettit, said the victory was four decades in the making.

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

“Civil service workers and or police officers … they were trying to get his story told back in the 1980s. And they had made reports,” she said.

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

The letter claimed that Father Bongiorno regularly had boys spend the night with him in the presbytery, that he asked a boy to kiss him, and that the entire elementary school staff was concerned about the priest’s behavior.

Despite knowledge of these allegations in 1980, former Archbishop Frank Little continued to appoint Father Bongiorno to two parishes within the year.

Father Bongiorno died in 2002.

Jason Parkinson of Porter’s Lawyers says the settlement sets an important precedent.

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

“To sue the Catholic Church is little by little like suing the great and powerful wizard of Oz. There is plenty of smoke and thunder, and differences of power.

“But when Toto pulls back the curtain, it’s just a hoax pulling handles and turning dials and scaring people.

“The church does not like to go to court because they are treated like everyone else once they are there – and that’s how they should be treated.”

The Archdiocese of Melbourne declined to comment.

Now Mr. Friscic is just looking forward and thinking about moving into a new place and maybe getting a dog.

“Thank you to everyone who has stuck with me. Thank you family for being a pest to them over the years; Victoria Police, my supporters… being around people who care about me, [who are] trying to help me get better, that’s what makes me happy. “

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