Christian Brothers apologise for abuse at an orphanage

  • By a Broken Rites researcher

This Broken Rites article demonstrates how easy it was to cover up sexual abuse in orphanages, where the children were alone, without access to their families. As shown in this article, the Christian Brothers in Australia have accepted complaints about a senior Brother — A.F. Webster — who was in charge of St Augustine's boys' orphanage in Geelong, Victoria.

Brother Aloysius Francis Webster — known to his colleagues and relatives as "Lou" Webster (short for Aloysius) or Frank Webster — was the superintendent (principal) at this orphanage from 1954 to 1959.

Webster died on 21 May 1990 and was buried with honour in the Christian Brothers' cemetery at Bundoora, Melbourne. After his death, a sports oval at another Christian Brothers school was named the "A.F. Webster Oval" in Webster's honour — until a victim forced the Christian Brothers to remove Webster's name from this oval.

Webster's victims — and their families — are still feeling the effects of Webster's abuse and the effects of the church's culture of cover-up.

Broken Rites has interviewed two survivors from Webster's time at St Augustine's orphanage.

Survivor 1: Steve

One boy at St Augustine's orphanage was "Steve" (born in 1941). In 2007, when he was aged 66, Steve complained to the Catholic Church "professional standards office" (also known as "Towards Healing") that he had been sexually abused by Brother Webster in the 1950s. Steve backed up his complaint by submitting a detailed report, written by his psychologist, demonstrating how Steve's life had been adversely affected by Webster's sexual abuse and (equally importantly) by the cover-up.

"Steve" (not his real name) was born in Victoria to an unmarried mother and he did not know his father. At the age of two, he was sent to an orphanage in Bendigo (northern Victoria) for three years and then to another orphanage in Brighton (Melbourne) for three years. In 1950, aged nine, he was taken to St Augustine's orphanage in Geelong, where he lived until he was fifteen.

Steve told Broken Rites in 2008: "Brother Webster came to St Augustine's in early 1954, when I was still only 12, and the abuse started shortly after this. He abused me for more than two years."

Steve's experiences at the orphanage are outlined in a report by his psychologist, written in May 2007. The following account is from the psychologist's report, although Broken Rites has changed the victim's name to "Steve" to protect his privacy:

  • Steve was singled out by Brother Webster and made to feel special in a number of ways. He was made a waiter at the Brothers' table, which was a privilege that entitled those boys to wear a special uniform. He was given a watch, a puppy and additional pocket money (sometimes two shillings a week when the usual allowance was sixpence). He was also given cigarettes from the age of 12 when the abuse started. Other St Augustine's boys said that Steve was Brother Webster's pet.
  • Steve was sexually assaulted two to three times a week over a two-year period by Brother Webster from the age of 12. The first assault was when he was taken for a drive in a car by Brother Webster at night. The Brother stopped the car on the Colac road [west of Geelong]. Brother Webster began to cuddle him and then started to touch him in the crotch. Steve burst into tears and Brother Webster stopped touching him.
  • Some time later, Brother Webster sent a message to him, via one of the boys, asking Steve to come to Webster's room. Brother Webster again began to hug and kiss him. He undressed Steve, then took off his own clothes. Steve was forced to masturbate Brother Webster and perform oral sex on Webster. It was in the context of this sexual abuse that Brother Webster would give cigarettes to Steve
  • On one occasion, Brother Webster tried to perform anal intercourse on Steve but Steve prevented this.
  • After the assaults started, Steve's previously good academic performance in school plummeted and, as a result, at age 14 years he was sent to work in the orphanage bakery.
  • After Steve passed through puberty, he finally felt able to say "No" to Brother Webster's sexual abuse, saying: "I don't want to do it."
  • Steve left St Augustine's when 15 years old. However, having nowhere else to go, he returned to St Augustine's for a further six months, during which time Brother Webster once more made a sexual approach to Steve which he refused.

As Brother Webster was the head of the orphanage, there was nobody to whom Steve could complain at the time of the abuse. Steve continued his silence until he revealed the abuse to his wife and adult children when he was in late fifties. This lengthy cover-up had adverse effects on Steve's adolescent and adult development, according to the psychologist's report. The psychologist says the long-term effects were considerable, but, to protect Steve's privacy, Broken Rites is not publishing any details about the effects.

Apology to Steve

The Christian Brothers' Australian headquarters accepted Steve's complaint and sent him a letter dated 31 July 2008, stating: "We [the Christian Brothers] are genuinely sorry for the actions and attitudes to which you were subjected."

The Christian Brothers paid some compensation to Steve in an out-of-court settlement, in return for Steve surrendering his right to sue the Christian Brothers in the civil courts. This out-of-court settlement was a cheap way for the Christian Brothers to protect their organisation from any further liability.

Survivor 2: Boris

"Boris" (born in 1942) lived at St Augustine's orphanage from the age of 10 to 16, and he says he was sexually abused by Brother Aloysius Francis Webster and others.

In 1994, Boris told Broken Rites: "At the orphanage, the Brothers would drink alcohol at night and then one or more of them would come to our dormitory to pick a boy to molest. At age 13 or 14, Brother Wilfred Eastmure forced me to masturbate him several times a week, during a two-year period.

"Webster, as the head of the orphanage, knew what the Brothers were doing and he used to say that, if we reported the assaults, he would punish us severely. Anyway, Webster said, nobody would believe no-hopers like us orphanage boys. Webster was helped by the fact that the church cultivated a public image about priests and Christian Brothers being above suspicion."

Boris described his experience of Brother Webster: "When I was about 14, Webster tried to force me to give him oral sex. Because I resisted this, he was cruel to me for the next few years — for example, giving me floggings."

By 1994, Boris was living in Rockhampton, in central Queensland. That year, he phoned Broken Rites saying that he had recently learned that St Brendan's College (a Christian Brothers school at Yeppoon, near Rockhampton) had named its new sports oval as the "A.F. Webster Oval" in honour of Brother Webster. The oval had a wooden sign, with Webster's name on it.

After consulting Broken Rites, Boris complained to the Christian Brothers headquarters about this honouring of Brother Frank Webster and demanded that the sign be removed. A senior Christian Brother from Brisbane travelled to Rockhampton in 1994 to confer with Boris. By 2008, all mentions of Brother A.F. Webster had been removed from the school's signage and this was reported on the WIN Television Rockhampton news bulletin on 28 March 2008.

Boris says he will never forget the abuse inflicted on boys by Christian Brother Aloysius Francis Webster and others.

  • The above article was posted on 28 August 2011.