About 20 boys crammed into the small hotel room in Wellington and the mood was sombre.
Marist College Canberra’s First XV had gathered to hold court. The 1978 rugby tour of New Zealand was going well, but they weren’t there to talk about football.
The night before an incident had profoundly shaken the group.
One of the players had been called to a Marist brother’s room on the pretence of treating an injury from that day’s game.
The coach tried to sexually assault the boy. He fled, told his closest friend, and word had spread quickly through the touring party.
The boys, aged between 16 and 18, called a meeting. At its end they passed a resolution: the coach was to be banned from the change room, when the team returned to Canberra, the brother was to leave the school and the Marists were called on to guarantee that he would never teach again.
The shocking incident caused one 17-year-old to question a commitment. At school’s end he had resolved to leave for Sydney, to train as a priest.
So he sought the counsel of another brother travelling with the group, a popular man who ran a movie club at the school.
When the boy confided his fears about the act of a man who professed to be a model of faith he got an unexpected response.
The brother’s face darkened with fury: why would your vocation be affected by the actions of one man? The boy felt ashamed of his doubts.
Early the next year the Canberra boy joined seven others at a novitiate in Toongabbie in Sydney’s west.
One, John, was a deeply troubled young man. He was a brilliant student but painfully thin and desperately shy, with an array of behavioural quirks that made him very hard to live with.
John would sit alone in the common room late at night listening to his Bob Dylan records, smoking, talking to himself and rocking.
One evening the Canberra boy knocked on John’s door to bum a smoke. There was no answer so he opened the door a fraction, hoping to see a cigarette packet on the desk in the tiny cell.
Instead there was a candle on the table and in front of it was a note that read:
“Why kill myself slowly, do it now.”
The priests and students were roused. They searched the grounds. The police were called. John couldn’t be found, so the community gathered in the chapel to pray for his safe return.
He came back three days later but, within a month, left the seminary forever.
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The next time the Canberra man saw John was on a television news report nearly 30 years later. John had taken the Catholic Church to court for years of sexual abuse as child.
He lost and the Church’s argument set a legal precedent called the Ellis Defence.
Other reports emerged about sexual assaults at Marist Brothers in Canberra in the 1970s and 80s. Among the accused one name stood out: Brother Kostka Chute.
In 1978, Brother Kostka had reacted with fury when confronted with the sins of his confrere because the questions of a child shone a light into his black conscience.
John Ellis had been brutalised by such a man and the torment was written on his face forever, for those that had eyes to see it.
These shards of memory have been revived by the evidence given to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The breadth of the abuse is astounding, the damage to the standing of the Church permanent and the failure of its bishops unforgivable.
And one thing is clear. In 1978 a group of Catholic schoolboys was confronted with evil and called to make a moral decision.
They did so in the light of the best teachings of their faith. The vote had been unanimous. They demanded justice for their friend and that the threat to other boys be removed, forever.
In that room, on that day, those boys showed more moral courage and were better disciples than the princes of their Church. That is a triumph, and a tragedy.
7 February 2017 | 1:01 am
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