The excellent comment shown at the end of this post from Radders (commenting on my post Charity begins at home?) that mentions John McDonnell and Joe Homan has stirred my memories of St Joseph’s college once again. St J’s was my secondary school run by the De La Salle Brothers (DLSB).
These memories were also stirred after Cardinal Pell of Ballarat, Australia, was recently found guilty of sexual assault. Ballarat is a city where the Christian Brothers also feature heavily in various allegations of abuse – they currently total an astonishing and appalling 139 allegations.
On the positive side, the post also reminded me about John McDonnell. I’m really impressed that McDonnell, the Labour Shadow Chancellor, went to my old school. Reading his Wikipedia entry on the subject I also noticed his reason for attending – and possibly leaving St J’s – was remarkably similar to my own.
Still on politics, I was also impressed that fellow old boy Chris Mullin wrote A Very British Coup, one of my all time favourite novels and TV series. I rated McDonnell and Mullin both highly long before I knew they even went to St J’s, although they were there roughly at the same time as me. However they were boarders and I was a day boy, so our paths were unlikely to have crossed.
However, the fact that Mullin is also a supporter of the notorious Homan is disappointing, to put it gently. Homan was found innocent of abuse charges against him at his Boys Town in India. But I’ve read an account about Homan by an old boy I was contemporary with and knew well. It describes a vicious and horrible assault by Homan when he was a DLSB at St J’s Oak Hill and I have every reason to believe it is true.
So it sits uncomfortably with Mullin’s protagonist Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup, who becomes that so rare individual — a True Labour prime minister. A politician we can trust and admire. In fact, I could imagine John McDonnell as just such a Harry Perkins prime minister, more so even than Jeremy Corbyn. I think he would be brilliant. If it ever happens, I pray he doesn’t share the same fate as Perkins. Certainly The Sun and The Daily Mail would set out to destroy him just as their fictional counterparts destroyed Perkins.
So I got thinking as to whether these two distinguished politicians were affected by St J’s as I was. After all, they were there in the same era as me – an era when physical and sexual abuse was rife at the school and everyone knew it was going on. Even us day boys. You couldn’t avoid it. It was everywhere. In fact I would say, based on my own observations, experiences, and the disturbing and heartfelt testimonies of various old boys on this site that Ipswich – and St J’s in particular – truly was another Ballarat. Except in Ipswich they sadly got away with it. Thus all three parish priests in Ipswich at this time were abusers. No odd rotten apple there: it was endemic, just like it seems to have been in Ballarat.
St J’s certainly affected me greatly and inspired my creation of the anti-establishment British comic 2000AD featuring Judge Dredd. It’s still going strong today after 42 years. My take on the sinister Judge Dredd – also the subject of two movies – drew directly on Brother James and Brother Solomon as I relate in my autobiography Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD & Judge Dredd: The Secret History.
To briefly describe Solomon (Mike Mercado), AKA The Swinging Monk: he was thrown out of DLSBs schools three times for sexually abusing boys. Each time they let him back in! I’m told he then headed out to Boys Town, to ‘work in the missions’ with Joe Homan.
I guess most old boys are more circumspect and discreet about how meeting such monsters affected them in later life. Perhaps wisely, they are able to put it all behind them. If so, I envy them. Like many other old boys I don’t have that luxury.
Mullin reassuringly pointed out to me that St J’s today is a very different school and I’m sure it is. So in theory it should be possible to put it behind me. However it still proudly proclaims itself to be ‘In the La Salian tradition’, which means something negative and unpleasant to me – and others.
The school also has a Mike Kearney Memorial Chemistry Prize. Kearney was a St J’s teacher in my day, so there are still clear links with the school’s past. They can’t be separated to distance the current regime when it suits them. More on Kearney later.
So someone – whether it’s the diocese, the school, or the De La Salle organisation, which is still going strong – should acknowledge the crimes of past DLSBs, which are a matter of record and provable beyond reasonable doubt. Certainly in the case of Brother James and Brother Solomon (Mike Mercado).
