An altar boy's story

A former Catholic altar boy (let's call him "Cedric" - not his real name) has told Broken Rites about his experiences at the hands of Father Francis Xavier Brown (a Catholic priest in the Dominican religious order) in Adelaide around 1960. Cedric says he still feels hurt (half a century later) by his experience as an altar boy.

In the late 1950s, Cedric (born in 1950) became a pupil in the junior grades at Blackfriars Priory School (an all-boys school conducted by the Dominican priests and brothers) in Prospect, Adelaide. Eventually, Cedric was selected by the Dominicans to begin training as an altar boy for Saint Lawrence’s parish church in Prospect, North Adelaide.  This parish was conducted by the Dominicans and these priests were involved in both the school and the parish.

Cedric says that while he was an altar boy he came under the supervision of Fr Francis Xavier Brown O.P.  The letters "O.P.", after the priest's name, referred to the "Order of Preachers" -  the official name of the Dominican religious order. For a time, Father Brown was also simultaneously Cedric's class teacher. Therefore, Cedric was under the control of Father Brown at the church altar and also in the classroom.

And Father Brown was responsible for hearing boys' Confessions. That is, Cedric was forced to tell all his "sins" to Father Brown in the confessional. The secrecy of Confession gave Father Brown extraordinary power over Cedric.

Cedric has given Broken Rites a written account of his experience:

"I was chosen by the priests [at Blackfriars Priory School] to be an altar boy at Saint Lawrence’s parish church, North Adelaide. Why and by whom and for what reason I was never told...

"I found it all confusing and tedious, having to learn the catechism by heart, all the Latin for the masses, the preparation, the repetitive chanting and movements and hearing constantly about all the things that lead you to sin and hell.

"In the mornings, I got up in the dark, rode my bike, freezing during winter, to the North Adelaide church to kneel on cold marble, recite Latin responses, ring bells and sing sometimes and swing the incense holder, the censor full of smoking frankincense. Benediction [the evening service] was the least excruciating for a recalcitrant altar boy. It was in the evening, was relatively short, had lots of singing and it was one of my duties to fill, fire up and swing the smoking censor full of frankincense.

"It was after Benediction, one cold night, when I was putting away the religious objects in the Sacristy, that I found myself alone there with Father Brown, who was also my class teacher at Blackfriars Priory School in Prospect.

"He told me that my Latin needed work and that he would take me aside for practice. I knew the Latin for high mass, low mass, benediction, Lent, weddings, stations of the cross. I could recite it in my sleep and often did. What needed work?

"He took me behind the church between the stone buttresses. It was dark as dark can be and we were alone. The altar of his god was on the other side of the wall.

"He squatted down and positioned me between his thighs and held me there with his arms. Then he began breathing Latin from the mass into my ear.

"I was supposed to give the correct response I presumed through my growing fear.

"On and on it went, Latin mass call and response, it all got closer and breathier and creepier. His hands were exploring my body as he held me in a vice like grip. I didn’t know what was going on but I panicked.

"The panic gave me strength and speed, I broke free and, in the darkness, ran for where I knew my bike was, jumped on and pedalled for my life. I could not go back, I did not go back to that church.

"Unfortunately he [Father Francis Xavier Brown] was also my class teacher at Blackfriars Priory School and he made my school life hell from that moment on [with physical and psychological cruelty]...

"I was caned on the hands and buttocks on a daily basis for what were minimal misdemeanours, making a mistake, talking, inattention, wearing the wrong socks..."

    The impact on Cedric's life

    In his written account, Cedric has also told Broken Rites how his personal development was disrupted by Father Francis Xavier Brown's abuse. He wrote:

    "I could not find the words to speak to my parents about this. What were the words, what was happening to me? My parents had the priests at home for dinners. They were just doing what they thought was a good thing, getting to know my teachers. Trying to understand what was going on with me, the sullen changed child...

    "This distanced me from my parents. I was very, very alone... From then on I distrusted anything a priest said, did or tried to teach me. It made my education very difficult. I became an angry young man. I began to distrust all adults and had little confidence in communicating with them. I left that Catholic school and church system as an inarticulate, confused, angry, distrustful, uneducated young man.

    "In later life I re-educated myself [and entered a professional career] to prove to myself that education didn’t have to be as miserable, violent, toxic and repressive as mine was..."

      Cedric summed it all up this way:

      "As someone who has been abused by its so-called ‘holy men’ in its churches and schools, I know that the proof of the truth of any religion is in how it treats and protects its innocents. .."

        Broken Rites is continuing its research about Father Francis Xavier Brown, O.P.