Faith-based abuse: Voices of the abandoned to be heard again

7:06 pm on 30 November 2020

By David Cohen

Opinion - The Royal Commission investigating the historical abuse of children and young children in faith-based institutions resumes its public hearings again this week after a 120-year-long coffee break.

Bishop goes to Mass in the church

The Royal Commission will consider the experiences of at least 25 people who sought redress from the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations. Photo: 123rf

In the last chapter, in August 1900, a strikingly similar inquiry to the one that has been in public process for the past year wound up its own investigation into the treatment of kids at the St Mary's Orphanage a South Island Roman Catholic industrial school that also had a branch in nearby Nelson. About 170 boys were domiciled there. Their lot was not pretty.

On and on the revelations spilled over three weeks of hearings. Hidden cells. Floggings. Bread-and-water diets as a form of punishment for some. Abuse and neglect all round.

A 97-page report would exonerate the institution's priests from charges of cruelty, although it also put forward proposals to ensure there would not be a repeat performance at some point down the line.

The recommendations - not least the demand for women to be recruited to work at the institution disapprovingly described as having been "entirely run by unmarried men" - were sufficiently damning to send the school's Marist Brothers packing. A few years later, as if to signal the end of an era, the institution burned down.

And now it's 2020. History repeats, they say. It has to, some wit once added, because nobody listens the first time.

As the public focus of the inquiry now shifts to historical institutions with a religious character, Nelson will almost certainly be in the conversation yet again in the case of at least one of the Catholic institutions established as in the wake of the Stoke reformatory.

Sunnybank, an orphanage for boys which later became Garindale and operated from 1941-1988, has already been the subject of a number of media reports.

Set amid 18 hectares of rolling farmland on the rural outskirts of Nelson, the institution was virtually self-sufficient for food and schooling, housing up to 50 boys (and later on a small number of girls) and administered until the early 1970s by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions.

It operated independently with residential priests and nuns - and minimal outside supervision.

For its last dozen or so years as Garindale, the institution became a collection of two or three large family home-type arrangements working under the same roof and overseen out of Wellington by the national Catholic Social Services.

Among the directors of the Catholic agency during this period was Fr Peter McCormack, a popular, somewhat larger-than-life figure in social work circles who would later be sentenced to four years jail for sexual assaults on a teenage girl. He was defrocked.

The latest public phase of the Royal Commission will consider the experiences of at least 25 people who have sought redress from the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations involved in the haphazard care for abandoned or neglected kids.

As with the recent redress hearings that turned on state care, the various church groups - Catholic, Anglican and Salvation Army mainly - will have an opportunity to make their own case in the next round of hearings.

Frances Tagaloa was down to speak first today about her time as a school pupil in the early 1970s when she was abused by a Marist Brother at an intermediate school in Auckland.

As a Samoan, Tagaloa was expected to talk about the cultural barriers she encountered as she attempted to navigate the Catholic Church's redress process, which in her case involved earlier communications with the Marist Brothers, and more recent contact with the Church's national office in Wellington.

She was to present her views about how the Catholic Church might prevent future abuse, drawing on recommendations from the Australian Royal Commission of Inquiry about reforming the Catholic Church's canon law.

Representatives of the churches have already been told they cannot show up for the hearings in Auckland in religious garb or uniforms. They will, however, have the opportunity to put their side of the case later this summer.

If similar inquiries in Ireland and Australia are anything to go by, accounts having to do with the Catholic Church will probably be of the strongest outside interest. Partly that's because the church has had such dire difficulty getting on top of the problem over a prolonged period.

Few, however, would dispute such scrutiny is absolutely warranted.

As one of the commissioners, Ali'imuamua Sandra Alofivae, recently noted, "the manipulation and the grooming that goes on" has often been in a ecclesiastical league of its own.

In recent weeks, for instance, Kevin Healy, an 81-year-old Marist brother and schoolteacher from Napier was sentenced to a second term of home detention for sexually abusing children when he was teaching in Masterton more than 40 years ago.

Much earlier still, the first person from Australasia ever to be made a saint Mother Mary MacKillop, who became St Mary of the Cross and whose Josephite nuns came to Whanganui in 1880 and worked with kids on the slopes of Jerusalem, was at one time excommunicated because she had reported a parish priest for sexually abusing school children in his rural parish north of Australia's Barossa Valley.

If the Catholic system has not always acquitted itself well, however, neither has the media always got its head around the church, either, which is probably not surprising in a nation lacking even one full-time religious affairs reporter working on any media platform.

Many reporters would struggle to explain the difference between catechism and consubstantiation, and possibly think the Holy See is a great place for surfing.

Even the notion of a single-entity Catholic establishment is slightly uninformed in the case of a denomination with at least 65 different essentially independent systems operating within New Zealand, many of which have no real day-to-day contact with the others or the remotest idea of what they might be up to.

Another point that's sometimes overlooked is that the church's problems in this area - rather like the state's own issues related to its less-than-stellar decades in the residential care business - only happened because on some level it was motivated enough to get involved in the first place.

The wider community, alas, was only too pleased for abandoned or troubled youngsters to be housed in these ramshackle places. Oh, they were suitably shocked when the Dickensian facts came to light - but then promptly forgot about the whole unpleasant business just as soon as the last commission completed its inquiry. But not this time. Perhaps.

- David Cohen is a journalist and the author of Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys' Home. He writes regular analyses of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission for RNZ.

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