Ethel and her son Jeremy attended separate private sessions at the Royal Commission, to talk about the principal who sexually abused Jeremy at his Catholic boarding school in regional Australia in the 1980s.
Brother Fairbridge would take certain boys into a room after dinner, where they would sit on beanbags, drink alcohol and make rosary beads. He then sexually abused the boys when they fell asleep from the effects of the alcohol.
Jeremy started running away from school and Ethel had no idea why. His behaviour, too, began to deteriorate. ‘He just went off the rails so badly. I could never understand it, you know.’
Ethel told the Commissioner that if Jeremy had told her that Brother Fairbridge was sexually abusing him, she would have found it hard to believe at the time because he seemed so nice.
‘Fairbridge came down once to talk Jeremy into going back. And at the time I thought, “Isn’t that nice, that he’s come all [this] way … He’s got to have some real goodness about him”. Now, when I think back, I think … “The bastard came down to see if Jeremy told me anything”. And Jeremy was too frightened to tell me.’
Ethel is glad that the Commission is revealing the extent of child sexual abuse in the community. ‘So many people just didn’t know it existed, don’t believe it existed … And these people are just so cunning, and so every day. I mean, I would never have picked Fairbridge. I would never have picked him in a million years …
‘Every time Jeremy ran away, [Fairbridge would] ring me and you know, I’d think, “Oh, they’re really caring. I’m glad I sent him there”.’
Ethel was unaware of the sexual abuse until one night during the late 2000s, when Jeremy phoned her and told her bits and pieces about it. ‘He’d go so far and he was quite embarrassed, and didn’t say any more.’ When one of Jeremy’s sisters saw something in the paper about sex abuse allegations at his school, what he’d said made more sense to Ethel.
Jeremy was surprised one day at work when he received a phone call from a police officer, who asked him about the school. As soon as Jeremy mentioned beanbags the officer asked him to come in for an interview. ‘Because that’s what we were sitting on in his room … I can’t stand beanbags any more’.
Jeremy was one of several men involved in proceedings against Brother Fairbridge in relation to sexual abuse of children over three decades at more than one school. ‘If I had’ve known what it was going to be like, I would have said, “No, mate”, straight away.’
Jeremy described how Fairbridge’s legal team ‘went right through my life. They tried to make me look like a criminal when I was in court … I’ve been in jail a few times. I’ve been in nuthouses a few times and then they just turned around that I was a criminal and not to be trusted, and my word couldn’t be taken as word …
‘Then they just started on everybody else, like, blaming my mum, and my mum come out of that court in tears, mate.’
Jeremy has told his mother that she has nothing to feel guilty about. ‘They tried to make her feel guilty, because she sent me to boarding school and somehow it’s her fault that I was molested there … She’s got nothing to be guilty of, because I asked to go to boarding school … Nothing of this is to do with my mum. That’s just pathetic.’
Everyone was sure that Fairbridge would be found guilty. ‘The amount of evidence that was there … spanning over three decades, for goodness sake …
‘It basically came down to his word against [ours] … I’ve been in jail a few times and I don’t have a [prestigious community award] like he does, and help all these people like he does, but I also don’t hurt people like he does … And the fact that he’s allowed in the community is just terrible.’
Jeremy told the Commissioner that other teachers at the school have been jailed for child sex abuse. ‘He was the head person at the school where all the stuff was happening and he reckons he didn’t know anything, and he’s one of the only people [who] didn’t get found guilty, whereas all the other priests are going to jail or dying … That’s all I can say about that.’
Although Jeremy was angry about the verdict, the court case was actually ‘very liberating, and I decided I wanted nothing else to do with it. I’ve done my bit and that’s all I can do and I don’t have to dwell on it anymore, because it’s all out in the open and my worst fears were faced when they started pulling everything out from when I was two or three years old. Every single thing … that I’ve ever done in my life … It was like, “Fine. Produce it in court. I don’t care, mate”’.
After the trial, Jeremy was encouraged to contact a solicitor to take civil action against the Church. He received a payment of more than $50,000, after legal costs. ‘They got me to sign paperwork stating that I wasn’t going to take it any further and that they don’t hold any blame and no guilt and … I said to them, “Why are you giving me money if you’re not guilty?” It doesn’t make any sense.’
Jeremy wasn’t interested in the money. ‘I’m more still peeved off that I haven’t got the official acknowledgement that they actually did something. I’m quite happy to give them all that money back just for that one piece of paper. That’s all I wanted … An admission that they did wrong …
‘I was happy after the court case just to leave it at that, but when I was told that I could go through the civil court … I was still hoping that … somebody [would] say he’s guilty and “We’re sorry. We understand what happened” … I doubt that I’m ever going to see that and … Fairbridge’s going to walk away scot-free … He keeps getting just higher and higher [in the
Although the family has supported Jeremy since he told them about the abuse, Ethel commented, ‘When I say we all support him, I mean there was a lot of bad times when he came back from boarding school, you know. We didn’t want to know him half the time and I couldn’t believe that I’d raised a son [who was so] angry and abusive’.
It took Jeremy 30 years to tell his mother about the sexual abuse. Ethel said, ‘It’s a terrible burden to bear on your own, I think. Men don’t discuss things and particularly wouldn’t discuss it with women … I don’t know how I’d feel if it happened to me. I think sometimes you’ve got to be in the shoes of the victim to understand the impact.’
Jeremy told the Commissioner, ‘I wouldn’t be here [if it wasn’t for my mum], because as I said … to [her] this morning, “You can only bang your head against the wall so many times before it hurts and it’s hurting, so I’m going to stop banging my head because I’ve done what I have to do”…
‘Unfortunately, my mum came here - well, this is my opinion – because the Church made her feel guilty … She still feels some blame, hence why she’s here.’