Surviving an unholy school war
By LARRY BUTTROSE
Added: Sat, 17 May 2008 23:00:00 UTC
Surviving an unholy school war
Larry Buttrose still marvels at the hypocrisy of a system he says violated generations of Catholic children.
I was born into a loving family. As far as I can remember, my parents never smacked me; hardly even raised their voices.
But they were churchgoing Roman Catholics and, a few weeks after my fifth birthday, one summer morning my mother walked me from our home to the local parish school.
Things there were very different. I vividly recall the red carbolic-scrubbed face of the young Irish nun swathed all in black who met us, and the strange gleam in her eye. Within days she was belting us with a cane, and being a left-hander I was singled out for special treatment; my hand beaten hard and often so I could no longer hold my pencil in "the hand of the devil".
Our nun teacher was ever on a slow simmer, hyper-vigilant for the merest mistake we might make in parroting back our lolly-hued religious texts.
Although still very young, even then I was surprised at the gulf between all the talk about God and love, and the beatings. I recall my confusion from the time, and the incipient feelings of resentment at what I would later learn to call hypocrisy.
Things seemed to change for the better when my parents decided upon a Jesuit education, and at age seven I began a long daily bus journey from Sydney's western suburbs to join the sons of Catholic doctors, lawyers and businessmen. My family was working/lower middle-class, and sending me to a private school was a major financial commitment, but my parents did it in the belief it was the best Catholic education money could buy.
The school's stress was on maths and science. There were no art or music classes, but French and Latin were taught, and it had a solid reputation in English. On balance my parents were optimistic.
There is an aphorism attributed to the Jesuits, which I will paraphrase as "Give us the boy at seven and we'll answer for the man", and when I first heard it I did feel uneasy about the "give" part.
But my first years there felt like a deliverance, nonetheless: no more nuns falling upon us like a burning biblical whirlwind, but instead the largely kindly attentions of lay teachers who actually seemed to like us, and who would resort to physical punishment only if we misbehaved.
Discipline we understood, though. Even at that age we expected discipline: the Jesuits are famous for it, after all.
Things turned for the worse when my classmates and I entered secondary school, however. We had by this time been introduced to the nuclear weapon of corporal punishment, well and truly a cut above the cane. "The Bomb" was a thick leather barber's strap, heavily stitched, the handle at one end making it perfect for the priest to grip onto, while bringing the other end down with all his might onto an outstretched palm with a resounding visceral thwack. A single jarring blow induced significant pain: six left the hand throbbing and numb, sometimes bruised.
The priests and brothers had internal pockets sewn into their voluminous black gowns, and like a gunfighter in a western, at some tiny misdemeanour they would suddenly go bright red, whip out their Bomb, and bellow urgently "Come on, come out, come out here."
The unfortunate child - all still short of our teens - would walk to the front of the classroom and would invariably get "six of the best"; the inevitable pain heightened by the possible humiliation of not "bearing it well".
Occasionally boys "cracked" in front of our eyes, unable to take it any longer. Often the priest's aim could be awry too, perhaps on purpose, and the upturned wrist struck as well as the palm, making the veins bulge alarmingly.
One extreme incident happened with a young priest newly arrived from Italy. On his first day in class he appeared outwardly pleasant, repeating his name so that we could get the pronunciation correct, and attempting something akin to a smile.
But he had a similar look in his eyes to the nuns, and I recognised it, and knew.
The eruption was not long in coming. A week after his arrival he took us to the school chapel, and on the steps afterwards he called a boy out for talking during the service.
When the boy smiled shyly with his response, the priest shrieked "You thinka me funny, eh? You thinka me funny eh!" In a single blurred motion he whipped his Bomb from his robes and lashed the barber's strap with the full force of his arm across the boy's face. The boy's head snapped back, and he staggered off across the steps, weeping.
Stunned by the reckless viciousness of the attack, the rest of us stood in silence while the priest eyed us screaming, "So, you thinka me funny, eh! Do you thinka me funny now, eh??" No one as much as breathed, eyes averted to the asphalt. Years later when Joe Pesci's demented character said much the same thing in Goodfellas, I recalled the priest from Italy.
