Catholic boarding school experiences: the need for a balanced perspective

Sep 25, 2023
An image of two vintage school desks.

Avid readers each day of Pearls and Irritations (of which I am one) hopefully enjoyed Paddy Gourley’s review of Martin Flanagan’s new memoir ‘The Empty Honour Board: A School Memoir’. Stimulated by that review I have now read Flanagan’s remarkably honest and painful memoir. His story is consistent with repeated accounts of sexual abuse and unwarranted physical punishment in Catholic schools across Australia in the 1950s and onwards. Bad news receives more attention than good news. However there are and were many teachers in the Catholic education system (the vast majority probably) whose fine contributions have been accidentally tarnished by the necessary accounts of abuse including the one written by Flanagan.

Like Martin Flanagan, I too was sent to a Catholic boarding school at a young age. In my case, I was thirteen when I was sent to an all-boys Marist Brothers’ college in central Victoria from 1955-1958. The total enrolment was around 300 boys of whom only 20 were day students. The education that I received and the general happiness of those years were vital to my development and I still have great feelings of warmth towards my old school. Bullying was rare indeed and overall the environment was congenial. Thus my experience has no connection with that experienced by Flanagan. This is not to deny or question Flanagan’s account which I fully accept. Neither do I wish to deny or minimise the existential harm experienced by those many students who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of teachers who those students were raised to trust.

All my teachers then were Marist Brothers (not Marist Fathers – a separate order of priests) but as Catholic Brothers they too had taken vows of celibacy. They received no salary other than their keep. They were on duty caring for we young boys 24 hours a day. Some were at the same time undertaking part-time studies at the University of Melbourne. Their sacrifices allowed fees for boarders to be low and thereby meet one of the aims of the school which was to provide education for boys from rural backgrounds. Almost universally the Brothers were dedicated, caring and supportive teachers. Yes, at times they needed to be tough and strict but generally these occasions were justified.

Although one of those Marist Brothers was some years later found guilty of sexual abuse of students at another boarding school, during my four years of boarding I experienced mostly a caring and supportive environment. That Brother was in charge of my dormitory in my second year but no hint of impropriety has ever emerged from that year or during the time he was at that school. Given the understandable publicity given to proven instances of abuse, sadly instances involving many Marist Brothers, I have discussed this issue with several fellow students of that era, both from my school and at another Marist Brothers’ boarding school in eastern Victoria. Some readily recalled what was deemed excessive corporal punishment but hints of sexual abuse were remarkably absent. My contemporaries share a similar degree of warm feelings for their years at boarding school.

My four years of boarding were not without their dramas. The school principal was a rather dour and narrow-minded Marist Brother allegedly sent to correct the liberties supposedly offered by his predecessor. He was want to invoke the ‘school spirit’ when addressing the boys at assembly, a phrase that did not resonate with us – unless it may have been an allusion to supporting our excellent senior football team. His strict new regime greatly irked the boys ahead of me as in 1957 the members of the senior dormitory revolted. At midnight one night they left the dormitory and proceeded to the main football oval where they ceremoniously buried the ‘school spirit’ (an empty jar) in the sacred turf. Their conduct did not escape detection as they were locked out of their dormitory and we younger students awoke the next morning to find the group of thirty young men standing around in their pyjamas. This was an era long before Twitter and Facebook and the episode was closed without any disciplinary action or any real threat to the position of the principal. How different it might be if such a rebellion were to take place today.

Times change. The school is now flourishing as a co-educational college. Only a few students (both boys and girls) are boarders.

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