Sep 03

Just recently I re-connected with a fellow student from school.  We both grew up in Hamilton and went to St. Mary’s and Monivae College – I have no idea what happened to her after that.

The re-connection came about on Facebook when I found myself in a group for former students from Year 12.  I struggle to remember my school days and I struggle to remember most of my fellow students.  School for me was not a great experience.

As I sit here on a Saturday morning I’m reading this great article by Lane Sainty.  She is reporting on how difficult it is for non-straight kids in regional Australia to find support in their schools with all the bad press around the Safe School’s program.  In Queensland and NSW real queer kids are struggling with their sexual or gender identity.  The attacks on the program by the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby have made parents weary of the program.  So much so that those that most need the support are just not getting it.

One student who left the school was so distressed by the negative media that his mother was also referred to a psychologist as she struggled to support him.

“He believes the things he hears – he says ‘I’m a freak, nobody wants me’,” the student welfare worker said.

“He’s attempted suicide several times in the past few years.”

As I read this I recall my time in a small country town in the 1970’s.  I was at school and fighting with my re-connected friend.  I don’t recall the details, but the words she used I haven’t forgotten.


St. Mary’s school classroom corridor.

She was standing in the class room door – I was in the corridor.  The door was wooden with a frosted glass insert at head height.  The nun who was the principal used to knock on the glass with her ring.  I assume it was the wedding ring that meant she was married to Jesus.  He had quite the harem.

As my friend stood in the class room, she was trying to keep the door closed to prevent me from getting into the room.  I was crying and quite angry.  I was lashing out at her, hitting her arm I think, because she delivered this line, “Don’t let him in he’s a poof and we don’t want him in here”.

Memory is a tricky thing.  At this point I was stopped by one of the women teachers, that’d be Mrs Phillips or Mrs Peters and I got into trouble for hitting a girl.

No amount of my protesting would cut it.  It didn’t matter that I’d just been called a poof and that was why I was upset.  Nobody wanted to address why I found that upsetting, and indeed I had been hitting a girl.  That’s what the teacher saw.  I was then the bully.

There’s a lived lifetime between then and now.  I’m not looking for an apology, that isn’t needed.  We were both young and didn’t have a much of a clue about the words.  I don’t hold her responsible now, that’d be a crazy thing to do.  We’re both 50 something adults, that would be a long time to hold a grudge!  While at the time it was quite homophobic and I was quite violent, we’ve both changed.

You know what we both needed in the 1970’s?  A program that would help us understand each other.  I lashed out and caused physical harm to a girl.  She lashed out and caused emotional distress to a boy.  Very likely we both felt vindicated for our actions.   We needed the Safe Schools program.  Even in Grade 5 I knew I liked boys.  I knew I was different.  I don’t know whether she somehow knew or was simply calling me names.

After all these years, with all that we know as a society, we still have people trying to deny the reality of growing up.  Putting obstacles in the way to prevent kids just like me from getting help.

How different my life would have been if I didn’t have to contend with the negative images around my sexuality.  So much so that when I finally got to Form 6, Year 12, all I wanted to do was get out of there.  I was isolated and in despair because I carried with me the baggage from Grade 5 of lashing out and being identified as a poofter.

Those against the Safe Schools program think that the program will somehow be harmful to the kids.  It brings the issue of sexuality up before the child can cope with it.  That’s just a load of rubbish.  What I needed was a society that didn’t care if I was gay.  I had no positive words to describe the way I was.  I was surrounded by a world that used derogatory words to describe my sexuality.  I didn’t know what sex was, I had no idea about the mechanics of attraction, what I did know was that I wasn’t like the other boys and my fellow students knew this too.  I don’t think 40 years makes any difference to those now growing up.

At least now we can and do let our young people know that it’s ok to be yourself and to protect them from the phobias that other people have.

A footnote:  I did speak with my friend about this blog.  We agree that we need Safe Schools.  It strikes me that we just did what Safe School needs to do, a free exchange of thoughts communicated with humility and respect, we both came away with a better understanding of each other.

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Nov 15

I’m a survivor of sexual abuse.

It’s a hot topic at the moment.

I have not suffered any sexual abuse at the hands of the catholic church.  I was an altar boy, I attended the catholic Scout Group, I went to St Mary’s primary school and Monivae College secondary school, I was for many years an active member of St Mary’s catholic parish in Hamilton.  In all those years I was never subjected to any thing of a sexual nature by any of those involved in the church.

There was talk at school in the 70’s of priests or brothers being ‘poofters’ and messing around with some of the boarders (I was a day student), there was nothing ever concrete that I recall.  Every now and then a religious type would disappear quickly and rumours would abound.  It wasn’t considered unusual.

The sexual abuse I suffered happened inside my very catholic family.  The church did have a role in how it affected me for many years.  Let me tell you how.

During a recent media conference, Cardinal George Pell, who we are supposed to refer to as His Eminence, said that a priest should never reveal what is said to them during confession.  As the sinful person repenting to the priest you can say anything you like, admit whatever you like, murder, theft, bashing and raping of children, and the priest will never mention that again to anyone.

Confession, which later became known as reconciliation, is a sacrament that the catholics bestow upon the faithful.  It’s the process of declaring your sins to god and having them forgiven and then doing some penance (punishment).  Penance was often saying some prayers, 10 hail marys or a couple of our fathers.  If the sin was really bad then the whole fucking rosary.

