The leadership of the Christian Brothers in Oceania appeared before the Victorian state government inquiry into child abuse
yesterday on Friday, May 3. Given before a packed audience, their testimony was enlightening in some respects, contradictory in others, but otherwise proceeded as I expected it to, attempting but I think ultimately failing to strike the delicate balance between, on the one hand, expressing regret and remorse for the rape and abuse of children in the Order’s care and, on the other hand, refraining from admitting any collective — and especially criminal or lawful — responsibility for these horrors.
The media coverage of the Brothers’ appearance (especially that provided by Hamish Fitzsimmons) seems to have captured the most salient points: the concentration of child rapists at St Alipius was an “accident of history” according to the Brothers; the Brothers have spent approximately $1.5 million (“including GST”) defending its members from allegations of child rape and sexual assault — $1.171 million on Robert Charles Best’s defence alone — and paid something in the order of $10.5 million in ex gratia payments to well over 250 victims; the Order paid $8,000 for a private investigator to spy on a victim in an attempt to gather evidence to be used against him in court.
Fitzsimmons’ reports ends by noting that “[l]ate this afternoon, the committee heard from the head of the Church’s compensation panel that deals with abuse victims. He says he believes no amount of money can compensate for the abuse people have suffered.” This is true, although not quite in the sense that the spokesperson intended: the Church has fought tooth-and-nail to limit the amount of financial compensation victims may receive. Indeed, as noted at an earlier hearing, Anthony Foster estimates that Cardinal Pell’s Melbourne Response may have saved the Church more than $280 million in payouts.
Two further points: the Brothers’ admitted to just two reported instances (in 1950 and 1970) of child sex abuse prior to the 1990s. The pair responsible were reprimanded but not reported to police: a ‘mistake’ attributable, according to the Brothers, to the fact that this was regarded as a moral failing rather than a criminal offence (a categorisation which has been used in a systematic fashion as part of an overall policy in criminal avoidance by the Church). In the early 1990s the Order established a helpline for victims, which functioned as a referral service — though not to police. At this time, the number of victims and offences mounted rapidly, as they and police began to seek justice not through the Order but rather the criminal and civil courts: a process which is ongoing.
The principal problem with the Order’s protestations of innocence — and the claim that the abuse of many hundreds of the children placed in its care was a terrible ‘mistake’ of some kind — is the fact that the abuse was actively facilitated by the policies adopted by the organisation. To begin with, the abuse was regarded not as a criminal offence but a moral failing, for which the only penalty was repentance. Thus, while claiming that ‘society’ did not understand or acknowledge the existence of child sex abuse or paedophilia — and thus this perspective, while mistaken, was understandable — the claim falls down given the Order’s knowledge of the law, then and now. In other words, if ‘society’ was ignorant of the facts of child sex abuse, this was partly the results of the efforts of the Christian Brothers.
Broken Rites, referring to the 1996 case of Brother Edward Vernon Dowlan:
According to submissions made in court, Dowlan was openly molesting boys (in the presence of other boys) at his first two schools, so the Brothers’ Victoria-Tasmania administration moved him from his second school to a boarding school (St Patrick’s College, Ballarat), where Dowlan assaulted more boys. The parents of at least one St Patrick’s victim confronted St Patrick’s head Christian Brother about Dowlan’s offence. The Christian Brothers’ headquarters then kept transferring Dowlan to more schools, where he found yet more victims — until the police finally caught up with him in 1993.
A final note. The Brothers claimed that their principal concern has been for victims. This is correct if one considers they believe that the chief victim has been themselves.
See also : [Blog post into Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse], April 12, 2013.