‘I think there’s a massive PR exercise going on with the Marist Brothers and the broader Catholic Church … it’s all just a face-saving exercise … It’s just PR.’
Symon came to the Royal Commission to talk about his experience as a whistleblower about child sexual abuse in a Marist Brothers’ high school, which he and his brothers attended in the 1980s. Their family was groomed by a lay teacher who would attend family functions and who supported Symon through a family tragedy.
Symon believes that due to his family’s circumstances at the time, the lay teacher didn’t find an opportunity to progress his abuse of Symon.
‘What troubles me about that whole period of time now, is that the lay teacher would just walk into class, say to [my] teacher whatever he said and [my] teacher would go “Pack your things up, go with him”. No checks and balances. We’d just walk out the front of school, get in his car and go for a drive. How does a school let that happen?’
The lack of transparency around the way the Marist school dealt with allegations of sexual abuse by two of their staff was one of the reasons Symon suggested ex-students meet to discuss their experiences. There was an ‘undercurrent of ex-students … who [had] concerns’.
The group of former students met a number of times.
‘Word started to get out and we started to get people from other schools coming to it as well … we had a couple of girls come to us and say they were abused at primary school … it really opened my eyes …
‘[The group] achieved its aim of getting [the perpetrator in court] but also pointing boys towards help.’
Symon believes that the Marists were particularly violent and silenced complaints and suspicions with their violence.
‘They created an element of fear – they were violent, they were really violent teachers … The cane was the least of your problems … People were scared to speak out.’
One of the two main perpetrators of abuse in the school died before he could answer charges of child sexual abuse, and the other has been found guilty of many offences. Symon hoped that the Marists would become more transparent about their mechanisms for dealing with complaints of sexual abuse.
‘The moment it comes out that [one of the abusers] may have been abusing boys, people start coming forward because they feel there’s some safety in that – they’re not alone. It staggers me that the school still can’t be open about it.’
Symon wanted the Commissioner to know that he believes that recent public statements by the Marist Brothers are ‘lies’.
‘I … heard so many things that I just found so distasteful in the way the Marist Brothers were behaving. The lies I heard being told … it was just appalling.’
He is also aware that there are boys who took their own lives before being able to pursue their abusers through the courts.
‘One of the boys in my year was buried last week. Drank himself to death … don’t know why … but he was in [a well-known abuser’s] class. That’s where a lot of his victims came from. The suicide rate is just unbelievable.’
At one of the hearings into the Marist Brothers and the school, Symon found himself talking to a support counsellor.
‘One of the things I found … really sad … I was outside talking [to a counsellor] … he said to me, “Have you noticed all the elderly women that keep coming in, listening for a while and then leaving … they’re mothers of kids who have committed suicide at the school and they don’t know and they will never know [if their sons were abused or why they took their lives]”.’
Symon’s advocacy for survivors, seeking appropriate apologies from the Marist Brothers and better procedures for supporting students who have been abused, has taken a toll on his health. He lives with significant and ongoing stress-related conditions, and despite his efforts, he doesn’t believe that ‘anything’s changed’.
‘What’s the systemic reasons … that have allowed the cover ups to occur, that allows the Church to put its own reputation above all else? They don’t apologise for that.
‘This thing [sexual abuse of children] is so ingrained in the culture as an organisation [the Church’s response] is just a big PR exercise … [They’ve] learnt nothing out of this process.’
He wants to see ‘greater transparency’ in Catholic Church procedures and believes the Church needs to ‘own up to everything’. He continues to advocate for reform within the Church.
‘You have to question – if you don’t question authority, [abuse] happens.’
Symon knows he played a role in opening up discussion about child sexual abuse within the Marist Brothers and the Church. He is grateful that the Royal Commission came into being and that it has had such a significant effect on individual survivors and the general public.
‘I know … people … who are survivors of this abuse [and] they’re comforted by the fact that it’s actually being listened to.’