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Trying to make sense of Joel Cauchi


Almost 40 years ago a Sydney Catholic priest asked one of his parishioners, a former missionary doctor, whether he would be willing to shelter a young homeless man for a few weeks.

The doctor, who in the past 12 years has become my closest friend, agreed. The young man’s parents, then approaching late middle age and both in frail health, made it clear they could not continue caring for their son because of his instability, his erratic behaviour and his excessive drinking.

A few weeks of temporary shelter became a few months; a few months became 38-plus years. The young man has recently turned 60. He stopped drinking decades ago but he is tormented by  schizophrenia, bipolar and paranoia. He never leaves the house.

He is not, to use radio personality Ray Hadley’s words after the horrific events at Bondi Junction on Saturday April 13, a lunatic. And nor was Joel Cauchi. First and foremost, both are/were human beings.

My doctor mate is a saint but that’s a story for another day.

What happened when Joel Cauchi ran amok at Bondi Junction was horrendous. For most victims the impact will likely be life-long. For the parents of Joel Cauchi, devastated by their son’s incomprehensible actions, it is almost a death sentence.

An aside, but it is relevant: almost half a century ago my boyhood mate’s teenage brother was murdered after a hold-up. His killer was caught (by Roger Rogerson) and sentenced to jail. I will never forget the words of my mate’s mother: ‘I would rather be the mother of my dead son than the mother of the man who killed him.’

Very few people could or would do what my doctor mate has done for almost four decades. The man he continues to care for will always have mental health issues but he is no threat to anyone because of the care and concern and monitoring of medications that my mate has assumed.

Mental ill-health is no longer the stigma it used to be but it prevails and in many instances is worse now. Some factors are beyond control but not all. Illicit drug use, media violence, all forms of bullying, domestic and sexual violence, excessive alcohol consumption, neglect, inequality all contribute to the kind of mental instability that can lead to disaster.

It will never be possible to protect the community from a repetition of the horrors of April 13. But we can reduce the risk. To begin, we can reassess some of our collective and individual priorities, be more compassionate, less judgemental, more aware of those around us.

Sometimes it can be as simple as listening to, or striking up a conversation with, someone we would prefer not to.

Understandably, in the midst of our despair and sadness on Saturday evening many – perhaps most of us – were at the same time relieved to learn that it had not been a terrorist attack, that we could at some point resume our normal lives.

Most of us, especially with the good fortune of family, security, love and health, will move on. Many of the mentally ill are less fortunate.

The media makes constant references to six deaths on Saturday. There were seven. In his brokenness, and of necessity, Joel Cauchi became number seven.  




Bill Farrelly is a retired Sydney Morning Herald journalist

Main image: Bondi Junction killer Joel Cauchi. (Facebook)

Topic tags: Bill Farrelly, Bondi Junction, Joel Cauchi, Killings, Mental Illness, Awareness



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Existing comments

Joel Cauchi seems to have been trapped by the same thing that has trapped many men who did not have a mental illness and some of whom were quite illustrious: sex.

A larger question is not why the perpetrator of an incident did the thing he did, but why didn't he do any number of mentally ill things he could have done.

Some years ago, a person with a mental illness decided to incinerate a Brisbane bus driver.

Neither that person nor Joel Cauchi seemed to have lost their hold on reality enough to decide to incinerate or stab a stationary bus because it was a disguised demon.

There is rationality even in a person with a mental illness and if there is rationality, there is space for a received morality to be doing something.

It seems clear that Joel Cauchi and any number of born Catholics (presumably with parents identified in the media as Christian and with a surname which is used by Maltese, Cauchi was a Catholic) without a mental illness did the same thing: they left their received Catholic morality behind. Or perhaps those responsible to keep them enveloped in that received morality gave up the fight.

s martin | 22 April 2024  

Without attenuating in the least the horrors of April 13 in Sydney, Bill Farrelly - like journalist Anglela Shanahan in the Weekend Australian (20-21/4) - provides a deeper, more humane and more realistic perspective on Joel Cauci than stereotypes of "terrorist" and "radicalized misogynist" presented in some media coverage.
This disturbingly tragic event confronts us with questions about both the adequacy of mental health provision and the problem - or mystery - of evil.

John RD | 23 April 2024  

In the 1960s, schizophrenia accounted for 30% of all acute hospital referrals in the world, a statistic hard to imagine today. In those days, the care of patients suffering this diabolical disorder was in dedicated hospitals for the mentally ill, fully staffed by qualified nurses and doctors with strict monitoring of medications and organised activity which was closely controlled. If necessary, for the safety of staff and other patients, facilities existed for control by confinement if necessary when a patient experienced a dangerous lapse in behaviour which was a threat to the lives of others or to self. Schizophrenia was not the only mental affliction which caused irrational behaviour endangering others. Such seriously mentally ill patients were cared for 24 hours a day but unfortunately mental illness in those times carried a stigma as did the hospitals which cared for them (the mad houses or lunatic asylums in the vernacular of the times). In the "enlightenment" of the 1970s-80s in this country the Richmond report (1983) established the basis for the removal of such hospitals and dedicated care in favour of community based safe houses which would provide essential care and monitoring of seriously mentally disturbed patients. Unfortunately, successive governments since that time have failed miserably in supplying the specialised staff and funding necessary to maintain such a system while at the same time guaranteeing the safety of the population at large and also the patients. Until this catastrophically flawed model of care is corrected we will continue to see the tragedies that serious mental derangement can cause, often precipitated by failure of supervised medication, availability of mind altering illicit drugs and alcohol, and the loss of secure accommodation and sustenance that the mental hospital system used to provide. There is no blame to fall on the poor patients - the blame lies entirely with the poor quality of politicians we endure in this country.

John Frawley | 23 April 2024  
Show Responses

My late brother was a victim of the Richmond Report. For decades he lived in second rate boarding houses without a room of his own. Having eventually found a suitable supported accommodation organisation in his 60s, he had a decade of relative stability only to find that on reaching age pension age, the organisation's funding base was switched to the NDIS and for the last three years of his life he was compulsorily deprived of his home and placed into residential aged care. He was too timid to be violent but he was often frightened and angry. I'm sad that policy shifts determined that he could not be cared for where he felt safe.

Kerith Power | 28 April 2024  

Thank you for this non-judgemental, compassionate reflection. A memory I will hold of this tragic event is the image of the Police Officer, Amy holding the dying Joel with such tenderness - almost cradling him!
Richard Rohr has said that if we don't transform our wounds, we will transmit them. There was something in Amy's tender holding of Joel that helped us feel compassion for the perpetrator. He too was another human being, broken by circumstances beyond his control. In Joel's dying moments I like to think that Amy although the one who brought Joel down, was also the one who brought him peace, releasing him from his torment.

Patty Andrew | 25 April 2024  
Show Responses

Patty, what a compasionate answer. It really made me think. Thank you.

Helen Oxenburgh-Lowe | 01 May 2024  

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