Some St John of God Brothers abused the disabled
One of Australia’s most prominent Catholic religious orders – the St John of God Brothers (SJOG) – has had an entrenched culture of sexual abuse, according to court evidence. The St John of God religious order has specialised in accommodating boys who have an educational or, in many cases, an intellectual disability. This Broken Rites article is about court cases in the 1990s (and also in 2006) involving Brother Bernard Kevin McGrath, who was jailed for committing sexual crimes against disabled victims.
Bernard Kevin McGrath (born 22 May 1947) grew up in New Zealand. In the 1960s, aged 18, he joined the St John of God Brothers (SJOG), a Catholic religious order which was conducting residential institutions in Australia and New Zealand for boys who have an educational or intellectual disability. For his training, he went to Sydney where the SJOG order has its headquartes for Australia and New Zealand. Most of McGrath’s working life has been spent at SJOG institutions in Australia and New Zealand.
McGrath gave details of his SJOG career in a six-hours videotaped interview with New Zealand detectives in 2003. In the videotape, which was shown in a New Zealand courtroom in 2006, McGrath tells how he was bullied by his authoritarian father who pressured him into joining a religious order at age 18. (McGrath’s father had trained for the Catholic priesthood but ended up as a manual worker.)
The court was told that, when McGrath began training with SJOG in Sydney, a senior brother there had a habit of making sexual overtures towards the trainees. (For legal reasons, we will call this man Brother X.) The sexual abuse McGrath claimed he suffered resembled the kinds of indecencies that he later inflicted on the boys in his custody.
After training in New South Wales, McGrath spent a year at a SJOG institution in Melbourne. In January 1974, he was transferred to New Zealand to be teacher and dormitory master at “Marylands”, a SJOG boarding school nearChristchurch for boys with learning and behavioural difficulties. At Marylands, the court was told, McGrath again encountered Brother X. Brother X allegedly set the tone for the culture at Marylands and ensured that complaints about sexual abuse by Brothers like McGrath were covered up.
The court was told that some boys would complain to senior Brothers about sexual abuse. Not only was nothing done but they would be punished for making their complaints.
The court was told that a boy from another dorm came to McGrath to complain about being sexually abused. McGrath says on the videotape: “I didn’t do anything because I’d played up myself, you know, so what do you do? How do you go and challenge someone when you’ve committed these sins.”
About 1978, after spending nearly four years at Marylands, McGrath was sent to St John of God’s “Kendall Grange” boarding institution at Morriset, New South Wales, for boys with educational difficulties. There, McGrath admitted on the videotape, he continued to sexually abuse boys.
In 1986, McGrath transferred from Morriset back to New Zealand to establish a residential program in Christchurch, the Hebron Trust, teaching life skills to street kids.
McGrath’s first conviction
In New Zealand, two social workers raised the alarm about McGrath’s indecent advances towards four of the Christchurch street kids on his course in 1991. The social workers raised the issue with the SJOG order but the order failed to act, so the social workers contacted the police.
Four of the Hebron Trust boys, aged then between 14 and 16, told detectives that McGrath had touched them indecently. Then two of the former Marylands boys, now grown men, also complained McGrath had sexually molested them while at the school.
In 1993, McGrath was sentenced to three years jail in New Zealand for his offences at Marylands and the Hebron Trust
The story of Alex
Meanwhile, in 1992 (before Brother McGrath’s jailing), an ex-pupil of the SJOG “Kendall Grange” boarding school in Morriset, NSW — “Alex” (not his real name) — complained to SJOG headquarters in Sydney that he had encountered Brother McGrath while he was a boarder for four years from 1980 to 1984. Alex (born 1969) told Broken Rites in 1994 that his SJOG experience disillusioned him about schools. He ran away from Kendall Grange and stopped his education, with no qualifications, ending up on the dole and finally on a disability pension. Alex says that St John of God “screwed up” his life. He says the SJOG experience left him with lasting feelings of shame and anxiety, emotional turmoil, depression and an explosive temper.
Alex says that, when he told the Australian leader of SJOG about McGrath, the leader expressed no surprise about Alex’s statement.