The victim suffered bruising to his cheek in the assault, and I assumed his parents would contact the headmaster, if not the police. The priest was obviously nuts. But nothing happened. There was no apparent complaint, to the school or anyone else, and the priest soon went on a rampage, quivering each day before his manic beatings; quivering with what I would only later be able to identify as a kind of psychosexual lust.
Then we had the privilege of confessing our pathetic childlike sins to him in the confessional box, and kneeling in the pews for the penance he meted out.
One obvious reason nothing was done was other teachers were doing it too. One, who we had first period in the day, we would see marching across the schoolyard in a black flutter of robe, and arrive quaking with rage. On freezing midwinter mornings he lined us up shivering with cold and fear, and belted us all six of the best. This was simply the price for us turning up at school when he was in one of his moods, which could go on for weeks.
Sometimes only certain boys would be selected, other times it was everyone, the assaults going on for much of the period. But mostly his terror was random.
When later I studied sociology at university, I read that randomness is a defining feature of terror. If there is a discernible pattern, reason or imputable purpose to violence, the power of terror is diminished; rather it is the complete unpredictability of acts of violence which casts the true thrall of terror over the afflicted. So often the violence against us was arbitrary, random, and as such we were subjected to a kind of terrorism, an unholy war.
There was no doubt in my mind the school officialdom knew what was going on. The explosive sound of the Bomb carried down corridors, and out into the yards and grounds. It was no secret: many of the priests and brothers were perpetrators.
Such, I later realised, was the price children paid for the elders' precious oath of celibacy, an oath they dishonoured daily with their angst-driven sadism. Such acts could not be construed as punishment for misdeeds, but were part of the systematised abuse of children, at the very least condoned by the school executive.
My own response, as a small, quiet boy from the far side of the tracks, was to put my head down and keep it down, speaking only when spoken to. I studied as hard as one could in such disturbing circumstances, my only desire to finish school and get out. I was outwardly devout in religious matters, even though by now it all reeked of hypocrisy. I even invented a mental exercise in which I imagined myself to be invisible, so that the eye of fury might not alight upon me. As such I was perhaps doing what others did during the Inquisition, seeking refuge from a reign of terror through a self-conjured anonymity.
As time passed, I had increasing trouble sleeping, lying awake at night wondering how bad it would be the next day. My parents eventually noted my insomnia, and drew out of me what had been happening. I felt ashamed as I told them; not just the shame of the victim, but shame to be saying the priests of their church were not what my devout parents believed. To his enormous credit my father did what other parents seemingly had not done: he rang the headmaster and had words. Immediately after that the assaults moderated in frequency and in ferociousness, at least for a time.
Our school was not alone in such treatment. We now know that children in the Catholic system around the world suffered abuse at the hands of the very people entrusted with their care.
But at least it seems my classmates and I were largely spared (despite dark rumours from time to time) the practices that friends from other Catholic schools did not tell us about, because for so many reasons they could not, which was the criminal sexual abuse of many of them, a decades-long felony the church was at pains for so long to deny, intimidate against, cover up, pay off, shut up. Hounded towards the truth at last, it finally offered an apology.
But for the egregious acts of violence, which were perhaps far more widespread, there is as yet no repentance.
Some people may say that it was simply the times, that in decades past children were caned in government schools too, that corporal punishment was widespread throughout the educational system. True, children were caned in government schools, but not in the name of a God of compassion, not by one of that God's priests, and not delivered with the same twisted, psychosexual ferocity.
Others might say these things happened too long ago to concern us now, that it is all very different and enlightened nowadays. In the life of the Roman Catholic Church, the world's oldest corporate entity, decades are minutes, and they have long established form with the use of torture. One has only to remember the Inquisition. They burned Joan of Arc, they burned Giordano Bruno, they tortured and burned many, many people, all in the name of their God. What guarantee do we have that they would not lash out again, given the power, and the opportunity?
The criminal acts perpetrated upon children in decades still recent may pale against their vilest deeds in centuries gone, but these violated generations deserve at the very least a profound apology from the men they called father.
Larry Buttrose's most recent book is Dead Famous: Deaths Of The Famous And Famous Deaths. He is doing a PhD at the University of Adelaide.
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