‘Even though I knew, I’m still thinking “they can’t be doing this!” It’s very difficult. You know when you’re in something – it’s like the scientologists.’
Myrtle, who was born in the 1920s, still struggles to comprehend how she did nothing when her son Mortimer told her that Catholic Brothers were sexually abusing children at his school.
‘We were very religious but we were brainwashed from five years old that these Brothers, priests and nuns were saints walking around. You couldn’t speak to them unless they spoke to you.’
Myrtle married a man from overseas who travelled constantly, so she was largely responsible for their children.
‘[Mortimer] was on about the Brothers tucking shirts in … it wasn’t until [he was 15] that he told me what they were trying to do’, Myrtle said, of the sexual abuse her son suffered at his Marist Brothers’ school. ‘Even then I did nothing. And then I sent Fraser there.’
Her younger son, Fraser – ‘a good kid’ – started at the same high school in New South Wales in the 1970s. Mortimer, who she’d had trouble getting to school for two years, left for another Marist school and was soon studying for his final exams.
Fraser, meanwhile became ‘very involved’ with extracurricular activities. He was in the choir, debating and also an activity program supervised by Brother Maximus, his class teacher.
One day Fraser was late home from school, ‘which wasn’t like him’. ‘He came home very subdued that night but I thought it was because he knew he was in trouble.’
Fraser told Myrtle he’d been to a landmark in a suburb not far from their home, which made her wonder. ‘We never went’ there, she said.
Months later, Fraser attended school as usual and returned home. ‘We had tea and he got a bath and he said “I’m going up to my room”,’ Myrtle said.
Not long after, one of his siblings found him dead.
Among the arrivals at the house that night were three Marist Brothers, including Maximus.
Myrtle recalled: ‘The only thing that Maximus said to me, I think, was “Did he leave a note?” That was the first thing he said to me. I said, “No”.’
Nothing had happened to Fraser at school, Myrtle was told. ‘Anyway, those three Brothers left and I never saw or heard from a Marist Brother again. They were at the funeral … but no one ever rang to see how we were. Not a word.’
In the meantime, ‘it stinks’, she said, that Mortimer had to sit his final exams within weeks.
‘Not one Brother or teacher at [his new Marist-run] school … spoke to him … that was their pastoral care!’
Myrtle felt abandoned by the Church, particularly by her parish priest, Frank Fenness, who ‘said the mass [for Fraser] but he never visited me and was never seen again’ despite her decades of voluntary work for the Church. ‘He must have known something.’
For more than a decade Myrtle worked at a presbytery in a nearby suburb. On at least four occasions the parish priest sent her upstairs to knock on the door of another priest, Father Ernest Bayling, to ‘get the children’ out of his bedroom, she said in documents before the Royal Commission. Bayling became a family friend and dined weekly at Myrtle’s home for years.
That parish priest knew – ‘Oh God, yeah’ – that Bayling had a problem with children but still allowed the paedophile priest access to altar boys, and ‘then he’s sending me up to clear the boys out of Bayling’s room in the presbytery’, said Myrtle, who had merely thought it ‘odd’ at the time that the boys would go up to his bedroom.
When a ‘shocked’ Myrtle heard on the news in the 90s that Bayling, who her children loved, had been arrested for child sex abuse, ‘I just couldn’t believe it’. ‘It started me thinking that something happened [to Fraser].’
Some of the boys she shooed from Bayling’s room were complainants in his case.
While on bail before his lengthy incarceration, Bayling visited Myrtle and told her ‘he thought he was making [the boys he abused] happy. And then, of course, he told me he’d been abused as a child. His uncle or something’.
Bayling never acknowledged wrongdoing, Myrtle said. ‘None of these priests have got compassion. They haven’t got any empathy.’
A senior priest in her area, Father Bede, who she’d known for decades, flatly lied to her about his knowledge of Bayling’s sexual proclivities towards boys, Myrtle said.
More than a decade later, in the 2000s, Myrtle was further shocked to read about the arrest of Brother Maximus for child sex abuse. The article mentioned the landmark Fraser said he had visited the day he was late home from school nearly 20 years earlier.
‘Then I started putting two and two together’, Myrtle told the Commissioner. ‘Of course Maximus was in charge of the [activities program], took them on camps and the rest of it.’
When Fraser featured in a newspaper article not long after, ‘I started getting these letters from the boys that were in his class. They’d all been abused’ by three other Marist Brothers. Myrtle brought numerous documents and photographs to the Royal Commission, including stories of sexual abuse at school that a number of Fraser’s school friends had told her.
She said that Mortimer, active in investigating paedophile clergymen, visited their bishop last year and said: ‘Did you see that Maximus has been arrested? He [the bishop] said, “Yes. Your mother’ll have closure now with Fraser”.’
Fraser’s suicide had a deep impact on the family, who ‘went through it all again’ with the publicity about his case.
Before that, Myrtle felt ‘shunned’. Her late husband ‘never got over it’. ‘I never talked about Fraser and for a couple of years it was like he never was.’
Lately, the local bishop won’t return Myrtle’s calls. And a previously friendly priest has broken contract with Mortimer.
‘It’s like somebody said, “Don’t talk to Myrtle” … I’ve been treated like a leper.’
She thought Father Bede, whom she’s known for 50 years, would contact her when Fraser’s photo was published.
‘Six weeks went by’, she said until she confronted him and demanded a meeting. ‘I brought Fraser up … He said, “Myrt, it’s been going on forever. The Greeks had their little boys. The Romans had their little boys and the British aristocrats had their little boys”.’
Said Myrtle: ‘That’s the institutional response I’m getting.’
While the Marist order is funding counselling for the family and ‘it does help’, nothing has yet been done about compensation in either son’s case. Myrtle has recently cut ties with her church.
‘I loved going to mass and doing work’, she said. ‘But because Father Bede is still [there] … I can’t look at him. I saw him at the court [at a recent inquiry and] and he lied. They all lie. We know they lie.’