In the early nineties a brave Wollongong priest exposed sexual abuse committed by his fellow Catholic clergymen. Chris Ryan talks to the Vito Gaudiosi, the boxing trainer working to keep Father Maurie Crocker’s memory alive.

Vito Gaudiosi can never forget the afternoon on March 26, 1998, when he came to the boxing gym at the back of St Mary’s Church, in the Wollongong suburb of Berkeley.

The policeman guarding the site told him not to go inside, but he had to see it for himself. “We wanted to say goodbye. Stupid us. If I thought about it today I’d have never walked into that hall, but mate, we were passionate about him,” says Vito.

He kept the kids who had arrived for training back from the gym and called the close friends who had made Crocker’s presbytery their second home. “I remember Fluro, a copper I ended up working with. He said, ‘Mate, you don’t want to see that. Get out.’

“I’d rather have remembered Crocker the way he was, but that was us. He taught us to be so open.”

That night, after seeing the lifeless body of his closest friend, Vito went to his job as a bouncer. “It never really hit me until one o’clock in the morning that my mate had suicided,” he says. “Talk about shock. That’s the first time I grieved. I started crying at one in the morning, and I never stopped for a week.”

Father Maurie Crocker wasn’t your average priest. As well as looking after the needs of his flock he trained fighters. Sometimes the boxing took precedence. “People used to knock on his door,” says Vito. “He’d realise, ‘Shit, we’ve got to go and train.’ He’d be in his Bonds t-shirt, he had tattoos and no teeth. He’d open the front door and say, ‘I’m the security man. The father will be back at three o’clock,’ and he’d shut the door and go to training. He was a character, if you didn’t know him you wouldn’t know how to approach him.”

Vito first met Crocker in the late eighties when he was looking for direction in his boxing career. He had been impressed with the success Crocker had training boxers in his previous parish in Ingleburn. Crocker asked Vito what he wanted to achieve in the sport. When Vito said he wanted a state title the priest showed him the door. “He said, ‘If you’re not going to tell me you want to win a world title, very simple, I don’t want to train you.’ And I said, ‘Alright, what does that mean?’ He said, ‘No smoking, no drinking. You dedicate your life to boxing.’” Vito took the pledge. It was the beginning of a great partnership.

The toughness Crocker showed in the gym was just one aspect of the boxing priest. “He kept his job away from his boxers, but we weren’t stupid,” says Vito. “He’d visit the sick every day. He’d talk to the kids that were being bullied. He’d do his thing on the side, but very rarely would he show his soft side.”

Vito flourished under Crocker’s guidance. In November 1991, after a string of knockouts, he was fighting for the Australian Middleweight title in front of a packed crowd at Dapto Leagues Club. Vito’s father, a forklift and front-end loader driver at the BHP steelworks, visited the changeroom before the fight. “His way of getting the best out of me was to put me down. He never praised me. But he came that night and kissed me on both cheeks and said, ‘Son, you need to win. There’s a lot of Italians here tonight, and they’re not all here to watch you win. Give it your best.’”

It was a tough fight with hard-hitting, fearless Lou Cafaro, who came to the boxing game when he saw an exhibition during a stint in Fremantle prison. “I was hitting Cafaro with powershots and after 12 rounds he was still around,” says Vito.

“They stopped it once he hit the deck. When I seen him go down, I looked over my shoulder and I could see the referee calling it off. And there’s Lou Cafarao climbing the ropes trying to get up. He was one tough man.”

Crocker was ecstatic with the win. To win an Australian middleweight title in those days, before boxing was the fringe sport it’s become, was something special. In those moments of joy it would be hard to imagine the dark, troubled days that lay ahead, inside the ring and out.

Four months after winning in the Australian title Vito was on a plane to England to fight against Richie Woodhall for the Commonwealth title. It was too soon after the Cafaro war and the preparation was far from ideal. Vito and Maurie arrived in England three days before the fight. Vito climbed into the ring jetlagged and dehydrated. “I’m not going to say I could have beaten him or I couldn’t have beaten him,” he explains, “But I could have given him a better run than I did.” Vito was stopped in the first round.

“I remember crying all the way home,” he says. “My dreams were shattered. I’d never been knocked off my feet. It was the biggest fight of my life. All I need to do is win and I’m on my way, and I walk into a right hand in the first round – and I was on the front foot.” He manages a small chuckle now. “All I remember is the count, ‘Nine… Ten.’”

Crocker took the loss hard as well but he had an even tougher battle in the offing, one that had been brewing since a number of boys visited him in the gym in 1989 and confided that a Catholic priest and a Christian Brother had abused them. Crocker did what he thought was the right thing and told Bishop Murray, leader of the Wollongong Diocese. It’s all too familiar now, but Crocker was shocked when the church took no action. He tried to go to the police instead but was told there wasn’t enough evidence. He took things into his own hands.

Vito remembers the time well. “Mate, we were right in the middle,” he says. “He was telling us his role. He never told us who the victims were – mind you most of the kids were in my year at Edmund Rice College, the boys school in Wollongong – but he definitely made us aware of the offenders.” Crocker would post anonymous letters to the abusers, telling them that justice was coming. “He was trying to break them,” says Vito.

