Many St John of God Catholic religious Brothers abused the disabled

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Broken Rites Australia helps victims of church-related

    By a Broken Rites researcher
    (Article updated 18 December 2012)

One of Australia’s most prominent Catholic religious orders – the St John of God Brothers (SJOG) – has had an entrenched culture of sexual abuse, according to court evidence. The St John of God religious order has specialised in accommodating boys who have an educational or behavioural disability or, in many cases, an intellectual disability.

Since Broken Rites began operating an Australia-wide telephone hotline in 1993, we have discovered numerous cases of vulnerable boys and young men who have been sexually abused in St John of God institutions. Broken Rites has referred these callers to the appropriate police sexual-offences unit. Police have investigated certain Brothers, although these investigations are often hampered by the disabilities of the victims.

The St John of God order has spent huge sums of money on legal teams to defend particular Brothers against prosecution.

Outside the courts, the SJOG order has been shamed into paying millions of dollars in civil settlements to many of its victims in both Australia and New Zealand, although the average payout per victim was not huge, due to the large number of victims and to the operation of the Towards Healing program which had the effect of limiting the size of payments to a maximum of $50,000. And the SJOG order knows that there are countless other victims who are still entitled to a settlement.

Later in this article there will be a case study of one significant offender – Brother Bernard Kevin McGrath who has been convicted in both Australia and New Zealand for child sex crimes. But, first, here is some background about the St John of God order in Australia.

Sexual abuse in the SJOG order began almost from Day One. Victims have told Broken Rites that the sex-offenders even included the order's Australian founder, the Irishman Brother Kilian Herbert.

Broken Rites has located various men who allege that they were sexually abused by several Brothers at the Morriset home, beginning about 1950. One alleges that six Brothers abused him. These three boys had all gone to Morriset from Sydney orphanages.

From New South Wales, the St John of Good enterprise expanded into Melbourne (see later in this article). From Australia, the SJOG order expanded to New Zealand.

It also expanded from Australia to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, which is a worry, as child abuse is even more easily covered up in Third World countries.

Vulnerable victims

Many SJOG boys were wards of state and never saw a relative. If they were sexually abused at a SJOG boarding institution, they had nobody to whom they could complain. The victims say they were intimidated into silence and could not even tell other boys about the alleged abuse. Many were not sufficiently articulate or assertive or did not know their rights. Many assumed that this was how adults normally treated children.

The SJOG Brothers said, blatantly, in their entry in the Catholic Directory in the 1960s, that their institutions were for “sub-normal” or “retarded” boys. But these words were disparaging. Many SJOG inmates, especially wards of state, had behavioural or learning difficulties and were not necessarily born with an intellectual disability, although they certainly became educationally disadvantaged through their incarceration at St John of God.

Furthermore, relatives or other outsiders would not have believed any allegations of church sexual abuse. SJOG Brothers were above suspicion, claiming to observe a vow of celibacy. Each Brother usually adopted a new first name, called after a church hero or a saint. And the Catholic Church preached lofty standards regarding virginity, chastity, birth control, abortion and divorce.

All this sanctity convinced the relatives and government departments that they were entrusting their waifs to good "Christian" hands.

Any relative who suspected sexual abuse at St John of God would merely tell another Brother or a priest, not the child protection authorities or police. It was considered disloyal for a Catholic to report church-related crimes to the police. And the church authorities merely transferred any offender to a new location - and to new victims.

Child abuse has long been a crime, and the crime is compounded if the victim is intellectually disadvantaged and if the offender is in a custodial role. However, religious superiors have usually treated their colleagues' sexual offences as a moral lapse, not a crime.

In 1993, Broken Rites began advising SJOG complainants that they should notify the police, not the church.

Church spokespersons have been vocal about protecting the rights of the unborn foetus but they should have been equally vocal about protecting the child from sexual abuse after it was born.

Expansion in Melbourne

In 1953 some St John of God Brothers moved from New South Wales to Melbourne and established the St John of God Training Centre at Cheltenham (in Melbourne’s south, near where the Southland shopping centre is now). This institution usually accommodated about seven Brothers and a hundred boys, aged from 10 to 18 or more, until it closed in 1967. The order's headquarters remained in Sydney, and the Brothers alternated between Sydney and Melbourne.

In 1957, the order established the “Yarra View” training farm at Lilydale, east of Melbourne. This usually had about seven Brothers and up to ninety youths, aged over 16.

At both Cheltenham and Lilydale, almost all boys boarded there full-time, although some returned to their parents' or relatives' homes at weekends.

From 1966, the SJOG Brothers conducted another boys' home in Melbourne – “Churinga”, at Greensborough (in Melbourne’s north-east), where there were initially five Brothers. In the 1970s, there was also a hostel in Mentone (in Melbourne’s south) for men aged in their twenties. Through Broken Rites, police have located alleged victims from both Greensborough and Mentone.

