Mentors And Abusers — A Catholic Son’s Story
By Gerard WrightApril 17, 2013
Testimony will be at the heart of the national Royal Commission into the institutional abuse of children; stories of the vulnerable exploited, communities betrayed, and damage left untreated, like a piece of unexploded ordnance buried deep in the psyche.
Brother Dennis of the Little Brothers of Mary, as they were originally known, was buried at a cemetery near Melbourne in March, 1992. His two families — the one he grew up with, and the clergy that he made his adult life with — were both present, and separate.
The coffin lowered, the mourners were about to disperse for the after-match chat at the school, Assumption College, Kilmore, where he had lived and taught. But first his second family — the men in black, the Marist Brothers – gathered close by the head of the grave and sang James Wright up to his God. Perhaps, too, they sang for the loss of one of their own. They were so apart from us, his flesh and blood. A separate family and a separate world.
If the Catholic Church had knights who represented its best and highest ideals, then Jim was one of them. In the last years of his life, he bore the motor neurone disease he was stricken with as a test of his faith that he was determined to pass. Like his younger brother, my father, Jim was convinced that death would bring him to the mother they had lost before they were three years old.
He had a chiselled face, blue eyes and a droll monotone of a voice. A friend who taught with him at a Catholic school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs described him as “a bit of a spunk”. His sole vice was smoking; the cigarette rested on the second knuckle of his middle finger, held in place by the arch of the index finger. Somehow it rendered no nicotine stains.
He was as tough as flint; less so, possibly, as a dormitory master at boarding schools from Sale to Adelaide to Bunbury, but more in what he expected of himself and how that was transmitted to those around him. It was family lore that his footballing talent in the mid-1950s had been sufficient to bring him to the attention of Jim Cardwell, the secretary of the then all-conquering Melbourne club of the Victorian Football League. Decades later, a columnist for the-then Melbourne Sun filled in some of the blanks for me. He had played footy with Jim as a schoolboy in Sale. The boys were playing against men, but they always walked taller and played more confidently when Jim was there. Most successful teams at any level had a least one guy like this on their team — the enforcer.
Sometime during the late ’80s or early ’90s, I heard at the funeral, he rode through a heart attack on a 30-kilometre bike ride, pushing the bike back through a summer northerly to the Marist residence at Sale. In his eulogy at another of Jim’s schools, in Adelaide, his older brother Bruce described Jim teeing off at a golf course in Adelaide. He was left-handed in everything, a natural at cricket, golf, squash, tennis – and relentlessly competitive. The older guy waiting behind Jim’s group had marvelled at how he crushed those drives. That guy was Don Bradman.
His nephews loved him. As one of them, I recall the grip of his handshake, which I reckon had only one match: that of Ted Whitten, the larger-than-life football player and sporting identity whose greeting, like Jim’s, was heartfelt — smiling, challenging, eye-to-eye contact as the bones in your hand were being re-arranged.
At least some of his students felt a lasting affection and respect for him. As Jim lay dying, John Fitzgerald, the tennis player and Davis Cup hero, for whom Jim had been a dormitory master when he boarded at Sacred Heart College, arrived with a token of esteem: the South Australian Sportsman of the Year trophy he had been awarded the previous year.
John McCarthy, Peter Wintle, Sean O’Connell; these were gentle, charismatic, strong men who were also priests in our parish, in what was then a small town outside Melbourne. Terrific footballers, in two of the cases. Innovators, leaders and also confidants.
Peter Wintle played on the half-back flank for the local football team. The dressing rooms were open to one and all before the game. The players sat on bench seats in a three-sided square, where they were addressed by the coach. The floor was covered by large boards of masonite, its edges curled up just enough to catch the unwary. The coach exhorted, the players responded, the nylon stops of their boots tapped on the boards. One of them said “bloody” to underline the importance of the game. I can remember being surprised that a priest could swear like that.
As natural mentors, they corralled a group of rowdy young boys and introduced them to the idea and goal of a common and – if only nominally for some who served as altar boys — Divine purpose. They took them away from a place on a lava plain where the horizon seemed so distant, and showed them that there was somewhere beyond that horizon — attempted to introduce them to the wonders of pizza, even when the boys preferred fish and chips.
Little wonder they were welcome in our house. The reverse collar denoted wisdom, knowledge, and a capacity to communicate beyond the reach of everyday teachers and parents, as we played draughts or beginner chess. As with police and the military, priests are transient by dictate, rather than by choice. When these ones left, it felt like there was a gap in our lives, too.
Some years later, our standing welcome to the men of the church was revoked — for reasons I failed to understand at the time. The damned episode, though, resulted in a family member being exiled, too, to the other side of Melbourne, for what was perceived to be her benefit. The move took her closer to university, true, but it was also designed to distance her from the priest whose attentions had become constant.
I remember her tears in the car one Sunday night on the way to the place where she was boarding, and thinking it must have been something about the family she was staying with, rather than the one whose embrace she had just left.
Her experience with the unwelcome priest changed her life — ultimately, she believes, for the better, because it changed the source of her faith as well as deepening it.
But this instance was also a betrayal of the status accorded to men of God, of the welcome they had been afforded in a home, in a town otherwise strange to them, and the trust that was implicit in that welcome. This priest, far less worthy than those men I remember so respectfully, had committed at the very least the worst type of narcissism. He had placed forsworn needs of the self above the Divine and social contract of behaviour implicit in being an elevated member of a devout faith. His behaviour was also malevolent and predatory, for it revealed a capacity to recognise, choose and then prey upon a teenager whose age was somewhat ahead of her emotional development. He was never charged or made to account for it.
This was one incident, with one priest and one family, in one place in Australia.