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Australia St Kevin's grooming scandal: The organisation moving on from Christian Brothers' dark past

00:15  23 february  2020
00:15  23 february  2020 Source:   watoday.com.au

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a sign on the side of a building: St Kevin's College in Toorak. © Pat Scala St Kevin's College in Toorak. On Tuesday morning, as St Kevin’s College found itself at the centre of a grooming scandal, an unfamiliar figure appeared at a hastily convened school assembly to address the students.

The softly-spoken man introduced himself as Wayne Tinsey, the executive director of Edmund Rice Education Australia. Then, in a 10-minute speech that confused some boys and enraged others, he gave his full support to headmaster Stephen Russell — who was under fire for providing a reference to a convicted child sex offender — while blaming the media for shaming the college.

a person smiling for the camera: Paris Street was groomed by his running coach and St Kevin's College supported his perpetrator at court. (Supplied) © Provided by ABC NEWS Paris Street was groomed by his running coach and St Kevin's College supported his perpetrator at court. (Supplied) "We can only begin to imagine the devastation many of you are feeling to have the culture of your school, a school that is good and noble, so publicly dragged through the mud in a national program," Dr Tinsey announced in the wake of the damning ABC Four Corners episode that revealed the grooming scandal.

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"Stephen, know that you have the absolute faith and confidence of EREA … EREA will work with you and we will bring about the change that is needed."

One day later, as public pressure intensified, Russell resigned as headmaster in a bid to spare the school from further reputational damage. The dean of sport, Luke Travers, was also stood down over his equally botched handling of the case, in which he reportedly told victim Paris Street that the grooming he’d endured was "a storm in a teacup".

Tinsey admitted to parents that "business, as usual, is not an option". As he told The Sunday Age on Friday: "sometimes you have to acknowledge that you don’t always get it right".

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The headmaster of St Kevin's College, Stephen Russell, declined to be interviewed. © St Kevin's College The headmaster of St Kevin's College, Stephen Russell, declined to be interviewed. EREA not only oversees St Kevin’s, one of the most well-heeled schools in the country, but also a nationwide network of educational institutions that were founded by the order of Christian Brothers.

But if its creation 13 years ago was designed, at least in part, to rebrand the Catholic religious order after decades of horrific child sexual abuse, the St Kevin’s scandal suggests the lessons of the past have not been fully learned.

‘The biggest single change’

On October 1, 2007, the Christian Brothers undertook a major restructure. At the church level, the provinces of Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea merged to form one overarching body: the Oceania Province. And at the same time, the Brothers entrusted their mission in education to a new entity, Edmund Rice Education Australia, named after the Irish Catholic missionary who founded the Congregation of the Christian Brothers in 1802.

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a person standing in front of a building: The Treacy Centre in Parkville, headquarters of the Oceania Province of the Christian Brothers. © Arsineh Houspian The Treacy Centre in Parkville, headquarters of the Oceania Province of the Christian Brothers. The shift was dubbed “the biggest single change to take place in Australasia for the Christian Brothers and their Australian schools”.

Under the new structure, lay leaders would oversee all the schools owned by the religious order in a bid to professionalise its educational wing at a time of a large influx of government funding. In turn, the shift would free up the Brothers, both ageing and dwindling in number, to focus on their ministry work around the world.

Today, EREA owns and manages 54 schools across every state and territory in Australia, enrolling almost 40,000 students. It generated a surplus of $247 million in 2017 and controls about $2 billion in land and property assets.

Twenty-one of its schools are “flexible learning centres” — schools designed to re-engage often “at risk” youth, through smaller class sizes and innovative curricula. The rest are traditional private schools, including Waverly College and Christian Brothers Lewisham in Sydney, St Kevin’s in Toorak and St James College in Brisbane.

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“We’re all pretty passionate,” Tinsey, a former director of schools for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, told The Sunday Age. “We all believe in the mission and we just want to do the right thing.”