Alex had expected that SJOG would report McGrath to the police for prosecution but (he said) this did not happen.
The story of Jimmy — and McGrath’s second conviction
In Sydney in 1989, another McGrath victim (“Jimmy”, born in 1970) was having adolescent behavioural difficulties. He disclosed to his mother what McGrath had done to him in 1982-3 while at Kendall Grange. At the time of the offences, Jimmy was aged 11 to 13. In 1992, Jimmy’s mother (“Jill”) told the Australian head of SJOG who admitted that this was not the first complaint against McGrath.
In 1995, Jimmy made a police statement at Sydney’s Chatswood Crime Squad. After McGrath completed his New Zealand jail term, the police took him back to Sydney, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 1997 to nine months jail for the offences against Jimmy.
With the help of lawyers, and after 10 years of protracted proceedings constantly delayed by the stalling of lawyers for the S JOG order, Jimmy was forced to accept an out-of-court settlement amount for compensation. The amount seemed reasonable compared to other victims but his legal costs took a big bite out of his payout. Jimmy wasn’t happy with an out-of-court settlement — he would have preferred to have his day in court.
Jill has been in frequent contact with Broken Rites.
In March 2006, “Jill”, explained how she sent Jimmy to the Morriset school because his dyslexia was making him too disruptive to remain in the school he was attending.
“I didn’t want him to go, but a teacher told me that my son needed more help than his school could give him. I went to all the other schools in the local area and they refused to take him,” Jill said.
“I knew nothing about (the abuse) until my son told me years later. I knew he wasn’t happy at Morriset, but they covered it up so well and scared the kids so much.
“I used to ring Brother McGrath who was the Prior at Kendall Grange school, Morriset. I would tell McGrath that my son isn’t happy and he’s crying. McGrath just said all the boys do that; he just doesn’t want the discipline and they need discipline.
“I didn’t learn about the abuse until 1989. My son had a girlfriend and their relationship was pretty volatile and he was on drugs pretty heavily in his teenage years.
“She’d charged him with assault and when we were going to court he said `I’ve got something terrible to tell you’ and that’s when it all came out. I didn’t believe him at first. Talk about naive — I couldn’t believe it could happen.”
Jill says there were hints that McGrath’s proclivities were known to the St John of God order, but nothing was done.
“Their conspiracy of silence is terrible. A psychiatrist at the school said (at the time) there were problems at this school and to try to get my son out as soon as I could. I said there was nowhere else to go. In those days there was no onus on schools to accept pupils as there is today.
“When I told the psychiatrist later about McGrath, she said `I wouldn’t have picked him’. There were others there she must have known about.
“I now know of five boys who were molested at Morriset. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface. The tragedy is that my son must have felt so alone.
“My life hasn’t been the same since. I’ve tried to get on with my life but it hits me sometimes. I feel very remorseful about my son – it’s like a knife going in.
“In the early years, he blamed me for putting him in that school. He went violent one night and I had to run next door to a neighbour and bolt the door. I know if I’d stayed in the house, he’d have done something to me.”
Third conviction — in 2006
In 2002, more complainants contacted the New Zealand police concerning sexual assaults by Bernard McGrath and other SJOG Brothers at the Marylands institution, dating back several decades.
In the New Zealand High Court in Christchurch in March 2006, Brother McGrath, then 58, was found guilty of 21 charges, including eight charges of inducing an indecent act and 13 charges of indecent assault, relating to his time at Marylands between 1974 and 1977. He was acquitted of some other charges, including charges of sodomy.
The court sentenced McGrath to five years jail. The court took into account McGrath’s two earlier prison terms — the three years in New Zealand in 1993 and the nine months in Australia in 1997.
According to the New Zealand Herald newspaper on 7 April 2010, McGrath was released from his New Zealand jail on parole in February 2008, just less than two years into his five-year term.
Broken Rites is continuing to do research about Brother Bernard McGrath and other SJOG Brothers.
Meanwhile, any Australian victims of Bernard Kevin McGrath should have a chat with the Lake Macquarie detectives office in New South Wales, telephone 02-49429968.