“The Time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things:
Of school, and sex, of paddywhacks, and too, of boy scouting.”
I have up to now steered clear of much commentary on the persistent and abundant stories of clerical abuse. There is however a limit to how long one can hold one’s tongue. The reasons for my silence up to now are simple:
1) This is personal.
2) The issues are far more complex and multifaceted then press reports, or popular commentary, would lead us to believe.
3) Too often, those attempting to spell out in honesty the complexities and subtleties of the issues, are simply branded as apologists for evil.
So, silence has been easier. Now, however, reports are coming closer to home, and I can no longer bite my tongue. Before spelling out my take, though, some obvious points in full disclosure.
First, I speak not from abstract knowledge, but from personal experience. I was myself at the receiving end of some of these things, in two separate contexts. To my own experience, I have added reflections on stories I have heard from others, and from published sources.
Second, I take it as axiomatic that any form of abuse of young children, whether sexual or physical, or evn simple neglect, is inexcusable and unacceptable.
I state freely that my own sexual orientation is primarily homosexual; – that is, I am attracted sexually to other men.
This attraction, however, is emphatically to men – adult men – and not in any way to children, adolescents, or even to young men. My own attraction has always been to those of around my own age.
I have no intention whatsoever, of excusing, explaining 0r justifying sexual abuse by anyone. And yet…..
The problem as I see it is that too much of the standard reaction is one of near hysteria, bundling a wide range of behaviours into the catchall ‘abuse’, and assuming that all instances of inappropriate behaviour by adults with children are damaging to the child’s future development. I am not so sure. Further, there needs to be a little more recognition paid to the allocation of responsibility in these matters: at least in the case of older children, some at least are at times complicit in welcoming, encouraging or even inviting inappropriate attention from adults. there is surely a huge gulf in significance, and possilbe longer term harm, between the vicious rape of a young child, and inappropriate touching or caressing of a flirtatious teenager. Yet both of these extremes are loosely and carelessly lumped together, along with other behaviours, under the blanket term ‘abuse’. I am also a little cynical about at least some of the claims being made, and wonder if the case for substantial monetary compensation is always fully justified. Finally, discussion of the problem of clerical abuse frequently struggles with the issues of just where, realistically, one can apportion responsiblity and blame, and what is to be done to prevent future problems.
Trying to spin out these complexities will take me down several byways, sharing experiences and reflections, and cannot be brief. To avoid a tediously lengthy post, I will spin it out into several bites: my primary school experience with the Christian Brothers; secondary school with the OMI priests; parallel experiences in the boy scouts; my thoughts on the lasting impact on my life; and my conclusions on the implications for the church.
My experience: Double abuse with the Christian Brothers.
Reports of clerical sexual abuse of children have been emerging for several years now, particularly from the USA, but also form other countries. The reason I have been personally stung in particular by the latest scandal, is that they emerge from Ireland, that great source of missionary educators during the 20th Century, and at whose hands I and my sister received a substantial a substantial part of our schooling in South Africa. Much (not all) of what is described in the Irish reports is immediately recognisable to me, as having been directly replicated by Irish men and women transplanted across the globe.
My earliest schooling was in co-educational classes in local convent schools in Cape Town, later in Johannesburg, run by two orders of religious sisters, about which I have nothing to say – my memories are blurred but generally positive. I was then removed from the increasingly female environment, to a Christian Brothers school some substantial distance from my home, where I stayed for two years, before transferring, with great relief to a small secondary school much closer to home. Those two years with the Christian Brothers were, without any doubt, the unhappiest years of my school career. Over the ensuing four decades, whenever I have met people who like me have experienced education with the Brothers, I have shared my views – and always found agreement. ”The Christian Brothers are notorious”, has been a common response.
