I’ve been prompted to write again about Mike Kearney, the lay Irish chemistry teacher at St Joseph’s College, Ipswich. For anyone not familiar with this man, he taught from the late 1950s to the 1980s. There’s plenty of accounts of his brutality on this blog, seen by apologists as ‘normal’ for the time, and one account by an Old Boy of his racism. Whether this is connected to Kearney having spent some time in apartheid South Africa, I have no way of knowing. It has been challenged by a white Old Boy as ‘not true’. Several Old Boys also thought he was a poor chemistry teacher. Personally, I thought he was ‘okay’, but then I was a poor chemistry pupil. I think Old Boys generally are divided between seeing him as ‘stern but fair’, ‘his bark worse than his bite’ and others regarding him as a violent, cruel sadist. Given that he punched a boy in the face and had to apologise to him, I subscribe to the latter camp.
i don’t accept these were ‘different times’. Punching a child in the face, then and now, is a criminal offence.
St Joseph’s today, although it claims to have no connection with its dubious and criminal De La Salle past, where organised sexual abuse in the 1960s and beyond is now a matter of record, had a Mike Kearney Memorial Chemistry prize. I think this has now been withdrawn, I certainly hope so because this individual does not deserve to be remembered in a positive light.
But my concern has always been about a much darker side to him which resulted in my spending considerable time and money in therapy trying to make sense of really terrible memories about him. The more I looked into them, the worse they got. Daymares, nightmares, PTSD flashbacks, you name it. I tried blocking my memories of him, but it didn’t work. My experience of recovered memories was similar to the account below.
Where other St Joseph’s abusers are concerned, I’ve pretty much laid them to rest. Although, I’m touching wood here, of course. Kearney was more problematic and there’s a reason for this. The awful events concerning him happened outside the school, so there were not the usual witnesses to validate my recovered memories.
Nearly all survivors who write into this site are boarders and I used to thank my lucky stars I was a day boy. In fact, it’s an illusion I used in order to survive. Day boys could also be in danger and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. My mother was a devout, Irish Catholic widow with no income, no job and recurring mental health problems, probably worsened by medication both legal and illegal. Father Jolly, our parish priest and St Jo’s chaplain, whose crimes have been detailed on this blog by at least one other Old Boy, was a drug supplier which may sound unlikely but I can assure you is true. He was not the only one. Leaving aside for now the question of how my mother could afford to send her two sons to a posh Catholic grammar school (neither of us had passed the eleven-plus), it meant we were a prime target for Catholic predators.
These predators, from my primary school days through to secondary school, were sometimes given the right to act ‘in loco parentis’. It was felt boys needed ‘a strong fatherly hand’, especially in 1950s Britain and –if they had been genuine – I would possibly agree. It’s also the supposed norm in Catholic communities that the poor and the widowed are supported and so a series of predators used this to their advantage. In our tightly knit Catholic community, Catholic widows were also considered ‘fair game’ and a better alternative to having affairs with Protestants or not ‘sullying’ unmarried Catholic women. I’m pretty certain it also had some pseudo-religious rationalisation.
I’ve been able to prove the conduct of a number of these predators to my satisfaction: Canon Burrows (Knight of St Columba), Father Wace (probably KOSC), Father Jolly (KOSC, St Joseph’s chaplain and our local parish priest), two or more lay Knights of St Columba, and… a couple of lay teachers from St Joseph’s. That sounds like an awful lot, but we’re talking over a fifteen year childhood and some of these characters may have only had brief involvement as ‘do-gooders’ or rather ‘do-badders’.
Kearney had such a ‘loco parentis’ role.
The predators’ exact terms of reference and their relationships with my mother must have varied considerably. Some may have been interested in my mother, others her sons, yet others in both. Certainly widows – then and now – are prime targets for predators and it’s a well-known technique for abusers to relate romantically towards the mother in order to get at the kids. Canon Burrows, the first, typically always around our house doing ‘little jobs’ and mysteriously paying for school extras, was a truly vile sexual abuser. So were most of the other ‘father figures’ that I’ve listed that followed him, although not necessarily all. Some may well have just been interested in my mother and not her children. It’s not easy to be sure every time. In some cases I’ve had to speculate about the real nature of the relationships and, of course, it’s impossible to know with absolute certainty. Much of the time everyone was very ‘discreet’.
The dynamics of just how Catholic predators exploit Catholic widows like my mother and the way she would have been groomed to fulfil a certain role in her Catholic community, I would only have been dimly aware of as a kid. It’s a role Catholics will, of course, deny then and now. Like they’ve denied so much abuse that’s subsequently been proven.
