After leaving school, Francis became a Christian Brother, teaching for several decades in schools throughout eastern Australia. In the 1980s, he started questioning his vows and was sent for counselling to further discuss his doubts.
It was during these sessions that memories of being abused as a 13-year-old by Brother Ahearn came to the forefront of his mind. ‘I’ve always minimised what happened to me, you know. I’ve always tended to think of it as being low-grade molestation, one-off, all those sorts of terms.’
Francis he didn’t disclose the abuse at the time it occurred because he didn’t have words for it. ‘I didn’t have the confidence to talk about it ... Dad was pretty volatile. He’d come back from the war with war neurosis and he had shock treatment.’ Francis had once seen his father handing out ‘bush justice’ to someone who stole his car, hitting the man repeatedly in the face with a hammer until police arrived and took the man away.
By the 1990s, Francis had left the Christian Brothers and was shocked to discover his brother had also been sexually abused while at the Queensland school. He started connecting with others and found more and more ex-students who had stories of abuse.
The suicide of one of the men was incentive for him to take the matter further. ‘There was something like 27 people … and that prompted me to start [a support group] which was directed primarily at the Catholic Church.’
Francis reported his abuse to Queensland Police, but was told there were no other allegations about Ahearn. ‘They said it was not a great molestation, that’s how they put it.’ However he continued to collate information about other offenders and encouraged the men he knew to take their allegations to police. Many of the Brothers were subsequently charged and sentenced to jail.
Also in the 1990s, Francis wrote to and subsequently met with senior members of the Catholic Church seeking an apology and acknowledgement of the abuse. Ahearn was invited to the meeting and denied everything.
‘Having denied it, he got up from the table, came around and knelt next to me on the corner of the table, and he said, “If I have offended against you, I am truly sorry”. Then he got up and without my permission, hugged me. He didn’t get it.’
Francis told the Commissioner that he’d received no training on child protection during his time as a Christian Brother. ‘There was no preparation whatsoever for being in an unregulated sort of environment [nor] any direction about what is acceptable behaviour or not.’ Discussions when they occurred tended to focus on ‘the Eve syndrome’ – a warning to Brothers that they needed to be aware of women’s advances towards them. ‘They were people that were very misogynist and very untrusting of women.’
As a Christian Brother, Francis had been aware of the position of authority he held within the community. ‘The parents thought we walked on water. We had enormous power, enormous power.’ He thought any child who talked about Christian Brothers abusing them of kids ‘would have got a beating from their parents’.
Francis wondered if his decision to join the Brothers might have been ‘part of a hostage syndrome type thing’. After leaving the order, he continued to work with the Brothers in a community capacity, advising on the laicizing of offenders. He often found the work discouraging, particularly when a perpetrator was retained and given a job that involved contact with the public.
‘Once you’d been to confession, once you’d had counselling, you go back in.’ He knew of one offender who wasn’t permitted to teach classes, but was given the job of answering the phone. ‘That was the point where you would have gone if you had a complaint against any Christian Brothers.’
In his community services work, Francis was alert to the vulnerability of young people and urged colleagues and other agencies to ensure they implemented and adhered to child-safe practices. He was troubled that in the course of his recent employment as a teacher in a Queensland government service, he was asked to accompany young people to court. This was outside the stated employment role and he thought it put him and the young people at risk. ‘How do you maintain your integrity when the code of practice that you’re required to work by is being deliberately breached?’
He has continued to work in community services. ‘How I’ve managed I think, is by working in the field. But I’ve also been aware that it’s your strength and your weakness. It is your Achilles’ heel. You have an empathy and you have a sixth sense. I know people’s stories before they tell me sometimes, and I think, oh my God, what’s this all about?’
Francis has waited 50 years for the Royal Commission. ‘It’s been a long time coming … Chip away, chip away. It’s the only way, isn’t it, to go forward.’