One of Australia’s oldest Catholic boarding schools is under fire for turning an apology to victims of child sexual abuse into a religious service.
At least 160 students of St Stanislaus College in Bathurst were abused by paedophile priests and staff over three decades, between the 1970s and 1990s.
The school plans to host an “Apology Service of Sorrow and Hope” tomorrow night but victims say asking them to attend the school – where the abuse happened – and incorporating the apology into a religious service would trigger painful memories.
The head of the school, Dr Anne Wenham, said the event was intended as a genuine commitment to say sorry to victims.
“There will be prayers as part of this service. Sensitive to the experiences of our guests, we will be praying to God for forgiveness for the sexual abuse that took place at this college by former members of staff and for healing and hope for the many survivors,” Ms Wenham said in a statement.
Hetty Johnston from Bravehearts called the idea cruel and insensitive. (ABC News: Alison Branley)
But leading child protection advocate, Hetty Johnstone from Bravehearts, said it was cruel and insensitive to expect victims who were betrayed by people of faith to participate in a religious service.
“To force a survivor into an institution where they’ve been harmed to hear an apology is totally bereft of any kind of understanding about what’s happening for survivors,” Ms Johnstone told the ABC.
“You’ve got these people still sitting in these positions of power and authority who just don’t get it. Who don’t really want to apologise, I don’t think.
“They’ll do it on their terms but not on the survivor’s terms.”
Jason Thorpe was sexually abused by serial paedophile Brian Spillane at the school in the 1990s, when he was 14. Spillane is one of a dozen people connected to the school who have been convicted of child sexual assault.
Mr Thorpe told the ABC he found the idea of an apology service insulting.
“I don’t want a liturgy. It’s kind of like an insult, I feel. I mean to go to church knowing that the perpetrator was that church — that would bring back for me, memories. Just to acknowledge to say ‘you were wronged, you were hurt’ — that would be good,” Mr Thorpe said.
Sexual abuse survivor Jason Thorpe said the idea of an apology service was insulting. (ABC News)
Mr Thorpe’s mother Deirdre Kinghorn said she was worried about the impact on her son.
“It was priests and brothers that did the damage, so why have a church service that will trigger something in him?” Ms Kinghorn said.
“We’ve had 20 years of hell with him, keeping him sane, keeping him even and it’s going to trigger [him], it’s not worth it.”
Ms Kinghorn said families members would have preferred an apology in a neutral, informal setting.
“Just to have a get-together, a cup of tea and a snack, a buffet and get to know each other and perhaps say sorry that way,” she said.
“Not go to the school and say ‘Well we’re sorry’. It doesn’t mean a thing.”
Carole Nielsen’s son Tor was also abused by Spillane and later became the whistleblower on abuse at the school.
Former priest Brian Spillane is one of a dozen people connected to the school who have been convicted of child sexual assault. (AAP: Dean Lewins.)
Ms Nielsen said she was furious about the planned apology service.
“To have a religious ceremony where a lot of the boys were abused in prayer meetings to me was just astonishing,” Ms Nielsen said.
“At worst, it’s sinister and at best, it’s just total ignorance. I don’t think you can have any sort of reconciliation unless you have a degrees of empathy or compassion for the people that you’re trying to reconcile with and I don’t think any of that’s been displayed by this apology”.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said it appeared the school had learned nothing from the lessons of the royal commission.
“We’ve heard story after story, case study after case study which shows how badly institutions have responded in the past,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“You would’ve thought the church and this school would have learnt the lesson, but instead they’re still disrespecting the victims. They’re still prioritising their own needs.”