Abuse: We can't hide - it's more than a legal issue!

...some reflections from a Congregational Leader at the front line when the scandal first broke in Australia.

BrGerry Faulkner was Province Leader of the Christian Brothers when the abuse scandals concerning Christian Brothers institutions in Western Australia first broke in 1988. Now 71 years of age, he has spent many years reflecting on his experience and is presently writing a book covering the tumultuous years of that crisis for the Brothers. In this exclusive interview for OnLine Catholics, Br Gerry admits to the mistakes that were made and how experience gradually taught him, and the Congregation, some valuable lessons. Br Faulkner was interviewed for OnLine Catholics by Brian Coyne.

Brian Coyne: When were you province leader?

Gerry Faulkner: I was appointed Province Leader early in 1984 and remained as such for twelve years finishing early in 1996.

BC: At what period did the abuse scandals break - was it before your time or during it…

GF: It broke during my time, about half-way through my first six-year term - so about 1988-89. It's hard to pinpoint that as it broke slowly and then the floodgates were opened - maybe 1989-90. That was well and truly a very difficult period from about 1989 through to about 1995-96.

BC: Let's just go back to the experience of becoming a Province Leader of a religious congregation, traditionally what was it seen as - was it seen for the kudos, or was it see as some great burden that you felt had been placed on your shoulders? What was it viewed as?

GF: Well, I suppose inevitably with any position of significant responsibility some people would see a certain kudos attached to it. I don't think I saw that, or if I did, I don't think I let it affect me greatly.

BC: It was by election was it?

GF: Yes, it was by election - technically by appointment but in fact by election. So we elect here but the Superior General in Rome does the formal appointing. My response to that appointment was at two levels: firstly at the pastoral level of the religious congregation involved in all sorts of ministries - not just schools - but a whole range of other things. I felt reasonably confident about handling that.

BC: Where had you come from? What had you been doing just prior to that?

GF: Well I'd been deputy leader for six years. So I knew something about how the system worked. I knew its strengths and its weaknesses. And I had a really good team of people with me. That made it easier than it would otherwise have been. At the second level though the leader also needs to be something of a business manager. These days a religious congregation is some respects is also a business. The brothers own property, they employ people, the trustees of the Christian Brothers - of whom I was chairman - own the schools we work in. So we're talking "big money" and lots of responsibility at the civic, legal and insurance levels. I didn't feel confident about that but I did feel confident about hiring the right people to advise us and to run those aspects of life that weren't mine by background.

BC: Over the two centuries that the Christian Brothers have been operating I presume this understanding of what it is to be a Brother, and what it is to be a leader has changed, has it?

GF: I'm sure it has, Brian. I'm sure it has. I think it changed from "deciding things and giving the orders expecting people to carry them out" to "a position of promoting leadership at all levels - at the personal level, at the community level, at the school level - encouraging people to take responsibility for their own lives". I know that sounds idealistic, and it is, but that is the direction of the shift.

BC: That's something that's occurred in your lifetime as a Brother - how old are you?

GF: I'm seventy-one…

BC: so you've been a brother now for fifty…

GF: fifty-two or three years.

BC: …so in your lifetime it's been a significant shift. How these things are viewed is a lot different to when you joined up. When this crisis broke, was it something that came out of left field or was it something that you had some forewarning or premonition about?

GF: I had some knowledge that not all was as well in our orphanages - and I can't document that - and it wasn't just part of my imagination … perhaps I'd had some complaints of toughness, even cruelty, … but we had no indication that this was major, or that it was going to burst into the public arena which it did in about 1988-89. So that took us by surprise and it shocked us in fact - "shocked" is not too strong a word. Not only the brothers around the provinces but especially in Western Australia because that's where it hit the public arena more strongly than anywhere else.

BC: At that time had there been allegations of abuse against other religious orders, or internationally, or were you the first?

GF: Well in Australia I think we were probably the first. I can't bring to mind any others who'd faced this issue before we did. In our Province in Canada, things happened maybe at the same time, maybe a little bit later but here it was new territory, we had nothing to go on, no learnings from other groups to pick up and deal with the issue. It was all new territory to us and that was a bit intimidating. So one of the things we did early in the piece, and I can't think of the exact date, it's written down there somewhere, we put together a little committee of pastoral people, legal people, public relations people just to advise us on how to approach this issue. We met with a priest-lawyer from Sydney who had some experience in this field and who had recently toured the United States studying the issue there in the late 1980s. We translated the advice they provided into our own scene and worked from that advice. That little group met numerous times over four or five years. One of the things we learned very quickly is that this was much more than a legal issue. To treat it as a legal issue was unfair to the people who were making complaints. So we gradually turned that into a pastoral issue. It was an issue of concern to victims. We knew something of what the financial implications of that might be but we did it as we knew that was the only way to go really. We did stick to our legal guns in some areas, but not at the expense, we believed, of those who claimed to be victims.