In 1993, with his appeals to the church and the police coming to nought, Crocker took the story to Illawarra Mercury editor-in-chief Peter Cullen. An in-depth investigation by the newspaper followed and exposed sexual abuse within the Church and beyond. “After it hit the papers I started fearing for his safety. I thought he’d really opened up a can of worms,” says Vito.

The paper’s reporting led to the arrest of the offending priest while the Christian Brother committed suicide before charges could be laid. The Wood Royal Commission in New South Wales on corruption was expanded to expose extensive paedophile activity in the Wollongong area.

Truth being on his side was no help to Crocker. “He just deteriorated,” says Vito. “I’ll never forget when he came back from a conference with the church and he was so pissed off. I said, ‘What’s the matter Crocker?’ He said some priest approached him and asked, ‘How could you dob in a brother?’ He couldn’t believe his fellow priests weren’t backing him. He said, ‘No paedophile is a brother of mine.'”

There were signs Father Crocker, who struggled with depression, wasn’t coping. He withdrew from the gym where Vito, who had retired from boxing, had taken up training duties. He made dark jokes about suicide. Vito has a clock in his house that he had made for his trainer. It’s got a photo of them together and plaques marking the fights they won. “I took it to his house. He said, ‘Vito, when I retire to New Zealand I’m not going to be able to take it. I want you to have it.’ You know what he was telling me there.”

One March day in 1998 he came to the gym. “He was manic. He says, ‘Vito, I told you not to put bags on that beam up there.’ I said, ‘That’ll hold a tonne, I promise you. I got an engineer in to check it.’”

On March 26, six years to the day that Vito was beaten for the Commonwealth title, Crocker came into the gym, took down a bag, and hanged himself from the metal chain. “He’d prepared us for it,” says Vito, “but you’re never prepared for something like that. In hindsight, how much can you do for someone who really wants to take their life?”

The way that the Church had turned its back on Father Crocker left Vito enraged. “The night after they found Maurie they had a Mass at the church,” he says. “We had a get together at a restaurant at Port Kembla called Fellini’s. There would have been fifty people turned up for a drink and a feed and we were pretty intoxicated. We drove down to make our presence known.

“There would have been ten or twelve Catholic priests doing this service. We all walked in. I took the first seat, first row, and…just the anger.” Vito clenches his jaw at the memory. “Mate, if I could’ve hit one of them priests I would have.

“There was only one priest out of all of them, a Filipino, who walked past and he patted me on the hand. The others couldn’t even look you in the face. I actually yelled from the church that day, in anger, ‘You fucking dogs.’ There was no support for him, mate.”

At Crocker’s funeral the close-knit band that had formed around the priest wore white Bonds shirts and braces, like their friend had, under their jackets. Printed on the t-shirt was, “Maurie Crocker’s Deranged Road Runners,” the nickname he had given them, after the early morning roadwork they did.

When the coffin was lowered the jackets came off, shovels brought in a ute were passed around, and they buried him. “It was very emotional,” says Vito. “It was the ending of such a great chapter with him. If I had a second chance I’d never ever bury a person again. That shovel hitting the dirt when you finish is just so final. When you grieve you do things like that.”

In the following weeks Vito and his friends gathered at Crocker’s grave in the evenings. It wasn’t until Vito’s mother told him, “You’ve got to let him go. If you don’t leave him he won’t go,” that they stopped meeting there.

Vito had Crocker’s initials tattooed on his shoulder, along with “Faith, Hope and Charity” – words that Crocker had been tattooed with himself. He became determined to make sure that Crocker’s good work and good reputation didn’t die with him. He knew what people would think otherwise. “I’ve had so many people say, ‘Who’s Crocker? A priest who hung himself – was he a paedophile?’ No, he wasn’t a paedophile. He exposed the Catholic Church.”

The Church wasn’t interested in making monuments to a man who shined a light on its crimes. Vito sold his house and bought a block of land with an eye to setting up a gym, when local publican Phil Duggan stepped up to help out and offered to build Crocker’s Gym on a patch of land at the back of the Dandaloo Hotel.

Vito went into the police force where Crocker had wanted him to work with youth in the PCYC or child protection. He found himself too valued on the beat. “I never realised how many crims I knew before I came a cop,” he jokes. Now he’s retired from the force but he still spends hours at the gym working with youth from the area. A painting of Maurie Crocker hangs above the ring, shown with boxing gloves raised, ready for battle.

“We built this gym in memory of Maurie Crocker,” says Vito proudly. “An 11-metre by 11-metre gym, that’s been keeping kids off the street for 17 years.”

To this day the Church hasn’t given a cent to the gym. They might prefer Maurie Crocker forgotten. That’s unlikely, given the current Royal Commission is ready to expose how the Church failed to act when people like Father Crocker called them to account.

Even without the Royal Commission Vito will make sure that Crocker’s work is always remembered in the Wollongong region. “I’ll push it for years,” he says. “Some days I feel like walking away but I know I won’t. I won’t walk because I need to keep it going. I want his name up in lights.”

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