EREA is made up of a five-member council and seven-person board that, like Tinsey, have backgrounds in education. Its national headquarters is based in Melbourne, working out of an office on one of Richmond Hill’s most exclusive streets: The Vaucluse.

But according to the group, “EREA is a completely separate legal entity from the Christian Brothers and is not in any way owned or under the direction of the Christian Brothers”.

The organisation nonetheless remains the Christian Brothers in religious spirit and at its top, with the EREA council selected by the Congregation Leader of the Christian Brothers, who is headquartered in Rome. Recommendations for the positions are sent to Rome jointly by the EREA president, who is a Christian Brother, and the Province Leader of the Christian Brothers.

“The only role that the Congregation Leader of the Christian Brothers has is to approve recommendations from EREA for positions on the EREA council,” a spokesman said.

Dark legacy

While the current foundations of EREA lie in fulfilling the educational philosophy of its namesake, there’s no escaping the legacy of the Christian Brother’s dark past.

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More than 1000 victims made a claim of child sexual abuse against various Christian Brothers between 1980 and 2015 – the highest number of any Catholic diocese or religious order in the country, according to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Indeed, the brotherhood and its lay personnel accounted for 483 alleged perpetrators — 20 per cent of all suspected offenders identified in the Catholic Church in Australia.

a sign on the side of a building: St Kevin's College has come under fire for reference endorsements. © Supplied St Kevin's College has come under fire for reference endorsements. Among them are imprisoned child abusers Edward Dowlan and Robert Best, as well as known offender Gerald Leo Fitzgerald, who died before he could ever be charged. All were from St Alipius in Ballarat – the same school that harboured notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale, who remains in prison, and became one of the most shocking examples of the church’s crimes and cover-ups.

The order’s history of denials, obfuscations and inaction was extensively canvassed at the royal commission.

Church insiders and survivor advocates say it’s no coincidence that there’s no mention of the Christian Brothers in EREA’s new name. But many remain unconvinced by the attempt to rebrand.

“They may be hiding behind a name change, but you can’t change the spots on a leopard,” says a survivor advocate.

Asked if the EREA was established in an attempt to rebuild the Christian Brothers’ name, Tinsey replies: “I don’t think so.” Members of the order were ageing, he said, and simply wanted to hand over control of their schools “before it was too late”.

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As for the financial links between the two groups, EREA spends about $1 million a year on “training and formation services” provided by the Christian Brothers, according to its financial records.

Parents, in turn, donated more than $3.2 million through the EREA to the Christian Brothers’ Foundation for Overseas Aid in 2016 and 2017, which provides educational outreach in the developing world.

The order of the Oceania Province of the Christian Brothers has been underwriting the sexual abuse compensations and lawsuit payouts made against the Christian Brothers in Australia, which totalled $213 million from 2013 to 2018. It is expected to spend at least another $134 million. Its viability under this kind of financial pressure remains an open question.

A spokesman for the Oceania Province declined to answer questions about the source of the group’s funding, other than to say: “For more than three decades, the Christian Brothers have been meeting our obligations to those who have experienced abuse in any of our facilities and this work is continuing.”

Maybe so, but observers argue that last week’s events were a real-time lesson in how much work is still required to tackle institutional abuse.

"This is not an issue that was just relevant 20 or 30 years ago — it's certainly still an issue today,” says Sheree Limbrick, the chief executive of Catholic Professional Standards Limited.

“The institutions may be different now, and the people who commit offences now are not necessarily priests and brothers. They can be lay professionals with tertiary education that we need to be aware of.”

St Kevin's College. © AAP St Kevin's College. Back at St Kevin’s, the dust is slowly starting to settle. Stephen Russell has been replaced as headmaster by John Crowley, a highly respected principal from St Patrick’s in Ballarat. An “independent cultural review” has been initiated to improve the way the college responds to abuse complaints in the future.

And the young victim at the centre of the storm — groomed by a predator; mistreated by his school — has been vindicated, finally.

“No student should ever have to go through what Paris Street did and no family should either,” Tinsey wrote in a letter to parents on Wednesday. “We are so sorry and we let you down.”

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