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Ashton's story

Sitting in the Royal Commission hearing room and listening to institutional witnesses in a prominent case study, Ashton believes some of them lied about what was known when about child sexual abuse.

The former teacher and Catholic school principal in a regional area of New South Wales lost sleep, became emotional, distressed and angry – very, very angry.

And what he heard ‘just about killed’ his faith in the institution of the Catholic Church.

In the 1950s Ashton was the youngest of a Catholic family of boys. He left home at 14 and ‘went away to the Marist Brothers juniorate’ where, ‘innocently altruistic’, and with the enthusiastic encouragement of his father, if not his mother, he prepared to become a missionary ‘and all that stuff’.

He recently made a statement to the Royal Commission about his concerns from the time of his now-finished teaching career about several clergymen working in the Catholic school system.

But when he was not required to give evidence in a public hearing, Ashton attended the Royal Commission in a private session. He told the Commissioner he had been molested by Brother Aloysius while a 17-year-old trainee at the juniorate.

He did not disclose this abuse until he was in his 50s. He knew his mother, in particular, would blame herself.

Ashton told his former wives, another former trainee brother and, in 2008, the provincial of the order, about the occasion when Brother Aloysius massaged his penis while ostensibly giving first aid to Ashton for some seriously strained stomach muscles.

A lasting impact has been Ashton’s inability to have long-lasting relationships, coupled with his heavy drinking. Ashton, who believes Brother Aloysius has died, did not report the abuse to police.

‘Until recently I minimised’ the abuse but, having had ‘numbness’ as his response at the time, Ashton often wonders ‘what happened?’

‘I regard myself as fundamentally a good man. How come I can’t make marriages to good women work? What’s wrong?’

Once he made his statement to the Royal Commission, Ashton ‘was really anxious’ to testify about matters he had known and had been told about paedophile priests over several decades, and which were widely known. Despite understanding that only a representative sample of witnesses could be called, he nonetheless found it ‘really frustrating’ not to testify.

‘I was like a racehorse in the barrier and my gate hasn’t opened … Probably the main thing I wanted to say was … [a former senior Brother who gave evidence] was lying to you.’

The institutional witnesses in that particular case study, he believes, unlike what they said in evidence, did not do all they could when told about child sexual abuse. It was well known, he said, that Father Brian Brennan (now in prison) and Marist Brother Nicholas McArdell were rumoured to be child abusers.

In one of his first high school teaching positions in the 1970s, a primary school colleague, Mike West, confided to Ashton that some of his male pupils had complained about Father Brennan interfering with them.

Ashton had recommended that Mike take it straight to his principal. When Mike did, the headmistress, a nun, suggested they would all be sacked if word leaked out. So nothing was said.

Father Brennan, Ashton recalls, was quickly moved away from that parish but he became aware several years later that the priest had returned to the area.

After promotions to deputy and principal at various schools in the region some time later, Ashton contacted other school principals, warning them not to allow Father Brennan near children and to keep their ‘eyes open’.

In the mid-1990s Ashton remembers calling a high school principal further away from his region specifically to warn him about Brennan. Brennan was arrested days later.

He also told of the ‘interesting’ coincidence of Father Hitchings, who had taught a friend at a Marist Brothers school and who was then based in Ashton’s home parish. The priest, it became known, ‘had had a mild stroke about an hour after’ the end of a screening of a 60 Minutes program on the Christian Brothers.

‘We [Ashton and his then wife] were actually saying that “the bugger’s waiting for a knock on the door”.’ Father Hitchings later died in jail.

Ashton told the Royal Commission he had recounted the grooming stories he had heard from his friend about Father Hitchings plying senior boys at his school with cigarettes and alcohol ‘and all that classic stuff’ to a local bishop.

The bishop – who Ashton saw regularly at meetings, and who he saw testify at the Royal Commission hearing – told him ‘no, we can’t do anything about it’.

‘God! I was so angry,’ Ashton recalled of his reaction to the bishop’s testimony.

Also in the 1990s at one of the many principals’ meetings he attended, concerns were aired about both physical and sexual abuse against children by Brother Nicholas McArdell, the Marist Brother who had recently been appointed principal at a high school in the region.

Ashton had heard similar concerns from other staff and principals and the allegations against Brother Nicholas were well known in the Catholic school system, he said.

By the mid-2000s, Ashton, now a principal in a different region of NSW, was flabbergasted to find he knew a victim of another notorious paedophile priest in the area who was later jailed for a lengthy term.

‘I’m thinking, I’m surrounded [by paedophiles]! What am I doing here? I keep running across this stuff.’

While at the same school – a decade after all the talk about Brother Nicholas elsewhere – Ashton saw Brother Nicholas representing a Marist College at an exhibition about boarding schools.

‘I just went off. I rang a friend at [the school] who assured me he wasn’t involved in the school. I just thought the arrogance or the ignorance of both of these people. Even if there was nothing to those rumours – hundreds if not thousands of people who were aware of them – why would you put him, why would you put the congregation in the position of having him represent you – unless it’s just arrogance? That really just about finished me.’

In his years as a principal in Catholic schools in several states, Ashton observed many meetings with the Church leadership. These often included the local bishop, or senior clergymen who were dismissive of challenges to church practice, rumours about child-abusing clergy, even the use of non-Catholic publications.

‘Roma locuta est. Causa finita est’ is a St Augustine Latin saying which means “Rome has spoken, the cause is finished”,’ Ashton told the Commissioner.

‘They still work that way. I wanted to say that!’ he said, particularly incensed by one former bishop with whom he had several spats who ‘would stop our principals and priests meetings and he’d just say, “No, I’m the bishop. We’ll stop there”.’

‘All that frustration, all that anger, the fact that I’ve known a lot of it firsthand and put up with it and … nothing’s been done,’ he lamented of his efforts to warn others about predators in the Catholic teaching system.

‘I think it’s the fact that for my entire career I seem to have been in the middle of it [knowing of abusing clergy nearby], one way or another. I found that annoying to even be talking about Brennan in my last years of working, having gone through stuff my first year of working with him – and the others in the middle.’

Ashton acknowledged that in the 1970s the lifelong ramifications of child sex abuse were not understood.

‘However, [at the Royal Commission] I [had] wanted … to eyeball the two bishops and I wanted to say to them that in 1975 if I was sitting in my backyard having a cup of tea and I’ve got a park next door and I see an adult sodomising a 10-year-old I would ring the police and then I’d go in and sort it out. I wouldn’t sort it out by giving him $500 and taking him to the next park … I was ready to explode.’

And while he might ‘sort of’ accept that they didn’t know it was happening the first time, Ashton said that ‘once that mongrel was moved to the next school, that’s when they’ve looked over my metaphorical fence – and we all knew that’.

Ashton said that it was ‘all very well for the Church’ to ban the pill and tell a battered wife she must go back to her husband to whom she might fall pregnant. But around the same time it [the church] couldn’t act on the ‘tricky moral theologian’s issue’ of child sodomy.

‘They [the bishops] looked over that fence. They simply didn’t like what they saw and they wanted to protect the church,’ said Ashton, seething.

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