Conal’s mother was a devout Catholic and felt keenly the effects of her divorce in the early 1950s. ‘Mum went to church every day and said the rosary every lunchtime so it must have been hard for her to actually do it.’
She was proud though a few years later when Conal became a boarder at a Marist Brothers juniorate. Two Brothers had visited Conal’s Catholic high school the year before to speak to students who thought they had ‘a vocation’. Conal was one of six 11-year-olds who were interviewed by the two Brothers for admission to the training college.
During the interview one of the Brothers suddenly put his hand up Conal’s shorts and started fondling his genitals. Conal told the Commissioner he still has no recollection of what was discussed and he didn’t ever see the Brothers again.
The following year however he was admitted to the juniorate. He was given constant reminders of his privileged position, particularly by Brother Anthony who supervised Conal’s morning chores around the school.
One morning, Brother Anthony woke Conal and told him to come to his quarters. ‘I followed him to his room. He asked me to get into his bed as it was cold. He began to talk to me about men and boys and the kind of thoughts we sometimes have. He asked me if I ever had thoughts that were sinful and if I touched myself on my private parts.’
Conal asked what the Brother meant by sinful. ‘He then said words to the effect of, “I will show you”. I recall that he then put his hand down my pyjama pants and started touching and stroking my penis … After this first incident, a similar event would occur at least once a week for the next few months.’
Conal said that the sexual abuse stopped only after he was taken off morning duties and placed in a dormitory further away from Brother Anthony.
At the end of that year Conal told his mother he didn’t want to return to the juniorate and when she asked why he told her what Brother Anthony had been doing.
‘Mum refused to believe that a religious person would do the things I’d told her, and she said I should be ashamed to say things like that.’
Looking back, Conal realised what his ‘vocation’ had meant to her. ‘Me becoming a Brother made Mum someone in the Catholic community. I’ve spoken to a few blokes who left the seminaries and they said that their mothers were exalted [when they joined]. I think that’s probably why Mum couldn’t believe it. I dashed her hopes.’
After the disclosure to his mother, Conal didn’t speak about the abuse for 58 years. In 2013, news of the Royal Commission coincided with a school reunion at which many of Conal’s ex-classmates recounted their own stories of being sexually abused at high school. The Marist Brothers they named weren’t the two who abused Conal, but listening to the men and being able to tell his own story gave Conal courage.
Within 12 months of the reunion, Conal had reported the abuse to NSW Police, started counselling and commenced civil proceedings against the Marist Brothers. He also disclosed the abuse to his wife and two sons, one of whom remarked that it ‘explained a lot’.
As part of his counselling Conal began reflecting on his life. He saw patterns of controlling behaviour which were probably a result of feeling out of control during the abuse. He’d often had inexplicable outbursts of anger and he’d never trusted men. Only recently, he said, was he able to let go of a feeling that he’d somehow been responsible or complicit in the abuse.
‘I don’t believe I committed the sin and I don’t believe I was the instigator, and I don’t believe I should be judged on what happened. That’s the way I feel at present. I didn’t do anything wrong as a little boy [but] maybe that’s what made the little boy the way he was.’
He was pleased that after initial hesitation, he had come forward to the Royal Commission. ‘I think the decision I made is if I can do anything that’ll help somebody else to come forward, or things are changed so that it may not happen to one other person or two or three or four or five; it’s like giving blood – you’re helping somebody else. That’s the way I’ve looked at it, maybe I can help somebody who’s worse than me.’