Ronnie's story

Around 1960, after passing an entrance test ‘with flying colours’, Ronnie was enrolled in a primary school in western Sydney run by the Christian Brothers.

Ronnie looks back with pride on his old school, but also with some bewilderment because ‘in some cases, the punishment far exceeded what was appropriate’. Not long after arriving at the school, he was ‘given six cuts of the strap’ for playing ‘out of bounds’. He also remembered that one Brother who was ‘prone to violence’ threw a full suitcase across the room at another boy. ‘We accepted all that as normal’, Ronnie said. ‘We thought, “This is what you get when you push the boundaries”.’

When Ronnie was in Year Five, his teacher Brother Gilroy called his home. ‘He said, “Would it be possible for Ronnie to come round on one day in the school holidays and help me correct some examination papers?”’ Ronnie’s parents felt ‘so chuffed’ and ‘privileged’ by this request. ‘They sort of felt that the light was shining on me. And I felt privileged too … ‘cause I hadn’t had any inappropriate contact at all until then.’

Ronnie met Brother Gilroy in a classroom that was far away from the main school building and the Brothers’ residence. ‘There was no one else at the school … Everything was above board. We did actually do some examination paper marking, just simple stuff.

‘He then asked me to sit on his knee. I can still smell him. I can still smell that cassock, musty type smell, you know … I can’t remember sort of feeling that it was all that inappropriate because he’s like a father figure.

When you go to a religious school … I guess you have a lot of respect for them as teachers, you have a lot of respect for them because you've been brought up as a Catholic. And they are authority figures. But they are also a religious figure, so they carry more weight than a lay teacher because they have that cassock on. That black cassock is enough to instil a bit more respect.

‘So I just did as I was told, and I’m sitting on his knee … and he started talking about artificial respiration, specifically mouth-to-mouth. And he said, “Do you want to practice that?” And you can imagine what that would mean. And I said, “No, I don’t”. And I guess I was uncomfortable enough to say no under those circumstances and he didn’t push it.’

Ronnie didn’t tell his parents about the incident. ‘The reason was I wasn’t sure why I felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure. And I wasn’t sure whether I’d done the wrong thing or the right thing. So I never told my parents about what had happened to me.’

This was the only incident of abuse by Brother Gilroy. However, a year or two later, after student apostolate meetings, Gilroy did try to get Ronnie alone by asking him to stay back to close windows or tidy up.

‘Because I was older, I knew how to avoid it’, Ronnie said. ‘And I knew by then what it was all about, and I wasn’t going to be sucked in again. So I always had an excuse. And I knew by that stage that I had free will, and there was no way that he could say “You must stay behind” without making it obvious to the other boys that something was amiss.’ One of the excuses Ronnie used was ‘I have to go home now or I’ll miss The Three Stooges’.

Gilroy died a few years later. Ronnie said, ‘His funeral was at the school, and the service was at the school chapel, and I can remember we went to it, and there was a guard of honour for him. The boys at the school formed a guard of honour for him as his casket left the church … And I thought to myself, everybody was saying how good he was and everything, and I thought, I know that he’s not like that. It’s hard to stomach it, you know, they were giving him such a rap’.

Decades later, Ronnie disclosed the abuse to his parents and his wife. He is not sure why the subject even came up, but thinks he was encouraged to say something because, at the time, sexual abuse among the Christian Brothers was being ‘exposed in a big way’. At the time, he also considered seeking compensation, but decided that the time had passed, so he just let it go.

Ronnie can’t point to any specific impacts of the abuse.

‘Look, I wouldn’t say I was absolutely traumatised by what happened to me, but it’s something I’ve never forgotten … What happened to me wasn’t terrible, but it’s something, it happened to me, and it stuck to me right through my life.’

He retained his faith in God, but not his faith in the dogma of the Catholic Church. ‘The sheer fact that you masturbated was a mortal sin. And if you didn’t go to confession and confess to a priest that you had masturbated, and you died, you were going to Hell. That’s what we were taught. So I decided about halfway through the time I was at senior school that I couldn’t, I just could not reconcile those two things. So yes I am a Christian. I believe in God … but I can’t really understand the, that strict, straitjacket-type Catholic theology that makes you feel abnormal, makes you feel normal things are very, very wrong, makes you feel so guilty.’

As Ronnie prepared to leave his private session, he found it remarkable that he couldn’t now get the smell of ‘that musty cassock’ out of his head. ‘I can still smell it. All of a sudden it hit me in the head. I can smell it. I can still smell it all these years later.’


Content updating Updating complete