Standing up for Canberra

National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018

I rise to speak on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018.

I too commend the member for that incredibly powerful speech. The speeches on this issue have been powerful, because this does cut at the core of our morality and of our values, and also to our shame. I do commend the member. I commend the Leader of the Opposition and I commend colleagues, both those who are here currently and those who are no longer here, for the work that they've done in realising this royal commission and finally getting some redress for those who were affected over decades and decades—thousands and thousands of children right across this country. It's an absolute disgrace. It's a great blight on our nation and it is an absolute shame for our nation, and I thank my colleagues, both those who aren't with us anymore and those who are with us now, for actually realising this royal commission.

I want to go over some of the areas of concern that Labor has with this bill and then discuss an issue that the Canberra community has been facing here for a number of years—for a number of decades—at Marist College in Canberra. In the areas of concern, we've actually outlined that Labor has been advocating for the recommendations of the royal commission to be implemented as written. We do have a number of concerns in terms of the residency requirement; the access to counselling and psychological care; the redress and the length of period that it's open for; the imprisonment issue—and that has been discussed at length by colleagues and also in the media; and the legal assistance that's provided in the redress scheme. Labor has a number of areas of concern and they have been prosecuted at length by my colleagues.

As I said, today I want to talk about Marist College. This is an issue that has rocked the Canberra community in recent years. The sexual abuse of students at Marist College was happening in the seventies, eighties and nineties and has affected many in the Canberra community, rocked the faith of many in the Canberra community and rocked the trust in institutions—the educational institution that is Marist and also the Catholic institution as a church.

In the royal commission documents, there's a very lengthy case study, No. 13, of just what's happened with Marist College, one of many, many case studies. It is more than 100 pages long. The royal commission exposed that Marist College in Canberra was the most notorious Catholic school in Australia for child sexual abuse claims. It found that 63 claims of child sexual abuse were made against the school, but the true figure is believed to be much larger—well over 100. But who knows? The school was attended by a number of my friends. A piece was written last year in February, and I want to read this piece because it is incredibly powerful:

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.

Other reports emerged about sexual assaults at Marist Brothers in Canberra in the 1970s and 80s. Among the accused one name stood out …

This is a name that is very well known in Canberra: Brother Kostka.

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. 

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 were 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.

That piece was penned by my husband, who was part of that rugby team that toured New Zealand and was part of that group who so bravely, as young men, stood up against the system to call out wrong, to call out evil, and were ignored.

How many times have we heard of this instance being called out through these discussions? How many times did we hear similar stories right throughout the country, throughout the decades, of instances where people have called out this abominable behaviour, this abuse, and they've been ignored?

My husband was part of that group and he penned that piece. I know that his friends were also victims of sexual abuse at that school. I know that his friends of friends were also victims of sexual abuse at the school. The fact that it went on for so long and it was ignored for so long is a great shame for Marist College and for the Canberra community. There are so many young lives who were victims of this sexual abuse, here in our community and here in our nation's capital.

The royal commission, in regard to this particular report on Brothers Kostka Chute and Gregory Sutton, found that systemic issues included:

  • recognition by school staff of grooming behaviour
  • recognition by school staff of behaviour that may constitute or may lead to sexual abuse of children
  • responding to reports of suspicions of grooming and suspicions of sexual abuse of children, including in the context of religious organisations and religious-run schools …

It's just endless in terms of the lack of record keeping and the lack of monitoring and supervision. The issues included:

  • the need for mechanisms for handling complaints of sexual abuse from children

As was mentioned, it wasn't just one child. We are talking about a group of young boys here who had the courage and who had the moral compass to be able to stand up against that. There were so many systemic issues that were identified in the royal commission investigation into the sexual abuse allegations from Brothers Kostka and Gregory. There are not too many people who went to Marist, particularly in the seventies, who didn't know of someone who had sexually abused or who were themselves sexually abused. I know so many of the friends of my husband were.

I want to take this opportunity to thank and acknowledge the work that's been done and the courage and commitment that's been shown by Bravehearts ambassador Damian De Marco in calling this out. He was a 'favourite' of Brother Kostka's. I also thank John Ellis who took this issue—not necessarily from Marist—to court and set a legal precedent there. There are many, many others who have been incredibly brave in term of setting precedents and many others who have spoken out who have been ignored. I want to commend, acknowledge and thank them for their commitment and their courage. It must have been incredibly lonely for them for so long. They would have doubted themselves. We know that many of them just found it all too heard to bear and decided to end it. They would have doubted themselves, they would have doubted their sanity, they would have doubted their faith and they would have doubted their trust in the system. It must have been so incredibly lonely for them.

I do want to acknowledge all those hundreds, thousands of Australians who've been through this and acknowledge the fact that it would have been so lonely for you. There would have been so many nights and so many days, staring down so many demons for so many decades. I acknowledge you and I commend you for your courage and bravery and for hanging in there, particularly Damian De Marco here—who was, as I said, Brother Kostka's absolute 'favourite'—who has pursued this issue for so long. The fact that the royal commission documents showed that Marist College here in our Canberra was the most notorious Catholic school, in terms of Australia, for sexual abuse claims has really rocked the community. There are those 63 claims, as I said. There are people who suggest there are others—hundreds more, possibly, who knows? Many of them are friends of my husband and many of them are friends of friends of my husband.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank Marist College for the considerable effort they've put in, in terms of acknowledging what happened; apologising for the sexual abuse by staff in the past; acknowledging the many innocent victims, the survivors, their families and the current community of students, staff and parents; acknowledging that sexual and physical abuse occurred is a source of shame to us all and apologising that we failed in our response, both at the time and afterwards.

They've had a number of liturgy services and other ceremonies to acknowledge this and try to at least come to some sort of resolution in terms of the fact that this has brought such shame on the community, on the Marist College community and the Catholic Church.

My late mother-in-law was a very committed Catholic. She was at one stage president of the Catholic Women's League. She was a devout Catholic, a devout woman and placed great store in her Catholic faith. All I can say is thank God the gorgeous Mary Rose Uhlmann was not alive when reports like this came out. She'd heard murmurings and she was cut to the core; she just could not believe that the Catholic Church could do this, that the Catholic educational institutions could do this to their beautiful young people. The findings of the royal commission would have completely rocked her to her core. I am just so glad in many ways that she wasn't here to hear this. She was a teacher in a number of Catholic schools here in Canberra, in the primary schools. She was a much-loved teacher at St John Vianney's and other schools. I'm so glad in so many ways that the beautiful and much-missed Mary Rose Uhlmann wasn't here to see the results of this appalling royal commission and these appalling decades of abuse.

In closing, I want to quote from Chris's article again because it is incredibly powerful and does give just one instance of young people actually being confronted with evil and making a moral decision:

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.