‘Denying our collective history does not just ignore our past, it weakens our present and cauterizes our future potential’
Dear Pat, I was a boarder at St Joseph’s College, Ipswich from 1964 to 1968. I remember those days fairly well. Some memories are pleasant, like contact and continuing friendship with a great friend from all those years ago, some are disturbing.
One thing I’m sure of, our families entrusted the De La Salle Brothers to safely and kindly look after, protect and educate their children. Some Brothers failed this duty of care.
I find it difficult to imagine other Brothers who weren’t involved in the physical and sexual abuse of the students being completely oblivious to the events that were taking place. Surely some of the lay teachers and the school nurse must also have been aware. If they did, then they as adults, are as complicit.
My story is certainly not as harrowing as your account or others on your blog, far from it, as I emerged relatively unscathed. I was never personally sexually abused. However, I write to you in case it could provide a reference point, a timeline to help you and others in any way.
As a British Army family based in Germany my Mum and Dad thought it would be best for me to go to boarding school to finish my last few years of schooling. I started mid term in 1964 dressed in a dull grey suit that completely enveloped me. I felt awkward and apprehensive.
That night in the refectory I met and dined with boys the same age. Once dinner was over we all went outside and straight away, first night, a boy had a go at me. In a moment a cheering crowd of boys encircled us. Having been in a number of Army schools I was capable of looking after myself and after a few seconds punched the other boy in the nose, we wrestled around, and it was all over and the crowd dispersed. I was never picked on again by fellow students at St Joseph’s and to be honest wasn’t aware of too much conflict between students.
However, I was desperately unhappy being parted from my family and friends at home and remember sometimes at recess and lunchtimes sitting hiding in a cubicle in the toilet block feeling so sad. It took many months to get over the separation from my family. I felt very lost and alone.
I started off sleeping in the large dormitory by the main building. After lights out I used to lay quietly alone with my thoughts and prayers for a long while. I longed to be back home.
It was during these times when I found sleep difficult that I became aware of Brother Leo wandering around the dormitory in the dark by the beds of certain boys. I was a reasonably aware teenager with my upbringing. I had a strong sense that what he was up to was wrong and vowed that if he came anywhere near me I would lash out and scream the place down.
However, it was always the much younger, quieter, vulnerable boys he targeted.
Dare I say something? Should I say something? Best keep my head down was my first instinct. Isn’t that the way perpetrators get away with these offences.
Early in my first year I remember being given six strokes of the cane. I think it was for something trivial like running up the stairs in the main building. Each cut of the cane left severe bruising and broke the skin. It was a real beating and my bottom was achingly numb and sore. For a few days there was blood on my underpants. It probably took a week before it started to heal and the discomfort eased.
I had never been hit by anyone with such force and certainly not by any of the Army teachers who had taught me at the schools on the bases. They tended to be kindly, good natured and well meaning, so this absolutely shocked me.
I remember the distorted, flushed look on the Brother Director’s face when it was finished. I felt humiliated and certainly the punishment did not fit the crime. That was the first but not the last time I was caned, being caught smoking numerous times and other misdemeanours.
When I moved into the older grades I opted for a gardening punishment, for the whole weekend if necessary.
The following year, despite being a year younger than most, I was placed over in the GoldRood dormitories which was a blessing. I enjoyed being there. In the grounds you could play ‘headers’ soccer and simple things like watching the life cycle of the frogs in the large tank half way along the path. Also there was the TV room where we all watched ‘Top of the Pops’ hosted by Jimmy Saville. How apt.
The smaller dorms at GoldRood had a quieter feel to them and as we grew older we had more latitude. It was here I made a close circle of really good mates who looked out for and helped one another.
I never told my parents about these early events and canings. I felt I was being protective of them, but in hindsight I believe I was ashamed and didn’t want to expose my Mum and Dad to the fact they had placed me in an abusive situation. They seemed so proud that their son was going to St Jo’s.
In fact I have never discussed these days with anyone apart from my wife and a counsellor whilst undergoing recent treatment for anxiety.
I wonder how many students kept quiet? Many.
How many remained stoic? Many.
How many accepted events as ‘normal’?
This is the essence of systemic abuse, secrecy.
I remember Louis M well. He was a very stocky type with a shock of dark hair and a fellow smoker. It came as no surprise that he took Brother James apart.