During training before making your first confession, the church takes the young person, quite often between 8 and 10, and instructs them on how sin works, how great god is to forgive us those sins and how to beg for that forgiveness.  Sister Rose was my tutor.  She took us grade 3 students (it may have been grade 4, I don’t know) and put the fear of god and eternal damnation into us.  Dying with a sin on your soul would surely see you cast into the pits of hell to burn for all eternity.  Something as simple as chewing gum in class could see you in the company of the devil forever.  I wonder what happened to Paul Kelly, perhaps god forgave him.

There’s a euphoric feeling after confessing.  The church makes sure you feel it.  It’s all set up that way.  You go to church on a Saturday morning, Dad would take us, the confessional boxes are at the back of the church, you sit in the pew, or mostly kneel, praying to god or thinking about how to steal your brother’s records to tape them, and behind you people shuffle along the pews into the confessional only to emerge a few minutes later looking relieved.  There’s  lots of sideways scooting along polished pews and craning of necks to see how many people are before you.

The confessional box is a wooden box with two doors.  You step into your side and it’s dark.  There’s a kneeler, so you kneel.  The priest is on the other side sitting quite comfortably probably with the transistor radio plugged into his ear listening for the scratchings for the races.  There is a wall between you and a small window covered in mesh, so you can’t really see him and he probably can’t really see you.  He flings open the little window, mutters some words in Latin, although it may have been English, and you start with the magic words.

“Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been a month since my last confession and…”

“A month?”

“Yes father”

“That’s a long time and a lot of sinning, you need to come weekly to keep your soul clean”

“Yes father”

“Go on”

“..and my sins are… lying, stealing, picking on my little brother, loosing my temper, being rude”

“Is that all?”

“Yes father”

“How many times did you lie?”

“I don’t know, I lied to mum about breaking a glass”

“I see, and what did you steal?”

“Some chewing gum from the shop”

“And how where you rude?”

“I was rude with my brother”

“And how many times do you lose your temper?”

“All the time, Father”

“Have you missed church?”

“No father”

“So you’ve been every Sunday?”

“Yes father”

“God is pleased,  I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit.  For your penance say one our father and ten hail marys.  Say the act of contrition”

“Oh my god, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you, because you are so good and with your help I will not sin again”

“Bless you my son, go and sin no more”

Then there’s a few amens or waving of hands as you struggle to stand up in the small box, fiddle with the door knob and walk out into the light.  That’s when the feeling of happiness happens, you’ve just bared your 10-year-old soul to a grumpy old man who said some magic words and all has been forgiven.  You promise yourself to never sin again, that normally lasts at least until the last prayer.

Remember, I’m 10, I lack the ability to properly express myself. I don’t even know the right words to describe the abuse.  The priest is also unprepared for the real story coming from the other side of the box.  Here’s a kid who says that he is rude with his brother and loses his temper all the time.  Did that set your alarm bells ringing?  At least to ask a few more questions or perhaps raise the issue with the child’s parents.

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing, I can see now as an adult that sticking a kid in a dark box and telling him to tell god his most deep secrets is foolhardy.  At the very least the person on the other side of the mesh has a duty of care to ensure the well-being of the child.  I doubt the priest was even aware of the trauma going on in my life, he certainly had no ability to understand the impact of what being rude means.

If I had disclosed the true nature of being rude the priest would have done nothing, you see the secrecy surrounding the confession is absolute.  While the church continues to hide behind that charade young children are being hurt.

It’s the same reason that I object to christians as school chaplains, they’re not counsellors, they’re not qualified to listen to a child bare their soul.

The continued policy of the catholic church to protect their priests by claiming some sort of religious right to withhold important information has to stop.

It’s rot, absolute bullshit, to say that the confessional is sacred.  It’s not.

How much different my life would have been if the caring priest had of asked what I meant by being rude.  How much better would it have been if he’d had a quiet word to my parents.  How much better if he’d alerted an appropriate counsellor to have a chat with me.  How much better if the church had prepared the priest to handle such disclosures appropriately.

For years and years I imagined every time I sinned a black mark being on my soul.  The soul to me was a round disk inside my body, and every time I sinned it was like taking a pencil and blacking out a section.  In my mind I could see my soul and just how black it was.

Walking out of the confessional was like taking an eraser to the soul and making it sparkling again. Being rude was something I thought was my fault because I was admitting the sin, and not being told I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I was being forgiven.

I think I had it easy.  As traumatic as my experience was I listen to the hurt of those that have been raped and abused by people in the positions of power and I consider myself lucky.

I’ve long ago dealt with the sexual abuse in my life, and I have fully addressed the abuse with the abuser.  My heart goes out to those who now have to struggle with organisations that seek to avoid their responsibilities.

I believe it’s incumbent upon us to support and encourage them.

The royal commission into  child sexual abuse is long overdue.  The likes of the catholic church and other religious establishments to hold special privileges in our democratic state has passed.  They should be held accountable to the full extent of the law and not be permitted to avoid examination or responsibility based on some vague notion that they are somehow only responsible to a deity that would seem to have condoned their shocking behaviour and done nothing to protect innocent children for the vile nasty children rapist and abusers.

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