Here’s a brief example. She was ‘put in charge’ of a young French Father Gonnet who, mysteriously, was having an extended ‘holiday’ in our industrial town. She was told to ‘look after him’, so he was always round our house having tea when I came home from school. They got on extremely well and he was always making a fuss of me, too. We would also go on picnics to Stratford St Mary, a couple of miles down the road from East Bergholt where Gonnet was staying with the local Franciscans . Their place was a very convenient location for him to abuse. Gonnet and these far from holy Franciscans left a deep trauma scar on me, which I still resent, because my abiding recollection of this particular predator is ‘The bastard was only staying in Ipswich for a few weeks.’ A few weeks is all it takes.
I knew my mother had a kind of exalted status in the parish and this was certainly her own perception of herself, but I knew also there was something ‘not right’, something ‘odd’, ‘evasive’ and ‘mysterious’ about her. Trying to make sense of her behaviour, her constant absences for instance, I was a latch-key kid yet she had no job, I read everything I could about fictional women like her and that helped considerably. As an adult, I can fill in the blanks from my life experience and examples such as Gonnet. Doubtless you can do the same. I’ve had to outline the role of my mother because it’s most relevant to Kearney as he, too, had this loco parentis role which will be more defined in later posts.
Kearney was a particular threat because I was older when we clashed and starting to make sense of the world. And, unlike the previous men, he didn’t have a typical ‘cover story’ for his involvement with my mother AFAIK, e.g. he wasn’t in the church choir. In fact his cover story was to go boot camp on me, to ‘bring me to my senses’, to stop being a rebellious teenager. But there was much more to him than this.
As you can imagine, in such a world, everything is ‘smoke and mirrors’, everything is deliberately mysterious, vague and hard to pin down in order to keep victims off balance.
My agenda in writing about Kearney is firstly as a catharsis. Secondly, because it may help other survivors dealing with recovered memories and highlight how predators work. Thirdly, it’s to name and shame him.
Finally, because it may resonate with other Old Boys who may have other information about Kearney that dovetails with my account, although – as I’ve said – because this happened outside the school, it’s far less likely. But do get in touch if you can shed any light.
And this account, of course, bears out that I have no financial agenda. The De La Salles can’t be held responsible for or be financially liable for what this creep got up to outside school hours. And so it adds to the validity of my case. Why would I spend so much time and energy on Kearney, when I have far better things to do with my life?
I’ll write more about Kearney in subsequent blogs.
This woman’s experience below of recovered memories (she’s not a Catholic AFAIK) pretty much dovetails with mine and I’m sure with many survivors of the De La Salles.
I realise all this may be upsetting or triggering to read for some, so I’d like to end with a cheerful anecdote to show how, despite everything, we survivors can beat these scum.
I was sixteen. I would leave home a few months later and Kearney’s connection with my family was over, as short-lived as all the previous predators. My brother and I were drinking beer in a pub by the Old Cattle Market –I think it was the Plough. I was excitedly talking to my brother about a gig we were going to at the Assembly Rooms next door. I believe it was Murray and the Mints, they were St Jo’s boys who had a real ‘Animals’ sound, mouth organ etc, and I’m a huge fan of the Animals. ‘We’ve got to get out of the place’ wasn’t just an anthem for Vietnam soldiers, it was my anthem to escape the Catholic Church.
Then Kearney came in, ordered a pint and sat at a table on his own. We both recognised each other but said nothing. There’s a look lonely men who drink alone in pubs have, which we all recognise, and Kearney had that look big-time. His shoulders were rounded, drooping with depression, as he stared down into his pint. I think his first-wife had died some years earlier, but that was something I’d been told on the playground grapevine, so I may well be wrong. Whatever the reason, he was definitely down in the dumps.
Then he looked across and I could see he was weighing up whether or how to rain on my parade. As he had done until recently. In those days, there was no ID and anyway, like any self-respecting 16 year old, I’d have lied. And bar tenders don’t care. So he knew his options were limited.
I knew he was going to do something, because he always had to win, but I was ready for him. I’d taken more than enough shit from him and I was a very feisty teenager.
He finished his pint and came over. He looked sternly down at me, hoping to intimidate me.
‘Does your mother know you’re here?’
‘Yes,’ I lied defiantly, ready for him to use physical force on me. Again.
The expression on my face was clearly saying, to paraphrase the Animals, “It’s my life and I‘ll do what I want. Drink what I want. I’ve left school, you’ve got no power over me anymore.’
There was an awkward pause. Then Kearney nodded, defeated, impotent to do anything other than show his disapproval. He stumbled off into the night. A sad, lonely loser.
That was the last time I ever saw Kearney and I can still remember the feeling of exhilaration that I’d defeated him.
Then I got back to talking about much more important matters than this odious prat – like that forthcoming gig watching Murray and the Mints.
I was finally free.
Below is a survivor’s account on Instagram which I found incredibly useful and sums up how recovered memories work.