I believe Brother James was suffering from PTSD, perhaps from the war. Some said he had been a fighter pilot, others a POW. With his psychotic temper and uncontrolled violence he should never have been allowed near children, ever. He was sadistic and a man to keep well clear of as he was capable of flying into a rage and lashing out with a flurry of fists, sometimes at the nearest student.
I recall in our lessons at the top of each page of the exercise book we used to write ‘JMJ’ and I often wondered how writing what amounted to a small prayer for guidance reconciled with boys being educated by teachers like Brother James.
During a time with my family in Germany my parents took me on a visit to the site of Belsen Concentration Camp. My Dad had been there the day after it had been liberated in WW2 and the visit had a profound effect on me. As a reminder I sticky taped a small B&W picture of Adolf Hitler on the underside of my wooden desk lid to remind me of the horrible events surrounding the monster.
Soon after, when I was at another lesson, Brother James was alerted to the picture. Apparently he flung open the wooden desk lid with fury. The other boys present thought he was going to have a severe fit as he was literally purple in the face as he tore the picture to shreds. He had lost all control and had to be helped as he was apoplectic. Luckily, I wasn’t there as I believe I would have been beaten senseless. Most surprisingly, I never heard any more about this incident.
As I grew older I became really very good at athletics and represented the school in the AAA County Championships and inter-school competitions. I won a number of county cups and medals. I believe this athletic ability, like the students who played senior rugby, gave me a certain profile and helped protect me from some of the harm meted out to others.
This is where dates and years fail me, but one memory that has stayed with me was an incident with Father Jolly.
As teenagers most of us were in the habit of smoking. Weekends were fine as we could go into Ipswich and go to the dark of a movie or a park and smoke our heads off. Later it was the pub at the bottom of the hill where the publican turned a blind eye. During the week was a different story and we were all hanging out for Saturday.
One day a friend and myself decided to go into Father Jolly’s unit and help ourselves to some of his cigarettes.
This was wrong, and we both knew it.
He lived in a small cottage just on the edge of the school boundary. We knew he had a cigarette box as we had visited his living room during one of his ‘getting to know you, group chats’
Seeing his car was gone we crept into the lounge and just before rifling some of the cigarettes we heard the crunch of the car wheels on the gravel outside. We were trapped and so just sat there. Jolly came in and asked what we were doing and to this day I don’t know how but we said we were waiting for him as we had a matter of abuse to report. My hands were shaking but I went into detail about the history of what I had previously witnessed in the large dormitory. Jolly started writing all this down. Pretty soon after the Brother departed the school.
In my mind I can to this day feel the panic as Jolly entered the room and my face flushing as we spoke about the sexual abuse we had witnessed. Of course for many years I saw Jolly as protecting the students and getting rid of the abuser, whereas in actual fact I now know he was giving the bastard the heads up to move on before the evidence was mounted and he was charged.
Naturally I never confessed the sin of attempting to steal cigarettes to Jolly.
I have seen another boy’s statement on your web-page about reporting abuse to Jolly. The date and timing is somehow out of kilter with my memory and it cannot be the same incident.
There were good teachers at the school and two lay teachers stand out in my mind. My English Literature teacher during sixth form gave me a love of poetry which has stayed with me all my life. My Economics teacher, a family man from Doncaster, Yorkshire was easy to relate to and kindly.
I loved travelling back to Germany to see my family. It entailed travelling by train to Harwich, then ferry over to the Hook of Holland and then catching the Moscow night express to Celle in central Germany. I hated the journey back to Ipswich.
As I grew older I enjoyed the company of my friends at St Joseph’s. Close friends meant emotional security and a clubbing together.
I know when I look back at this period I found the Brothers as a group to be a vulnerable, raw, clumsy group of men, out of touch with a rapidly changing society. Not all were bad, but most could not relate. I wonder now what early experiences they themselves had been through.
Certainly the ones meting out physical punishment and abusing the younger children in their care must have had awful upbringings to carry out some of the harrowing events described in your blog.
This in no way condones their awful, terrible behavior.
All of this is nearly sixty years ago now but parts I remember as if it were yesterday. Through it all I’m reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘This Be The Verse’ which is worth reading in it’s entirety.
‘Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf’