A criminal confesses and finds amazing grace

The author of this testimony has victims. Although he provided his name, we are not using it because we believe it might identify his victims or cause them pain. Eternity believes that he committed sickening crimes, although he does not talk about them in this piece. Readers should take this into account before reading this testimony.

As the officer shut the prison door and turned the key, there was never a time in my 50 years when I had hated myself more. Voices screamed in my head demanding my body to die. I had passed the point of tears. My teeth gnashed, my torso rocked back and forth uncontrollably. If only, if only yesterday’s suicide attempt had worked!

Adding to my tortured mind was the knowledge that everyone who this morning loved and trusted me, now had every reason to see my death wish come true.

As I stared at the lumps of nicotine-stained yellow saliva on the concrete floor, left behind by previous occupants of this holding cell, all I wanted to do was get down and roll in it, so my body would be as dirty as my soul felt.

For the next 12 hours, I was taken back and forth from this tiny cage to a sterile interview room. The detectives extracted every detail of my shameful life and recorded them on video.

Their questions centred on the written confession I had handed to the officer at the front desk earlier that day. I had tried to describe the events through the eyes of my victims, and how they might remember them. Every evil act I could remember from my life was listed, and at the bottom of the page I wrote,

“When you interview the people I have hurt, their version of events will be used in a court of law, not mine.”

Hours of “Did you do this?” to which I replied, “yes I did”.

For the first time, my secret life was exposed. I had ripped off the watertight mask I had shrouded myself in, and shown the man I’d lived with all my life. A putrid man only my victims knew existed, and whom I hated.

One can say that for every victim of crime there must be a perpetrator. A monster who everyone hates. I am he, and it was now time for my life to be judged.

My testimony is one of God’s “amazing grace” to a man who still to this day does not deserve it. The Holy Spirit of God, the part of God we call The Comforter, did what no man can do. He came looking for me. He walked past the truth of the accusations that pained him, and behind the label of “monster” that had justifiably been nailed to me. He came looking for the little boy inside me who just needed a dad to hold him and whisper in my ear, “I am here for you”.

Let me go back to the beginning …

I was raised in a middle-class Australian family. My mum and dad, together with my younger sister, lived on a small isolated hobby farm till I was almost ten. Dad was a truck driver who was rarely home when I was awake. My sister and I had very little contact with other children. Adding to the isolation, I did not start school till I was almost seven as I had completed Kindergarten and First Class via correspondence.

Finally, the day arrived when I started school. There were 29 children from K to 6 with just one teacher.

It was a day I will never forget. An older boy sitting behind me started to throw things at me and make threats about what he was going to do to me. Fear filled my heart and I felt I had no one to turn to.

By the end of that week, I had eaten my first blowfly. Over the coming weeks, I was forced to drink stale milk and teased until I was in tears.

Eventually, the abuse escalated when this boy and his older brother took me under the school building and quietly started taking my clothes off.

Two years went by with this happening on a weekly basis. I tried to tell my mum, but I don’t think she understood – because I implied that it was my fault.

My teacher, who seemed unaware of what was going on, contacted my parents and told them I was struggling to read and write. He suggested I should repeat third class. My parents agreed. They gave two reasons – first “I was too young” and second, I was struggling to learn, and it would be best to repeat. Guess which reason wounded me and instilled my belief that I was a failure?

A seed had been planted in my parents’ minds that I would never succeed academically. Walls went up around my heart with signs saying “unlovable”.

The teacher said I had behavioural problems. I spent many days sitting outside the classroom on detention because I always put my hand up to go to the toilet just after recess and lunch. This annoyed the teacher very much, but for me, detention was way better than what the boys did to me in the toilets.

I can remember when I was about eight, I was sitting next to my gumtree in the corner of the paddock at school. I was holding my stomach in severe pain, but I thought “I can’t tell anyone about this because I will have to lift my shirt, and someone will see me, and worse, they will touch me”. I became paralysed with fear, and when it was time to go back into class, I was in so much pain I could not move. Later that day I was taken to hospital and operated on for a hernia.

That became the way I handled all my problems in life. Don’t tell anyone you’re in pain because they will say it’s all your fault so you must deal with it yourself.

