So, Ireland hangs it head in shame this week after the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse delivered a damning indictment of the Catholic Church. Well, perhaps not all of Ireland. The Protestants would no doubt be feeling pretty smug at this stage, able to portray themselves as nowhere near as sordid as their religious rivals. Let them enjoy their moment in the sun because who knows how long it will last. But it’s the Catholics under scrutiny and it’s a dreadful, sad and shameful reflection in the mirror. The inquiry, at a vast cost of well over $100 million, has found that for 60 years Church and State conspired to bastardise the lives of those least able to protect themselves. Two Catholic orders of religious – the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy – have been found guilty of shocking abuse. And all in the name of God. The catalogue of evil unveiled by the Inquiry stands as a veritable New Testament to the horror that can be inflicted on innocents by zealots who espouse the name of God but desecrate the principles and morality normally ascribed to such a deity. This is, in many ways, a peculiar difficulty that has to be worked-through by Irish society and their traditional pillars – church and state. But Australia is in no way immune.
The Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy remain influential forces in Australian society even today. The question must now be asked: are they fit and proper persons to be exercising such influence? Personal experience over the past two decades has taught me that the Sisters of Mercy – controllers of the huge public and private health facility on Brisbane’s southside and recipients of massive injections of public funding – are as rapacious, cynical and jaundiced as any business person ever to pursue a profit. Sentiment shall never be allowed to stand in the way of the bottom line. For their part, the Christian Brothers offered me a much more personal experience thanks to seven years under their tutelage in my teens and pre-teens. I am very happy to acknowledge that they provided me with an excellent education in great facilities and inculcated in me perhaps the greatest gift of all – discipline. But there were plenty of down-sides.
Physical abuse was the norm and well do I remember my first day of instruction by the Brothers. On a cold Melbourne morning, shivering from both the cold and the fear occasioned by starting at a new school where I knew nobody, I was lined-up – with my other thirty or so classmates – around the wall of our classroom. I was told that this was the Hit Parade but having not yet reached ten years of age, I could not make the connection between what was about to unfold and the secret delights of Beatles’ records heard on a transistor radio hidden under a pillow in the sanctity of my bedroom at home. One by one we were asked questions about homework and other aspects of subjects we were studying. Newness was no excuse and an incorrect answer led me to be summoned to the front of the class by the brother in charge. I was told to bend over and touch my toes. Thinking this was some sort of physical exercise, I responded eagerly. The pain in my buttocks as the Brother’s cane slashed across the seat of my pants was unexpected and I uttered an involuntary cry of anguish. Dear, oh dear. How silly of me. A hush descended over the class though my own ears were ringing in embarrassment and pain. The Brother chided me that never was a cry to escape my lips. I was to take my punishment like a man. Given that my years were still numbered in single figures, the very concept of manhood was not something I understood. But insight came fast as the Brother delivered me another stinging blow to remind me of my ‘vow’ of silence. To give the Brothers their credit, one did become a fast learner and silence reigned after that. The blows never stopped, though.
For years I was cuffed, caned and strapped. The bruises always healed quickly and I must confess honestly that I do not appear to have been psychologically harmed by the experience. One beating, however, does stand out. The perpetrator was not a Brother but a lay teacher – an American with a laconic drawl that matched his demeanour. But all of us have out limits and I was the class clown who would have tested the patience of a saint. This man was no saint. His form of punishment was an old-fashioned razor strop like barbers used to use when they still shaved customers with a cut-throat razor. On this fateful day, I pushed the teacher too far and he summonsed me to the front to be punished. He retrieved his strop from his rumpled leather hold-all and told me to hold both hands fully extended in front of me. However, instead of using the leather belt, he hit me with the handled – thick moulded wire encased in sewn leather. It was a fearsome weapon. The pain as it smashed into my hands was horrible. Perhaps it was the shocked that triggered my response. I smiled. Thinking back, I suspect it must have been much more a grimace than a smile but the teacher recognised it as a taunt. He lashed me again. Once more I smiled. Again. A smile, Again. Perhaps not so much of a smile. Again. The hush in the room was deathly now as every one of us realised things had gotten out of control. Nobody had ever witnessed a beating with this type of weapon. Eight times my hands were smashed and this time it did take quite a few days for the bruises to heal. I remember not being able to pick up my school bag to take it home. But I smiled. One last time and in return I got such a sad, anguished and devastated response that I wanted to cry. Mr K left the room at the end of that class and never returned. To this day I still regret my ‘victory’ given its cost.
The tale is not important. Those were simply the circumstances that prevailed. What IS monumentally important, however, is contrition. Were I to encounter Mr K again, I would apologise for being a pain in the arse. Hopefully, he might have some regrets, too. There have been no regrets, however, on the part of the Christian Brothers in Ireland who successfully sued four years ago to suppress the names of Brothers living and dead whose lives formed part of the tapestry that was the Inquiry into Child Abuse. In the name of God they did vile things. That is forgivable. What is not is their unwillingness to acknowledge their faults. What is worse is the continuing silence from the vast majority of their Church superiors, up to and including the Pope.
So much of the education provided by the church was about values. Why can’t they live them?