The diocese does have its investigatory body. If they become aware of a crime they must report it to the police which, as I’ve told them, is excellent news. However, both the police and the diocese are only concerned with cases where the perpetrator is still alive so he can be investigated. Neither the school nor the DLSBs have ever shown any interest in or commented on the disturbing testimonies related on this blog and on another similar site by a St J’s survivor.
This suggests to me that the commendable, strongly anti-abuse stance of the Catholic Church in recent years is empty spin. They only come out with it when they have to. Usually when they’re under media scrutiny or in the dock like Pell. Then they’ll wring their hands and tell us how much they deplore cases of historic abuse. Otherwise they don’t give a damn.
Apologist Catholic websites and Catholic press also seek to minimise such abuse charges and limit the damage at every opportunity. Although they don’t go quite as far as my devout Irish mother did. A year or two before I went to St J’s, there was a famous case at the college where a lay teacher ran off with a boy and they were ‘lost’ for some days. It made the newspapers and couldn’t be swept under the carpet as usual. My mother’s reaction was, ‘What a silly man! He should never have allowed himself to be led astray by that wicked boy. The poor man was weak.’ I don’t think the case ever went to court. The teacher was seen as behaving in this criminal way due to a mental breakdown and medical treatment was prescribed. I don’t think the kid stayed on at St J’s. Doubtless the risk of him leading other weak teachers astray was too great. My mother’s attitude was quite commonplace at the time, I assure you, and I suspect still is in many Catholic quarters, although they daren’t say it out loud anymore.
Instead, another excuse the Church uses today for its abusers is that they are the result of the sexual revolution in the Swinging Sixties. My Irish aunt would have agreed wholeheartedly with them. She firmly believed ‘moral decay’ began with The Beatles. But the events I’m referring to here are all pre-Beatles. Thus the Church still seems unable to take responsibility for its crimes. When it’s cornered, blame it on the Sixties. Blame it on anything except themselves.
But I want to come back to Kearney now.
Because Kearney was someone I would definitely add to my personal Roll of Dishonour of St J’s. He was well known as a sadist who delighted in recounting how he could lift a boy clean off the ground by his sideburns. I never had a problem with the discipline he administered to me personally, such as a caning for being caught smoking. It was a fair cop, which I always felt I deserved. Not least because I was stupid enough to get caught. No, it was the sadistic glee on his face as he used a blackboard duster on other kids’ knuckles that stays with me to this day. I doubt I’ll ever get his look of cruel delight out of my head.
There was more besides. Much more.
So recently, I’ve been woken in the night with endless symbolic dreams about Kearney. A sure sign of repressed memory, which I’m used to and know how to deal with, so it’s not a big deal anymore. My technique as a kid for dealing with or witnessing Catholic criminal acts was to block them out. So I could enjoy a perfect Ladybird book childhood. It worked incredibly well at the time and was a far better survival method than alternatives like using alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, the recollections spew out in later life and then have to be processed in order to get closure. So it annoys the hell out of me that I still have to waste considerable amounts of my time thinking about Kearney and figuring out what my fragmentary memories and symbolic dreams mean. Clearly they must be important.
Although it’s hazy, they seem to be connected with the local chapter of those good old Knights of St Columba. Maybe Kearney was a Knight or was closely connected to them. At the time, I related my concerns about them to my mother. Her response to my graphic claims was ‘but they do so much good work’. Whatever I said about them, she repeated this endlessly as a defensive mantra which I just couldn’t get past. So in the end I gave up and blocked it from my mind. Until now. Her attitude was understandable, though. The Church and the Knights were an important part of her world. Financial support for my schooling was almost certainly a crucial factor. Where matters involving the Church are concerned, I’ve always found ‘follow the money’ is most relevant. So faced with an angry eleven-year-old ‘making trouble’, her options must have been limited.
