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The context of our sex abuse shame

Shane Wood |  29 June 2009

During recent weeks, there has been much publicity in the media in Ireland and in Australia regarding the release of a report commissioned by the Irish Government into past widespread abuse of children. The body making the report is The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. It was set up in 2000 by the Irish Government and began its work while I was in Ireland for twelve months study.

The Commission had three primary functions:

  • to hear evidence of abuse from persons who allege they suffered abuse in childhood, in institutions, during the period from 1940 or earlier, to the present day;
  • to conduct an inquiry into abuse of children in institutions during that period and, where satisfied that abuse occurred, to determine the causes, nature, circumstances and extent of such abuse; and
  • to prepare and publish reports on the results of the inquiry and on its recommendations in relation to dealing with the effects of such abuse.

Its mandate covered four types of abuse:

  • Physical abuse — the willful, reckless or negligent infliction of physical injury on, or failure to prevent such injury to, the child;
  • Sexual abuse — the use of the child by a person for sexual arousal or sexual gratification of that person or another person;
  • Neglect — failure to care for the child which results, or could reasonably be expected to result in serious impairment of the physical or mental health or development of the child, or serious adverse effects on his or her behaviour or welfare;
  • Emotional abuse — any other act or omission towards the child which results, or could reasonably be expected to result in serious impairment of the physical or mental health or development of the child, or serious adverse effects on his or her welfare.

The inquiry covered institutions including 'a school, an industrial school, a reformatory school, an orphanage, a hospital, a children's home and any other place where children are cared for other than as members of their families'.

Most of the schools and so-called industrial schools (residential institutions typically with a farm and a technical type school attached) were conducted by the Christian Brothers, the Congregation to which I belong, and many aspects of the management of these places comes in for damning criticism in the Report — and rightly so. These practices resulted in much abuse (all four types mentioned above) of the boys placed in them.

Clearly exposed is what seems to have been statistically significant instances of sexual abuse by more than a few Brothers. As this was not a hearing to discover and/or punish perpetrators, nor were those so named (if still alive) able to defend themselves, these men are not named in the Report. Nevertheless, it is plainly obvious that many horrific things were experienced by many of the boys in these institutions.

No excuses can be made for such experiences, and individuals responsible ought be brought to justice if crimes have been committed. Institutions like the Christian Brothers ought do all in their power to provide whatever restitution and compensation can be made available to those proved to have genuinely suffered abuse of any kind. (This has been our sincere and genuine effort in such cases in Australia of recent times, despite what might appear to the contrary in the media from time to time.)

Although not personally involved in this latest Irish Commission finding, I am deeply shocked and profoundly embarrassed, even angered, by what I have read in the Executive Summary of the Report and in other sections related to findings involving the Christian Brothers in Ireland. I know that I am not alone in this. I am aware also that there are many good people, who have been and continue to be associated with the Christian Brothers in various formal and informal ways, who will be experiencing similar reactions and responses to mine.

These matters have to be faced and dealt with, hopefully with the good of any victims firmly at the centre of any future response.

Closer to home there has been another Christian Brother sentenced in the last few days to a period of imprisonment for crimes committed in the 1970s in a Melbourne institution run by the Christian Brothers. This latest court case, along with the many others here and overseas, gives me great pain and shame, and raises all sorts of questions about what was done to these basically good men and what was neglected in their training that they could so twist the purposes of their vocation as to do such grave and lasting damage to the young people they were meant to care for?

My own training, albeit some years later, might provide some insights. While I would claim that I was reasonably well prepared professionally for the classroom, I would say that I was not well prepared for the life of a celibate male religious. While I agree that we might be products of our past but we do not have to be prisoners to it, there were some basic things lacking in our training that could, if not worked on later in life, have led to a very warped way of looking at oneself and the world.

There was no psychological testing for candidates, most of whom were like me and left home at the age of 15 or 16. There was no attempt to help us to engage with our sexuality in any healthy way, apart from some rudimentary explanations related to biology. There was no effort to encourage healthy sharing of feelings; no forum for asking questions; no mixing with the opposite sex in a way that could have provided a forum for understanding common human emotions and attachments.

It was assumed that a busy life filled with a routine of prayer, study, sport and work would suffice to keep us from any 'temptation' or sexual thoughts. Most of us were thrown into an all-male milieu at an age when 'innocent' heterosexual experimentation is a fact of life. There being no company than other males of a similar age meant that this time of 'sorting out' of healthy human relationships was for the most part somewhat haphazard at best and stunted at worst.

None of this is to excuse what has been done to the victims of the abuse outlined above. It was criminal and inexcusable. It might, however, help to understand why some of it might have happened. In earlier times than those of my own training, professional preparation was often truncated or non-existent. Training if any was done 'on the job'; so, many men had only the example of those who taught them to rely upon. Not all of those examples would have been good ones.

Those men who were thrown into institutional residential situations were even less prepared for what they had to deal with. Their own lives (both at home and in religious life) were in most cases harsh; they dealt with those in their care as they were dealt with. Combined with a lack of sound psychological understanding and training, there was a fear of self-reflection as somehow related to sinful self-absorption.

It is easy to see how such people, put into a religious hothouse, untrained and overworked could become 'split'; know well the ideal, keep the external requirements of the Rule, but live privately in a way contrary to it. Again, this is not to excuse, but rather to try to understand.

The effort to understand, if it is legitimate, must result in change for the future. I have a great deal of sympathy for the victims in these cases and favour the provision of whatever is required to assist them in their suffering, grief and in attempting to get their lives as close as possible to some sort of normality — no matter what the cost to the order or diocese concerned.

I think we also need to be reminded of the fact that both accused and victim are often caught up in an adversarial legal system that operates by certain rules. Some rules are detrimental to finding the truth, others detrimental to those who might be, on the balance of probability, innocent. Those who are accused are not required by law to defend themselves by giving evidence, admitting guilt or showing remorse. It is up to the prosecution to prove their case. There is a presumption of 'innocent until proven guilty,' at least in theory.

On the other hand, I know of some accused in these cases who have maintained their innocence, but have been advised to plead guilty to avoid a long trial and to receive in the end a lighter sentence, and have done so. It is a flawed system — but the best we have. So there could be many reasons why an accused person, or even one who has been found guilty, might not wish or might not be able to express any sentiments of regret or remorse at the end of what must be a traumatic experience — whether guilty or innocent, victim or accused.

The good done by the many does not undo the evil done by the few; and vice versa. Both are reality. The good experiences of the many students does not negate the horrendous experiences of those who were abused. Both are reality for those concerned.

I say again that I am ashamed of the actions of fellow religious Brothers; I express my deep regret for the hurt done to victims; I look forward to the day when all bishops and religious superiors will agree to psychological testing for their candidates. It is difficult to believe that this is still not universal, even in Australia.

I look forward to the day when a healthier more human lifestyle can be provided for priests in particular. (For the most part, religious seem to have moved far more quickly in these areas.) In many Dioceses, the falling numbers of priests has led to increased and unreasonable workloads on those who remain, and the expectation that they will continue to work into their 80s. This cannot be healthy — physically, psychologically or spiritually.

Shane WoodBr Shane Wood cfc was a teacher, principal and advisor in Melbourne for 30 years before commencing work for Catholic Education in Diocese of Broome in 1998. He currently lectures on the Broome Campus of the University of Notre Dame Australia. He holds a BA, M.Phil in Peace Studies from Trinity College, Dublin, and is soon to graduate with an MA in Theological Studies from Notre Dame Australia. A shorter version of this article was originally published at onlineopinion.com.au.



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Submitted comments

Thanks Shane. As someone who has experienced sexual abuse from a priest of a religious order here in Australia I found it a powerful and compassionate article. As each abused person's situation is unique, so too will be their pain and the journey of healing. I also believe that the majority of our priests and religious are wonderful and good people. Perhaps a seminar or forum could be facilitated during priestly or religious formation during which along with other professionals, abused persons could be given an opportunity to share their situation. I pray that the Ryan report and the recently release Anglican report will offer an opportunity to never forget, continually learn and improve the process of of selection, training and on going formation of all who act in Christ's name and who work with the venerable of our society, including children.

Kevin 30 June 2009

While fully concurring with Br Shane's sentiments...and in the hope that they will be echoed throughout the universal church, pondered and acted upon, I would nevertheless like to take this opportunity to put on the public record our very grateful appreciation to the Christian Brothers in Victoria who stood with us and engaged with us in our work of caring for men, women and children struggling to live with HIV/AIDS over several years, first at our houses in North Melbourne, and. more latterly, at our San Michel facility in Camberwell.

These places no longer function, but there's now a San Michel in Papua New Guinea and another in Malawi, Africa.

Backed by their very supportive leadership team, the Brothers who were assigned to us in Victoria played a key role in our work...no easy task when some of those men we cared for, who'd come from abroad and feared to go home, presented as women.

Those were challenging times...we were confronted with hostility by some within the church (still are in some instances) and others within the gay community...the irony being that the overwhelming number of those we cared for were Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, who'd felt abandoned.

Something of the charism of the Christian Brothers as educators may have rubbed off...

These days, we are essentially engaged in education abroad..largely in Malawi (although we also work or are linked with works in PNG and South Africa and Cambodia). In Malawi, we have been building schools..primary and secondary (even tho we're probably Australia's smallest AIDS-care agency of its type)..one has been dubbed "The Australian Progressive Academy" (!) ... and they are providing hope and education to hundreds of AIDS orphans as well as other vulnerable children, including those with HIV. We invite you to visit our website at www.aids.net.au

To the Christian brothers..we thank you for helping us in our years of need in Australia. We encountered not cruelty..but gentleness...not abuse, but compassion....not iciness, but warmth.

Brian Haill, President, Australian AIDS Fund Inc. 01 July 2009

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