Broken Rites has interviewed ex-inmates of the SJOG who allege that the offenders in Melbourne included:

  • Brother Killian Herbert;
  • Brother Flannan Delaney;
  • Brother Bede Donnellan (real name John Joseph Donnellan);
  • Brother Berchmans Moynahan (real name Martin Joseph Moynahan); and
  • Brother Eugene Lee.

These five men, some of whom also offended in New South Wales, are dead but certain other alleged offenders (whose names are in the possession of Broken Rites) are still alive.

The SJOG Brothers were adept at presenting a saintly image of themselves, especially when inmates were visited by relatives. The Brothers also defended each other if any inmate complained about sexual abuse.

One Melbourne victim (born in 1946) has told Broken Rites: "I told Brother Theophane that I had been molested by another Brother but Theophane called me a liar."

Having become established in Melbourne, the SJOG order later expanded into New Zealand (see later in this article).

Settlement payouts

During the 1990s, SJOG has been forced to pay out-of-court settlements to a significant number of SJOG ex-inmates in both Australia and New Zealand. The Catholic Church's Director of Communications in New Zealand, Lindsay Freer, told the media in June 2002 that, in general, the compensation money paid by church organisations was siphoned away from operations such as schools and hospitals, from investments such as property, and from offerings from the church's faithful. Referring to the offerings from the faithful, Ms Freer said: "The Catholic people support all the operations of the church."

The crimes of Brother Bernard McGrath

In studying the St John of God Brothers, it is interesting to look at the case of Brother Bernard Kevin McGrath, who has been convicted of child-sex crimes in both Australia and New Zealand.

Broken Rites has researched Bernard McGrath's background. McGrath (born 22 May 1947) came originally from New Zealand. He joined the St John of God Brothers in the 1960s, aged 18, and went to the order’s headquarters in Sydney for his training. Most of his working life has been spent at SJOG institutions in Australia and New Zealand.

McGrath gave details of his SJOG career in a six-hours videotaped interview with New Zealand detectives in 2003. In the videotape, which was shown in a New Zealand courtroom in 2006, McGrath tells how he was bullied by his authoritarian father who pressured him into joining a religious order at age 18. (McGrath’s father had trained for the Catholic priesthood but ended up as a manual worker.)

The court was told that, when McGrath began training with SJOG in Sydney, a senior brother there had a habit of making sexual overtures towards the trainees. (For legal reasons, we will call this man Brother X.) The sexual abuse McGrath claimed he suffered resembled the kinds of indecencies that he later inflicted on the boys in his custody.

After training in New South Wales, McGrath spent a year at a SJOG institution in Melbourne. In January 1974, he was transferred to New Zealand to be teacher and dormitory master at "Marylands", a SJOG boarding school near Christchurch for boys with learning and behavioural difficulties. At Marylands, the court was told, McGrath again encountered Brother X. Brother X allegedly set the tone for the culture at Marylands and ensured that complaints about sexual abuse by Brothers like McGrath were covered up.

The court was told that some boys would complain to senior Brothers about sexual abuse. Not only was nothing done but they would be punished for making their complaints.

The court was told that a boy from another dorm came to McGrath to complain about being sexually abused. McGrath says on the videotape: "I didn't do anything because I'd played up myself, you know, so what do you do? How do you go and challenge someone when you've committed these sins."

About 1978, after spending nearly four years at Marylands, McGrath was sent to St John of God’s “Kendall Grange” boarding institution at Morriset, New South Wales, for boys with educational difficulties. There, McGrath admitted on the videotape, he continued to sexually abuse boys.

In 1986, McGrath transferred from Morriset back to New Zealand to establish a residential program in Christchurch, the Hebron Trust, teaching life skills to street kids.

McGrath's first conviction

In New Zealand, two social workers raised the alarm about McGrath's indecent advances towards four of the Christchurch street kids on his course in 1991. The social workers raised the issue with the SJOG order but the order failed to act, so the social workers contacted the police.

Four of the Hebron Trust boys, aged then between 14 and 16, told detectives that McGrath had touched them indecently. Then two of the former Marylands boys, now grown men, also complained McGrath had sexually molested them while at the school.

In 1993, McGrath was sentenced to three years jail in New Zealand for his offences at Marylands and the Hebron Trust

The story of Alex

Meanwhile, in 1992 (before Brother McGrath’s jailing), an ex-pupil of the SJOG "Kendall Grange" boarding school in Morriset, NSW — "Alex" (not his real name) — complained to SJOG headquarters in Sydney that he had encountered Brother McGrath while he was a boarder for four years from 1980 to 1984. Alex (born 1969) told Broken Rites in 1994 that his SJOG experience disillusioned him about schools. He ran away from Kendall Grange and stopped his education, with no qualifications, ending up on the dole and finally on a disability pension. Alex says that St John of God “screwed up” his life. He says the SJOG experience left him with lasting feelings of shame and anxiety, emotional turmoil, depression and an explosive temper.