I freely acknowledge there were external, unavoidable reasons why I would in any case have been ill-disposed to the school: a long, cumbersome journey involving a bus, a train, and a lengthy walk were too much for a ten year old; I did not enojy compulsory participation in a sport (rugby) that I did not care for or understand; and suffered as an outsider for arriving as a painfully shy, sensitive bookish lad two years later than most of my classmates had done – by which time friendship groups and social routines had been long set. I was never going to fit in too easily.
But those I could have coped with. The real problem, shared by so many others I have spoken to, was the unrelenting regime of physical punishment. I make no claims to angelic virtue, but as a bright and naturally quiet student who enjoyed schoolwork, I cannot imagine that my behaviour can have been particularly bad, while my academic results were consistently good. Yet my memory (probably faulty) was that scarcely a day passed when I was not beaten in one way or another, for some misdemeanour at least once during the day. It must surely have been worse for naturally rowdy boys, or for those who were punished ( as some were) for simple ignorance or substandard work.
Not all the Brothers were equally vicious, although there was a general expectation that most would use the cane or the strap as the first line of correction for any fault, whether of behaviour, academic slackness, or ignorance. Two exceptions stand out in my memory:
The first, exceptional as being even more vicious than the others, was one man who had a particular fondness for the “paddywhack”, an infamous Irish instrument of schoolboy torture constructed of strips of leather stitched together down the edges, containing within it pennies – hard coins to give the instrument additional weight and bite. I can still see the distinct gleam in his eye as he caught sight of some poor boy caught out in minor wrongdoing. ”Lookitt, lookitt”, he would cry at frequent intervals through the day, before bringing the weapon down hard on the miscreant’s outstretched palm. This creature terrorised me for almost half my lessons, over both the two years I was there.
The other was exceptional in quite another way. This was the teacher of religion, whom we saw for just one lesson daily, for one of my two years. He was gentleness itself, seldom (if ever) resorting to physical punishment. Instead of the stick, he preferred to use the carrot of praise, with which he was generous to a fault. If any one achieved any minor success in written or oral work, he would be sure to find himself called to the front of the class for public recognition, where he would find himself standing on top of teacher’s desk, for all the class to get a better look at the little saint. To further show his approval, this teacher would then give the boy a gentle little pat on the knee, while explaining just why the achievement in question was so worthy. In doing so, the hand would somehow remain in place on the knee, and then slowly sidle up the thigh, and under the shorts. Even at ten years old, and widely ignorant of the ways of men, we knew just what he was doing, and snickered about it amongst ourselves.
The Irish report describes three broad categories of ‘abuse’: physical neglect or harsh conditions, excessive physical punishment, and sexual abuse. I have no experience of the first, but do have direct personal experience of both the others. What was the impact on my life?
There is no doubt I resent the beatings. Physical punishment of course was not unusual at the time, and I experienced it also in my later school – but not to anything like the same degree of frequency or severity, and I was able to take in in my stride. But my experience of punishment from one of those Christian Brothers in particular was so gratuitous, so clearly sadistic, that it has always remained a bitter memory, colouring my recollection of the order as a whole.
The touching (more accurately, groping) was entirely different. Viewed with adult eyes, this was clearly sexual in intent, and entirely inappropriate, as even at that age we recognised. But to us at the time it was more a joke, the weakness of a sad old man, than actual harm. I did not then resent it, nor do I now. Indeed, it would be true to say that I welcomed the attention and delighted in the praise. If the price was a little bit of touching up on my thigh, that was fine by me.
The nature of my experience was, of course, much less severe than that experienced by many others, nor can I imagine how others on the receiving end might have viewed their own experiences. But given how so much of the standard media attention focuses on the sexual abuse, I have to point out that for me, this was not what mattered. I condemn unreservedly any abuse of the very young, and of more substantive sexual contact. But I do have to ask, in the light of my own experience, are the milder forms of inappropriate touching really as heinous as the public outcry usually suggests? Ek vra maar net. (Afrikaans: ”just asking”)
I should also add, as an aside, that my sister says her own experience of what she saw as the sadistic punishments meted out by the convent sisters, was enough to turn her against the Catholic Church, and organised religion, for life.