The Knights had a strong and – it would seem – positive behind-the-scenes role at St J’s. It was thanks to their financial efforts, for instance, that St J’s was established in the first place. I believe they bought the freehold on the Birkfield building for the DLSBs. Many Ipswich leading Catholic businessmen, priests and teachers were Knights. If you’re curious about them, their secret rituals were similar to the American Knights of Columbus. The latter’s neo-Masonic rituals can be found online. And I’ve also read a copy of the version once used by the UK Knights. It makes for disturbing reading. Not least because of what else may not have been committed to paper. But the UK Knights stopped all that ‘secret weird stuff’ – to quote other old boys’ description of them – sometime in the late 1960s apparently. After my time
Normally, it takes me some time to make sense of my repressed memories. Writing about them in a post like this helps. It’s a work in progress so I can’t be more precise just now, I’m afraid. Particularly as I like to cross-reference with others recollections where I can. Eventually the memories will emerge. Then I can thankfully consign Kearney to the dustbin of memory, where he belongs.
That’s the challenge we all face who’ve encountered Catholic crimes, whether it’s in Ballarat or Ipswich. So many of us can’t let it go and move on – because of repressed memories in my case, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or not acknowledging the significance of the crimes. Thus a well-known national journalist who went to St J’s, a few years before me, was drinking himself to death. He was a client of the charity Mind, and I was introduced to him by his social worker. He told me about the vicious, blood-drawing canings he received as a little boy at St J’s Oakhill prep school where he was a boarder. But he was furious with me when I suggested there was a possible connection with his current plight. ‘I’m not drinking with you,’ he snarled as he staggered back to the bar.
It’s not all in the distant past either. As late as the early 1990s, a counsellor friend told me he had several clients who were at St J’s. In every case he advised the parents that the remedy for their child’s problem was simple: take him away from the school. I doubt they listened. St J’s has such an excellent academic reputation it has all too often clouded other rather more important matters.
Banging Cardinal Pell up helps us all, I think – even if he eventually gets out on appeal. It means that in ‘one against one’ testimony, the victim is believed, for a change. In Oz anyway. There were plenty of similar contenders to Pell in Ipswich, as past comments on this site clearly show. And they’re not all dead like Kearney, James and Solomon/Mercado. Some from long after my time carried on in the same way. As a commenter (CS) on my Roll of Dishonour post vividly relates, a lay teacher used a cat o’ nine tails. Not easy for Catholic apologists to dismiss that one as ‘Oh, they were different times back then. You can’t judge these things by the standards of today.’
Seeing some past St J’s teachers acknowledged as criminals would be so valuable to survivors. And it should be someone’s responsibility to do this, right?
Better still, rather than spout empty spin designed to sound good for the benefit of the media, why not help put some of the more recent perpetrators away? I know of at least two old boys who have in recent years pursued predator Brothers and teachers from St J’s. I’m sure they could have used some assistance in tracking them down. I hope the predators were finally caught and banged up.
That’s the kind of memorial they really deserve.
Comment from Radders on Charity beings at home?
As a border who became a day dog I’m not sure where I fit in Opus’ taxonomy. My dad was in receipt of an army disability pension and my mother worked full time as a ward sister – and I was very conscious of the cost to them of me being at St Joes, not least of which was the A4 page of necessary kit and uniforms to be purchased from Grimwades.
It was in about 1970 I think that we had to sit through a talk and a slideshow on Boystown – I honestly can’t recall whether Homan gave the talk, but the older lads certainly referred to him as ‘Jo Homo’ with the cruel wit of youth – which may have indicated some knowledge of his activity, or may simply have been juvenile bile.
Some appeal form was handed out which we were supposed to pass to our parents with a personal plea to donate, having seen the slide show. I quietly binned it.
I don’t remember John McDonnell but I boarded with his brother Keith, forever in some sort of trouble for the usual minor infractions. We used to parade in forms on the car park between the E block and the Chaplain’s cottage whilst ‘Moggs’ – Mr McLaughlin – hopped onto a little raised dias to call the names of defaulters with his distinctive nasal twang. I can still hear him today – “McDonnell!” with the stress on the third syllable. Perhaps it is the correct pronounciation.