Often during my early teen years, when my father and I had huge outbursts of conflict, he would remind me to keep my expectations in life low and implied I would never succeed academically.

I hated school, I hated life, I hated people, I hated God, and I wanted everyone to just leave me alone.

It seemed my life consisted of going to school and being abused, then on the farm I would hide under the veranda talking to my invisible friend. The two emotions I felt throughout my first ten years of life were fear and loneliness.

Just before my tenth birthday, we moved to Sydney to live with my grandmother due to her failing health. I started at a school where over 800 children attended. I clearly remember standing in the corner of the playground thinking “what if all these boys do the same thing to me?”

I have very few memories of the next three years because fear overwhelmed me and I just shut down. That’s when a small New Testament Bible appeared in my bedside drawer. I suspect my grandmother put it there. She loved Jesus and went to church every Sunday. After reading a bit of it, I started crying and held that Bible like a teddy bear until I sobbed myself to sleep because I hated myself so much.

It was around this time I began to have suicidal thoughts. The protective bricks I had placed around my heart had become a prison.

Without going into morbid details, by the time I was 13 my sexuality was a mess. I had no idea what “normal” was. It also seemed I had a sign on my head that said to other boys “You can do anything to me”. Worse still, I started to let them do it because it was the only way I could have friends. I became so scared of people.

I started smoking full time at 13, began taking drugs at 14, and giving my body away to older men for favours at 18.

Virtually illiterate, I dropped out of school after failing Year 10 and got a job in a printing shop. I told no one about my childhood and tried to ignore the memories that ran through my mind daily. I got married, bought a home, and designed a mask to cover my pain. A mask with a perfect smile so that no one would suspect who actually lived behind it.

A watertight mask

In December 2010, at age 50, I owned new cars, a home, and was a successful business owner. I was married to a wonderful woman and had three teenage children at home. I had attended church for 25 years and, to the onlooker, my life appeared quite normal.

So why did I climb over the railing on a railway overpass with the intention of throwing myself in front of an oncoming train? Tears were running down my face, yet not one person suspected what I was about to do.

My reasons were in my pocket, scrawled on a piece of paper that people would find on my mangled corpse. It listed every crime I had done in my entire life, offences so serious that they would require a prison sentence.

For years I had confessed to God many times how I hated what I had done, and asked him to help me, yet I continued to commit my crimes. Since my confessions hadn’t bought relief, the only solution seemed to be to kill myself. That way no one else would be hurt by me.

The approaching train was about 100 metres away when the driver locked his eyes on mine, staring in disbelief. It tore my concentration from the task at hand. I could not move, as his eyes remained locked on mine until he passed under the bridge and out of sight. I couldn’t jump, so I climbed off the railing and, still desperate to die, ran across a main road hoping a car would hit me. When that failed, I kept running for about two kilometres until I fell in a heap in someone’s front yard, bawling my eyes out. I had even failed in my attempt at committing suicide. That was the lowest point of my life.

Waking early the next morning, I resolved to do what I’d wanted to do for a long time – simply give myself up to the police. I went into each of my children’s rooms as they slept and, in tears, whispered “goodbye.” I truly believed that would be the last time I would see them. Just after 11am, I walked into the police station with a piece of paper that detailed every despicable act I could remember committing during my life.

It cost me everything

Over the next few months, I received blow after blow.

My wife said she would divorce me. My children disowned me. My business folded. I lost my home and assets. My dad cut me from his will and said he would never talk to me again.

Still to this day, my extended family do not want contact with me, and I understand why. A handful of friends raised the courage to visit me in prison, in most cases just to say goodbye and add that they would try to forgive me.

The only thing I had left was my conviction that “there is a God”. As I lay in a prison cell all alone, I got real with God for the first time. “I hate you, God” I screamed. Why didn’t you stop me from becoming so evil? Why didn’t you kill me at birth? Why did my childhood happen? WHY AM I, WHO AM I, WHAT AM I?

Eventually, as I lay exhausted, drenched in tears, I heard a clear voice in my mind say, “I really hate what you did, mate, but I will never, ever hate you.” It was not my thinking. Who said that? What do you say to that?

For the first time since I held that little Bible like a teddy bear, I felt the love of the invisible Comforter. That is the day I gave God “WHO” I am. Twenty-five years earlier I had only given God “WHAT” I was. Things like my bank account, my business, my marriage, and my children and asked him to take care of them. But all he ever wanted was my broken wounded heart, and for me to trust him to heal it. That was not comfortable at all.

On the day I walked into the police station I stopped telling lies. That may have released the chains around my heart, but it meant the world then put steel chains on my wrists. But I would tell the truth now, and even if it meant a hundred years in prison without God’s help, then so be it. I deserved it.

“Born again” on the inside

Eighteen months later, while still on remand in Silverwater jail, I was charged and taken to court. The judge gave me a nine-year sentence, with a minimum of six in prison. It was only half of what I really deserved.

There is a verse in the Bible that says, “The joy of the Lord is my strength”. When you are completely broken, and you fall at the foot of the cross, and all the joy has gone from your life, God feels a joy that his child is now reaching out to him. As my heavenly daddy wrapped his loving arms around me, he gave me strength at the saddest time in my life. I felt safe. God was loving me during the time I was not able to love myself.

During my time in prison, I witnessed so many miracles. For some reason, God started using me like never before while at my most broken point in life.

The Officer in charge of Industries at Long Bay prison made me his personal assistant, which involved placing 550 inmates into different jobs. I was given privileges that made my life a little more comfortable. It was as if God parted the Red Sea. God loved me right in front of all the people who hated me. I kept warning him not to align himself with scum like me, but he just kept screaming “I love you, John, and hate what you did”.

One day, as I was reading my Bible in the yard, a guy started questioning me about Jesus. I simply told him what God was doing in my life and shared the verses I was reading. The following week I started a Bible study, calling it “Green to Green” after our green prison clothes. Broken men ministered to scores of other broken men.

At times when I was locked in a cell with a stranger, God gave me the questions to ask that went past the crime and showed me how God saw them.

There was Rob, who had killed his wife, a man hated by the press, and visited by no one. He told me in tears one night “Do you know what it’s like to go to sleep every night knowing you killed the only person who said, ‘I love you,’ and really meant it?”

I said, “My actions are the reasons why Jesus had to be killed on the cross, and he is the only person who still loves me today”. Rob accepted Jesus, and he changed that night.

Telling my story

Like me, most men in prison had been sexually abused, but I felt disqualified to share my story when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse circulated requests through the prison in 2014. I had hurt so many people. Yet I felt God clearly tell me to submit my story, so I did. Six months later,  I was physically shaking at the prospect of confessing all my evil acts to Commissioner Justice Peter McClellan.

As I approached the building to tell my story, I looked up into a brilliant blue sky where a plane had just finished sky-writing “JESUS SAVES”. A coincidence? I think not.

After that two-hour interview, I received weekly counselling that the Commissioner made available to me for as long as I wanted it, for free. No other inmate received that to my knowledge. Thank you, Peter; you are truly a great man.

Broken hearts, not broken brains

What I have observed over my years in jail is that men commit their terrible crimes against society not because of so-called “broken brains”. The decisions were actually made using their “broken hearts”. For one fleeting moment, the heart overrules the brain and says, “Do this and you will feel better”.

God is about fixing broken hearts by loving us, while Man tries to fix broken brains by educating us.

God chooses to love those who the world deems monsters. He sees the broken heart that is full of strongholds that stop a man from confessing his sin. God sees through the sin and loves regardless.

Grace and restoration

By the time I was released, after six-and-a-half years behind bars, God had restored so much.

My ex-wife is today one of my best friends. My children each walked a journey that not only restored our relationships, but God gave us better relationships than before. Many friends today have made contact again and stand with me even though they know my past.

If I could change only one thing in my life it would not be my time in prison. I deserved every second of that. The thing I would like to change is that when I was 21, I had simply confessed to the right person, “I need help, I have terrible thoughts. My heart is broken, and I trust you to help me with the outcome”. Perhaps then, just maybe, I may not have done the devastating actions that hurt so many.

Yet, as I reflect, if I could change my past, maybe I wouldn’t have reached out to God. And that would have been a very, very lonely life.