Brother Robert distributed a survey to the class one day, asking the students whether they’d ever done any ‘immodest actions’. Brien was one of the boys who wrote ‘Yes’. Soon afterwards, Brother Robert cornered him in the stairwell and sexually abused him.
It was the mid-1960s and Brien was an 11-year-old student at a Catholic school in Sydney. He didn’t understand Brother Robert’s actions and blamed himself.
‘I had no idea what had happened to me, I was like a shocked duck when I went home. And I was too scared to tell Mum and Dad. Because you think it was your fault and all that bullshit.’
Sometime later, it happened again. This time Brien went home and told his father.
‘Dad goes up to the school and he came in – there was a whole heap of us in the classroom – he ordered all us kids out. Brother Robert went to walk out and he shirt-fronted him … pushed him back in the room, shut the door.’
Outside the classroom, Brien and the other kids listened to the sounds of ‘banging and stuff’. Brien found out later that his dad didn’t bash the Brother but he ‘threw him around’. That was enough to get the message across, and Brother Robert never sexually abused Brien again.
The physical abuse, on the other hand, escalated. Using any tiny infraction as an excuse, Brother Robert beat Brien as often as he could. He became a target and soon the students, and even some teachers, started bullying Brien as well. He grew rebellious and was eventually expelled.
‘And they should have kicked me out, too. I was a little shit. I don’t resent or begrudge that, because I deserved to be kicked out. I was shocking. An absolute monster.’
Brien went on to live an adventurous life, navigating a career path through the worlds of crime and politics. ‘It’s the oddest of existences’, he said. ‘For some people I’m sure they’d think it was great. Many other people would consider it nothing short of a nightmare.’
Looking back on it, Brien has his regrets. ‘Two broken marriages and a daughter that is scared of me seems about all I have to show for my 57 years of life.’
In the 80s Brien sought help through Narcotics Anonymous and overcame his drug addiction. By the mid-90s he was clear-headed enough to know that he had to do something about Brother Robert.
Brien reported his abuser to two policemen. One of them, Craig, seemed keen and friendly at first but he began subtly steering Brien away from further legal action. Step one of this strategy was to send Brien to the Catholic Church’s Centacare services for counselling.
At Centacare, Brien met a woman who was ‘lovely’ until in passing he mentioned the second officer that he was working with.
‘She really laid into me, and she said, “One thing’s for sure: you ever go near the police and there’s no way you’ll ever recover. No one who’s ever been to the police has ever found any recovery from this”.’
Brien now believes that the woman’s reaction formed step two of the strategy designed to stop him pursuing action against the Church. ‘It was a well-oiled machine that they’d had the victims on, to forever forfeit any right to compensation or real help.’
Undaunted by the woman’s threats, Brien enlisted the help of the second officer and continued with the case. In contrast to Craig, this officer worked hard to bring Brother Robert to justice. Brien believes that the trial never would have happened without his help.
Brother Robert ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced to a good behaviour bond. The lawyer who had worked with Brien wanted to appeal the sentence but was prevented by senior prosecutor John Lennox – an act which has baffled Brien ever since.
‘I don’t think Lennox is a paedophile, but he’s worse because he protects them. But I don’t understand his motivation for protection. I just don’t. Even after all these years. His passion to defend a bloke he’d never met is beyond me.’
Around the time of the trial Brien entered into negotiations with the Catholic Order that ran the school where he was abused. They offered him a settlement of $5,000. Brien said the whole process was traumatic, mostly because the lawyer who represented the Order was so hostile.
‘I hated him. I can’t tell you how much I hated him. I hated that man so deeply, he was so nasty to me. I was in a shocking state and he was like trying to rub it in.’
Recently, Brien went back to the Order to renegotiate. He met with the same lawyer – only this time, he wasn’t the same lawyer.
‘I couldn’t believe it. The guy was completely different … He spoke to me with respect. He was really decent. And I sound so surprised because I still am. He was really kind to me. And I don’t think it was fake. I really don’t. Something has moved there since this Royal Commission started.’
Brien walked away from the negotiations with a settlement that was more than ten times what the Order originally offered.
Now Brien has a job he enjoys and is supported by a loving and dependable partner. He considers himself fortunate in his dealings with the legal system and the Church, and he feels for those who have not been so lucky.
‘One things for sure: the people that supported me were good, decent people. But how many other people got them? No one, hardly.’