BC: Do you think you made mistakes in the early days of this?

GF: Oh yes, lots, lots. But I can't identify all those mistakes in an interview like this. There was in our early statements and comments, some defensiveness evident. In 1993 we published in the local paper, The West Australian, and, the national daily, The Australian, a formal apology. If I read that now, some phrases seem a bit defensive. But that was one of the difficulties we faced all along the line - in insisting on truth and, at the same time, to not in any way denigrate or offend people who seemed to have been victims. Now that's very difficult to do. Every time I attempted to correct a misstatement that occurred in the media I would be accused of just being defensive. I didn't want to do that but there were times when we had to take a stand on certain statements that were not true.

BC: I presume that's a common problem with anyone facing a situation like this that the heat generates a lot of statements from all over the place…

GF: The only thing I can say about that is that the learning for me was not to get "nit picky" about truths or untruths but to see it as a big issue rather than the little details that, in the long term, doesn't add much to the matter overall even though they might not have been accurate. So, it's an issue, but I'd like to see any failing falling in favour of the victims.

BC: I'd like to tackle two things now … firstly, what you went through personally. I know you fairly well personally today and you're a very relaxed man so I suspect you've dragged a lot of deeper stuff out of this ordeal you went through personally. I'd like to talk about that a bit and then go on to the wider issues of why did this happen/what's the meaning? So, just on the first question: how do you feel that you journeyed through this? Did you wonder at times: "God, what burden have you placed on my shoulders?" How did you cope?

GF: Well, that's a huge question. There were times when I was so angry with some of my confreres from the past, not in terms of sexual abuse but in terms of being too tough such as one or two cases that were just plainly cruel…

BC: Just on that, how much do you think was sexually related and how much was it power and how much was it simply the culture of the time - the child rearing culture that children were seen and not heard and "tough love" was the way to raise children…

GF: It's all of those things in a way. I wasn't here in the West … I came to the West first in 1955 so it was a few years after these complaints had their origins. So it was to do with the times, certainly. My own upbringing was tough, but never cruel, by my parents - there were a lot of kids. We had to keep the rules, and we had to do the work and plant the onions out the back and all those sorts of things. That was common. There was also a culture in Australia in the aftermath of World War II that the migrants who came here should really feel privileged that Australia was taking them into its care and they had to work for their living. Now, it's easy to say that now but that was the case then. We'd never put up with that now. Kids were forced to work much harder than was necessary but that was the culture of the time.

BC: That was the culture of the time. I was brought up in a middle class setting and some of the beltings my father gave me would land a parent in gaol today… Just back on anger, it occurs to me that a lot of the anger in the case of orphanages was directed at the brutality and harshness of life in those institutions more than over sexual abuse. Is that true?

GF: Yes, I think that's probably true. Again, I think it was part of the culture of the time. We were there - our Brothers were there as "father figures" for these kids. So that element of "being the father and being the boss" was OK in a sense but was taken too far. It's interesting, there has never been a charge of sexual abuse against a living Brother in this part of the world - not even during this time. It's interesting isn't it? There's one former Brother who, seventeen years after he left us was charged, sometime in the 1990s, with abuse of two unnamed children. He was found guilty and sentenced - he pleaded guilty. He's still alive. So, I don't know how much sexual abuse went on. And when the media knocked on my door, as they did relentlessly and asked how many this and how many that, I had no way of knowing. You can only know about those things if the victims tell you or, and this is less likely, if the perpetrator tells you. So there was an enormous frustration. We didn't know how extensive the problem was. We're talking about the late 1940s and early 1950s and there was no way of knowing - just no way of knowing. So again you have to err on the side of the victims even though they're not proven. So that's the legal element "pushed to the side" and that's as it should be too.

BC: But you'd accept there were people who were seriously hurt during this period by the Church, the institution, not just by the Christian Brothers…

GF: True, without a doubt, precisely…

BC: …these people were placed in its care for various reasons either by their parents or by the State…

GF: When allegations come to you, from different sources, and apparently not connected, it's a pretty sure sign of the truth that it happened. I only wish more of the victims could have found the means - I was going to say the courage but it's more than that - the means to come directly to us. Most of the reports, no, almost all of the reports I heard were at least second hand. That makes it much harder to grapple with. They're not tangible.

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This interview was published in OnLine Catholics.

©2005Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Published: 5Jul2004