Alex says that, when he told the Australian leader of SJOG about McGrath, the leader expressed no surprise about Alex's statement.

Alex had expected that SJOG would report McGrath to the police for prosecution but (he said) this did not happen.

The story of Jimmy — and McGrath's second conviction

In Sydney in 1989, another McGrath victim ("Jimmy", born in 1970) was having adolescent behavioural difficulties. He disclosed to his mother what McGrath had done to him in 1982-3 while at Kendall Grange. At the time of the offences, Jimmy was aged 11 to 13. In 1992, Jimmy’s mother (“Jill”) told the Australian head of SJOG who admitted that this was not the first complaint against McGrath.

In 1995, Jimmy made a police statement at Sydney’s Chatswood Crime Squad. After McGrath completed his New Zealand jail term, the police took him back to Sydney, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 1997 to nine months jail for the offences against Jimmy.

With the help of lawyers, and after 10 years of protracted proceedings constantly delayed by the stalling of lawyers for the S JOG order, Jimmy was forced to accept an out-of-court settlement amount for compensation. The amount seemed reasonable compared to other victims but his legal costs took a big bite out of his payout. Jimmy wasn't happy with an out-of-court settlement — he would have preferred to have his day in court.

Jill has been in frequent contact with Broken Rites.

In March 2006, “Jill”, explained how she sent Jimmy to the Morriset school because his dyslexia was making him too disruptive to remain in the school he was attending.

"I didn't want him to go, but a teacher told me that my son needed more help than his school could give him. I went to all the other schools in the local area and they refused to take him," Jill said.

"I knew nothing about (the abuse) until my son told me years later. I knew he wasn't happy at Morriset, but they covered it up so well and scared the kids so much.

"I used to ring Brother McGrath who was the Prior at Kendall Grange school, Morriset. I would tell McGrath that my son isn't happy and he's crying. McGrath just said all the boys do that; he just doesn't want the discipline and they need discipline.

"I didn't learn about the abuse until 1989. My son had a girlfriend and their relationship was pretty volatile and he was on drugs pretty heavily in his teenage years.

"She'd charged him with assault and when we were going to court he said `I've got something terrible to tell you' and that's when it all came out. I didn't believe him at first. Talk about naive — I couldn't believe it could happen."

Jill says there were hints that McGrath's proclivities were known to the St John of God order, but nothing was done.

"Their conspiracy of silence is terrible. A psychiatrist at the school said (at the time) there were problems at this school and to try to get my son out as soon as I could. I said there was nowhere else to go. In those days there was no onus on schools to accept pupils as there is today.

"When I told the psychiatrist later about McGrath, she said `I wouldn't have picked him'. There were others there she must have known about.

"I now know of five boys who were molested at Morriset. I don't think we've even scratched the surface. The tragedy is that my son must have felt so alone.

"My life hasn't been the same since. I've tried to get on with my life but it hits me sometimes. I feel very remorseful about my son – it's like a knife going in.

"In the early years, he blamed me for putting him in that school. He went violent one night and I had to run next door to a neighbour and bolt the door. I know if I'd stayed in the house, he'd have done something to me."

Third conviction — in 2006

In 2002, more complainants contacted the New Zealand police concerning sexual assaults by Bernard McGrath and other SJOG Brothers at the Marylands institution, dating back several decades.

In the New Zealand High Court in Christchurch in March 2006, Brother McGrath, then 58, was found guilty of 21 charges, including eight charges of inducing an indecent act and 13 charges of indecent assault, relating to his time at Marylands between 1974 and 1977. He was acquitted of some other charges, including charges of sodomy.

The court sentenced McGrath sentenced to five years jail. The court took into account McGrath’s two earlier prison terms -- the three years in New Zealand in 1993 and the nine months in Australia in 1997.

According to the New Zealand Herald newspaper on 7 April 2010, McGrath was released from his New Zealand jail on parole in February 2008, just less than two years into his five-year term.

Broken Rites is continuing to do research about Brother Bernard McGrath and other SJOG Brothers.

Meanwhile, any Australian victims of McGrath should have a chat with the Lake Macquarie detectives office in New South Wales, telephone 02-49429909.

New charges in Australia

In late 2012, New South Wales police decided to lay 252 fresh charges against McGrath for additional offences that allegedly were committed during his years in Australia. Therefore, in December 2012, New Zealand police arrested McGrath and began applying for an extradition order which would force him to return to Australia to face the new charges.

McGrath indicated that he would would fight the extradition application, when discussion about it resumes in a New Zealand court in 2013.

Another case

See another Broken Rites article about the St John of God Brothers: