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

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

BC: So back on this personal journey, you were talking about this anger you had at times. So how did you come to terms with the situation?

GF: There are a couple of things I think I can say. One is that I think I was lucky. I think I had some sort of ability not to carry this on my shoulders day and night for five years. Now how I did that I don't know. Some of my confreres did carry it on their shoulders and were so ashamed of the reports being made that they almost mentally … psychologically separated themselves from the Congregation. They didn't introduce themselves as Brothers, they didn't like to be seen as Brothers because they were ashamed of all of this. Now my personal position … I can remember making two resolutions even though it is twelve or fifteen years ago. I decided that I was going to get on with my life. And that was not just my life as leader but I kept in contact with friends, deliberately and carefully. Not just for my own sake either but to be seen to be leading a normal life. I decided I was going to appear in public at anything which arose. In the leader's position you get invitations to an awful lot of events many of which you normally have to turn down on account of time. I went out of my way just to be seen in public. I thought it important that I was seen to be reasonably normal - just an ordinary bloke. I just resolved to get on with my life and to be seen to be reasonably enthusiastic about life.

BC: How did your personal faith figure in all of this? Did you ever reach a point where you questioned the whole thing?

GF: I don't think I did but …(long pause)… I probably should have because that's the direction it was pushing. You're stuck with all of this, everything your religion stands for, it's not pleasant. I think the support of my confreres, and lots and lots of friends and supporters just held me in there in some way. I don't know, Brian, I can't really explain that. I wish I could. I don't think I can.

BC: Given what you went through at the personal level - and obviously you've reflected on this over the fifteen or so years since it happened - why do you think we're going through this? Why do you think it happened?

GF: It's an interesting question. I think there are a number of things I can mention but no one of which will answer that question. I think in our case maybe we lacked the training to face some of the situations that you naturally face if you're working in an orphanage, or a boys' town or even a school. That's not surprising because in 1950 for example in Western Australia I think there was no child psychologist in any school. I think that's an accurate statement. So we weren't trained in those areas - nor was anybody by the way - so I'm not just picking on our Congregation. So there was a certain lack of training and also maturity. I guess one could do an analysis of what was done in our teacher training days and identify what was lacking. It wouldn't be lacking now of course. I think it's probably to do with a question of ego in a way. When we started teaching after our two, or three or four years training, whatever it was at different times, you sort of set out to prove yourself as a teacher. The sign of your ability as a teacher was to run a good class - with proper discipline. Now if you weren't good at that naturally, then it is understandable that there was abuse of power … I expect that happened. Most of our guys were fairly natural disciplinarians and that could have led to some abuse certainly. The use of the strap and harsh discipline was common in all educational institutions in the 1950s. So I think it was probably to do with the assumption that we could do all these things but for some of them we obviously didn't have the sort of training that one would expect now.

BC: I presume there's still anger out there in sections of the community towards the brothers, whether it's justified or not, for what they feel they went through. Do you still pick that up, say, when another crisis emerges such as what we're going through at the moment with the Salesians - do you still tend to get carry-on flack as it were?

GF: The quick answer to that is yes. What we did in the 90s was set up assistance for those who had suffered in any way not only in our orphanages but in our schools too.

BC: Is this called CB…

GF: That's right, CBERSS - Christian Brothers Ex-Residents and Students Services ( So it's open to anybody who claims that his experience in our schools or orphanages did him damage in some way, he can access those services. They are professional services. They're run by a professional body distinct from us. They are totally confidential - we don't know the names of any people who go there, nor do we want to. That's been the best thing we did in all of this. This initiative came from an initial committee - we had, for example, the acting director of the government's Disability Services, we had the director of Policy and Planning for the Health Department, we had a Senior Officer from what is now called the Family and Community Services Department, we had a young doctor from Princess Margaret Hospital who had experience dealing with kids who had been sexually abused. They were the ones who recommended studying this issue and interviewing lots of people over a year or eighteen months, whatever it was, and they recommended we set up these services. And they're still going. And I know - I'm not involved in this - but I know there are still settlements being made in dialogue between people who are victims and our authorities, our Province Leaders, for those who still feel aggrieved. So there is still some anger and feelings of betrayal. There is no public way of knowing how significant that is but there are these individual settlements continuing to be made.

BC: Now, have the Brothers recovered from this or is it so traumatic that it is still reflected in the difficulty of attracting new vocations …

GF: Basically I don't think that's the issue with new vocations. The challenge of finding new vocations was a problem long before this broke in the late 1980s and probably always will be. The Brothers, to a large extent, I think have faced the issue squarely. They have seen that that style of life where we were kings in our own castles and ran our schools in the way we wanted to and we had a sense that we did it better than anybody else - I think all that has gone. We are much more alert to the limitations in our own lives and I think we're much more alert to the people who are on the edges of life in many ways whom we try to serve, whether they're refugees, or handicapped kids or whether they're kids who never get a break from home and need a break from home in camps - all those sorts of things. So, yes, I think the Brothers have largely come to terms with it. I just read a letter I wrote to the Brothers in 1992 or 93 and it's about that - it's about the enormous issue that we face of a sensitivity to ourselves to ponder what that means to us and to adapt life accordingly. I know that sounds big and glorious but I think but it was an encouragement to get beyond the masks that we perhaps used to wear in the past and facing life much more squarely.

BC: Archbishop John Foley who's in charge of social communications for the Church internationally, has said on a number of occasions that the way to deal with all of this is simply "to tell the truth". Do you have a concise phrase like that as to how you would sum up the best way we, as an institution, need to respond when we're faced with unpleasant news like this?

GF: To put it in a few words I'd need to think for a little while. But I would say, just off the top of my head, don't hide behind your institution. The Christian Brothers, for example, were pretty well known in this country, and in this city in particular. They were known for running good schools and all that sort of stuff - don't hide behind that. It has nothing to do with it. Don't hide behind the legal advice that you get. That advice might be helpful but that's not the ultimate issue. Listen to people who claim to be victims. Listen to those who claim that so and so abused people. Don't hide behind anything as issues arise. Everything needs to be in the open and it needs to be dealt with firmly. So I think it is essential that we recognise that we fail and that some of our confreres fail, or that some of our employed people fail at times. We do all that we can to try and ensure that these things don't happen but they do. We need to allow that probing that happens to protect those we are trying to serve. So they're the sorts of things I'd suggest - now they all need qualification and lots of elucidation but that's the general advice I'd give of what has got to happen.

BC: You're almost implying there that you almost feel strengthened by what's gone on - that there's a new sense of honesty today…

GF: I think there's something in that, Brian, and I couldn't trace the growth of that. At the moment I'm trying to write to story of those twelve years and I thought that would reopen a whole lot of anger and wounds but it hasn't in a way. I think we are capable of seeing the world more accurately and more truly and that, after all, is what we are on about - the search for truth. That comes into this issue, as it comes into all other issues. It is that search for truth. There's a respect for other people in that which we can't afford to lose, and we shouldn't try to disregard in any way whatsoever. We need to become more attuned to those we are working with.

BC: There is one question that I should have covered on the way through. How does it feel when one of your mates is accused - in some instances you would know the accusation is true and in other cases while it might be true you know that the guy has just made the sort of error of judgment we're all prone to but you know he's basically a decent person. How do you handle that?

GF: Well the initial feeling would be feelings of anger. Like, why the hell has he done this - what a stupid thing to do. So there'd be that sort of anger. Certainly if I knew the victim, or the victim's family, there'd be enormous guilt, even in me, that one of my confreres has done this damage to this kid, or this family or both. And I think too there's a feeling of "I don't want to deal with this - I shouldn't have to" but then, there's the feeling he's a human being too and you need to care for him, even as a perpetrator - but not at the expense of the victim. Now it's not easy to keep those two together.

BC: Well, that seems to be part of the problem that we have at the moment if you've seen what's been coming out of Samoa…

GF: I can remember when this was at its peak and I went round to all our communities and I met brothers in those communities who assumed that were one of their members to be charged that we would do all we could to defend him. And I said we won't - we can't. If any of our Brothers is charged with a crime, it's the justice system that attends to that and we'll cooperate with the justice system. We have no option and I wouldn't want to have an option. That's just the normal way things have to go. Now that surprised some of my confreres at first but they came to see that was the way to go. So it's another question of hiding - of hiding behind things. If this that we're talking about is hiding behind international law then I don't approve of that. It's in the open and we need to deal with it in the open. And they're a lot of reasons for that besides the care of the people concerned. It's part of who we are as Christians to be open and to be truthful. We can't hide.

BC: Thank you for this interview for OnLine Catholics.

This interview was published in OnLine Catholics.

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