‘I was a happy kid, looking up to my brothers and sisters, trying to do whatever they did, pretty much loved by my family’, Mike said.
The youngest of a large Catholic family, Mike attended the local Catholic primary school in his Sydney suburb. In the mid-1970s, when he was 11, he followed his older brothers to a Christian Brothers college.
Academic life didn’t come too easily to Mike at that point – ‘I was a better student later on in life, for one reason or another’ – but in general he settled in pretty easily.
‘There’s a lot of good Brothers at that school, looked after us very well.’
Mike’s form master for his first two years at the college was a young teacher, Brother Keith Robertson. Brother Robertson had some odd teaching practices. He spoke to boys individually and quizzed them about their sexual development. He’d call boys who misbehaved to the front of the class, get them to pull down their trousers and hit them on their bare bottoms, in front of everyone. On overnight school excursions he entertained favoured students in his bedroom.
‘Other students including myself would frequently see Brother Robertson’s penis and testicles. He would make his genitals visible to us while sitting cross legged at football training and observed who looked and their reaction. He would often ask us to stand naked with our hands on heads … if found talking in the showers or whilst getting dressed.’
At the end of Year 6, Mike’s second year at the college, Brother Robertson left the school. Alone with a boy, Robertson had pulled the boy’s pants down, Mike said. The boy told his father, who complained to the school.
He doubts that the boy was abused beyond that.
‘I reckon he probably wasn’t, because he was someone who had good adult back-up … His father obviously was a very good father and had his ears pricked up on this and went in there to see what it was.’
Mike himself wasn’t molested by Robertson, as far as he can remember.
‘I can remember running away from school on different occasions, and my mum would talk to me about why I ran away’, he recalled. She asked him if he’d been ‘interfered with’ and he said no. He was lucky, he said, because his mum stuck up for him with the Christian Brothers.
Others were not so lucky, his friend Wilf among them. Wilf’s mum was much more of a ‘Catholic mother’, Mike explained – ‘who would have grabbed the child by the ears and dragged them back and given them to the Brotherhood and said “do as you please with them”’.
Mike and Wilf stayed friends throughout school and beyond, right up until Wilf’s sudden death, in his early 30s. As an adult, Wilf ‘lived a very fast life’, Mike said. He drank to excess, used drugs and seemed incapable of forming intimate relationships.
‘Wilf asked me more than once if I had been sexually interfered with by Brother Robertson and I said no … One night when Wilf visited with me and my partner he mentioned he was suing the Christian Brothers for what Brother Robertson had done to him’, Mike recalled.
Mike didn’t quite understand what Wilf was telling him. ‘I said “There’s better ways to make a buck, Wilf”.’ Later, he realised he’d been ‘naive’.
Wilf died not long afterwards. At the funeral, Mike spoke with an old schoolmate, Tony. He told Tony he hadn’t known that Wilf had been abused by Brother Robertson. ‘[Tony] said “What do you mean? You were there!”’
The words brought a memory rushing back to Mike, of a class camp on the Hawkesbury River. Mike, Tony, Wilf and another boy were sharing a tent. It was dark and Brother Robertson ordered them outside.
‘I can remember us four lined up outside the tent, made to stand naked …’ Robertson took Wilf away with him. ‘I can remember when he returned we were quiet, but we knew something had happened …’
The sudden return of such a vivid memory, Mike said, ‘was quite an astonishing thing’.
Sometime after the funeral, Mike looked Brother Robertson up online. He found that in the years after leaving his college, Robertson had taught at other schools and eventually been charged with sex offences against students there. If action had been taken by the principal at Mike’s school, those assaults wouldn’t have occurred.
The principal was a ‘nice bloke’, Mike said. ‘But I wouldn’t mind betting that’s how they dealt with it – is they just sent [Robertson] off.’
Mike is settled now, and content. ‘I’ve got a good relationship with my partner, I’ve got a child … So I’m very happy like that. I’ve had a fair few drug problems and things like that in my life but I seem to have, you know, cast most of them aside as best I can.’
Looking back, he believes celibacy is the problem at the heart of what happened to Wilf and Brother Robertson’s other victims.
‘My feeling is that we were subject to a young man, Brother Robertson, who would be like maybe 20 per cent of the other young males in the community – highly sexed, wants to get on with his natural processes in life. And he wasn’t allowed to ‘cause of his celibacy vows. And look, I wouldn’t mind thinking that would be the essence of the problem for us … If I had a word in the Pope’s ear, I’d say look, you know, you’re probably better off letting them get married, you know?’
He feels that anyone who’s taken a vow of celibacy should not be able to work with children or teenagers. ‘It’s not right’, he said.
‘This process of celibacy I believe is a thing that’s against a bit of human nature … It should be accepted there’s these normal urges in people, they’ll come out in some shape or form.’