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Listen to the people

Br Gerry Faulkner was Province Leader of the WA Christian Brothers (1984-96) when the abuse scandals in Christian Brothers institutions first broke in 1988. Now 71 years of age, and with over 50 years in religious life, he reflects on his experience. Br Faulkner was interviewed for Online Catholics by Brian Coyne.

Brian Coyne: When this crisis broke, was it something that came out of left field, or did you have some forewarning or premonition?

Gerry Faulkner: 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 as it did in 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 about 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 was to 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 or early 90's. We translated the advice they provided into our own scene and worked from that advice.

That 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 merely 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 for victims. We knew something of what the financial implications might be but we went ahead. 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 and claims that were not true.

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 the big picture. I'd like to hope that any failing fell in favour of the victims.

BC: What did you go through personally? 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, and some systems from the past - not in terms of sexual abuse - but in terms of toughness that either bordered on cruelty or that was, in fact, cruel.

BC: Just on that, how much do you think was sexually related and how much was 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. 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 orphanage culture of the time.

BC: Do you think that much of the anger in the case of orphanages was directed at the brutality of life in those institutions rather than over sexual abuse?

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.

When the media knocked on my door, as they did relentlessly and asked 'how many times did this occur?', 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 claims are not proven.

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: And that these people were placed in the care of the Church?

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 - 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.

BC: So how did you come to terms with the situation personally?

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 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.

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 any opportunity which arose. In the leader's position you get invitations to an awful lot of events, many of which you normally turn down on account of time. I went out of my way 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 enthusiastic about life.

BC: Did you ever reach a point where you questioned your faith as a result of the crisis?

GF: I don't think I did but … 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 - 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 the case of the Christian Brothers maybe we lacked the training to face some of the situations you face if you're working in an orphanage, or a boys' town or even a school. That's not surprising; 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. Most of our guys were fairly natural disciplinarians but lack of class discipline could have led to some abuse, certainly. The use of the strap and harsh discipline was common in most 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 us, there was clearly a lack of 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. Do you still pick that up, say, when another crisis emerges such as what we're going through at the moment with the Salesians?

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: This is CBERSS - Christian Brothers Ex-Residents and Students Services (http://www.cberss.org/)

GF: That's right. It's open to anybody who claims that his experience in our schools or orphanages did him damage in some way and 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 professional committee - we had the acting director of the Government's Disability Services, the director of Policy and Planning for the Health Department, a Senior Officer from what is now called the Family and Community Services Department, and a young doctor from Princess Margaret Hospital who had experience dealing with kids who had been sexually abused. They were the ones who recommended we study this issue and set up these services. And they're still going.

I know there is still assistance being provided for people who still feel aggrieved. There is still some anger and feelings of betrayal. There is no public way of knowing how widespread that is, but there is individual assistance still being offered.

BC: Have the Christian Brothers in WA recovered from this trauma in your view?

GF: 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. 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. 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 it was an encouragement to get beyond the masks that we perhaps used to wear in the past and face 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". How do you think the Church should respond to issues of abuse?

GF: 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. But you can'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 the probing that happens to protect those we are trying to serve. So they're the sorts of things I'd suggest.

BC: You're almost saying 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. At the moment I'm trying to write the story of those twelve years. I thought that would reopen a whole lot of anger and wounds. But it hasn't. I think we are capable of seeing the world more accurately and more truthfully and that, after all, is what we are on about - the search for truth.

There's a respect for other people which we religious can't afford to lose. We need to become more attuned to those we are working with.

BC: How does it feel when one of your mates is accused - someone you have always felt to be a 'decent person'. How do you handle that?

GF: My initial feeling is one of anger. Like, why the hell has he done this - what a stupid thing to do! For the victim, there'd be enormous guilt, that one of my confreres has done this damage to a kid, or a 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, even perpetrators are human beings too and you need to care for him. But not at the expense of the victim. It's not easy to satisfy those two imperatives.

BC: That seems to be part of the problem the Salesians are facing in Samoa.

GF: I can remember when the crisis was at its peak. I went round to all our communities and met Brothers there, who assumed that if one of their members were charged, then we would do all we could to defend him. 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. I wouldn't want to have an option.

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. I don't know all the details of the Fr Frank Klep story, but if we're talking about 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. It's part of who we are as Christians to be open and to be truthful. We can't hide from truth.

Br Gerry Faulkner was interviewed by Brian Coyne.

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