This "chaplain" committed sexual offences in a girls’ orphanage (and his crimes were helped by the Catholic ritual of Confession)

  • By a Broken Rites reseacher, article updated 7 September 2018

Broken Rites is doing further research about a Catholic priest, Father Bernard Maxwell Day, who was living at a girls' orphanage in Victoria in the early 1960s. Father Day was one of a series of "chaplains" who occupied a flat at the orphanage. His "duties" including hearing each girl's Confession; this sacred ritual enabled a priest to talk to a girl about sex. A senior nun got Father Day removed after allegations that he was molesting girls at the orphanage. In a submission to a Victorian Parliamentary inquiry in 2013, the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese admitted that Fr Day committed sexual offences against children.

The orphanage (demolished in 1975) was St Catherine's Children's Home, which was situated in St Catherine's Street, Highton (a suburb of Geelong). Operated by the Sisters of Mercy religious order, St Catherine's accommodated about 100 girls each year in the 1960s, aged from 2 to 16.

St Catherine's orphanage had a chaplain's flat, where a priest would live. As Geelong is situated in the archdiocese of Melbourne, the flat was occupied by one of the diocesan priests who worked in Geelong. The priest would act as the girls' chaplain, possibly while also ministering in a neighbouring parish church.

In 1961-63, the flat was occupied by Father Bernard Maxwell Day. The nun then in charge of St Catherine's orphanage was Reverend Mother Aquin. Former inmates of St Catherine's say that Mother Aquin learned about Father Day molesting girls and she therefore had him removed from the institution.

In 1997 a Melbourne Herald Sun reporter located Mother Aquin, who confirmed to the reporter (18 April 1997, page 9) that she had sought the removal of Father Day from St Catherine's in the 1960s. By the 1990s, Mother Aquin had changed her name to Sister Veronica.

Opportunities for abuse

At St Catherine's orphanage, the chaplain's role included hearing the girls' Confessions and giving individual "counselling". The ritual of Confession enabled a priest to talk to a girl about sex.

There was a lack of proper sex education at the orphanage, and many girls obtained their first sexual knowledge through a priest.

The system at St Catherine's provided a chaplain with many temptations and opportunities. After early morning Mass, the priest's breakfast would be prepared in the convent kitchen and a girl would have to take it to the priest's flat. A girl would also be sent to tidy the priest's bedroom and make his bed.

A chaplain had the run of the orphanage premises and it was accepted that he could call a girl to his quarters to give her "individual counselling". There was no independent person outside the orphanage for the girls to complain to.

Many of the girls formed lasting impressions of men from their experience of a priest.

When former St Catherine's girls meet at reunions, they still talk about Father Bernard Maxwell Day.

A former inmate: Liz

Liz, born in 1955, has told Broken Rites:

"I was very young (only about eight) when Father Day was at St Catherine's in the early 1960s and I didn't encounter him but the older girls still talk about Day when they meet after all these years.

"These women say that Father Day used to sit girls on his knee and touch them indecently. These girls assumed that this was the normal job of priests.

"As these girls did not have parents to talk to in the evenings, it was difficult for them to complain about sexual abuse.

"The mother superior, Mother Aquin, learned that Father Day was sexually abusing girls. She got rid of Day and told the girls to keep quiet about it.

"Some girls who were sent to do Day's housework say they found pornographic material in his room."

Another ex-inmate: Beryl

Beryl, born in 1949, has told Broken Rites:

"I was about 14 when Father Day was at St Catherine's. I disliked him and kept out of his way. One day, about 1963, we woke up to find that Father Day had suddenly vanished. Mother Aquin told us girls that Father Day had done things that could bring shame to St Catherine's and therefore we must never talk to anybody about him. We later learned from other girls that Day had sexually abused some girls.

"The priest's house was quite separate, about 200 metres from the orphanage. It had its own gate and fence. It had two bedrooms. I used to do house work there.

"Father Day had a sibling who was a nun in the Sisters of Mercy (the order which conducted St Catherine's) and she was the head of a Catholic girls' school in Geelong, also conducted by the Mercy Sisters. Therefore the church in Geelong was keen to cover up the Father Day scandal."

The priest's background

Broken Rites has researched Day's career through the annual Australian Catholic Directories. Broken Rites ascertained that Day was ordained in 1936 and spent his entire career in the Melbourne diocese (which includes Geelong). His earliest parishes (in chronological order) included Collingwood, Essendon, Altona, North Melbourne, Balaclava, Daylesford, Pakenham and Cheltenham.

He then became chaplain at St Catherine's orphanage in 1961. He is listed at St Catherine's in the Catholic Directories published in early 1962 and early 1963. He was evidently removed from St Catherine's during 1963.

St Catherine's was not the only girls' institution at which Father Day worked. In 1953-54, his address was St Ursula's College, boarding school conducted by the Ursuline nuns, at Macedon, north of Melbourne.

The priest's later activities

After being removed from St Catherine's orphanage, Father Day served in Melbourne suburban parishes (St Roch's in Glen Iris, St John the Evangelist in East Melbourne and St John the Baptist in Clifton Hill).

At the East Melbourne parish, Father Bernard Maxwell Day was listed as "Father M. Day", which indicates that he may also have been known by his middle name — that is, Max Day or Maxie Day.

Broken Rites has ascertained that Father Day continued molesting girls after leaving St Catherine's. In the early 1970s, when he was at the Clifton Hill parish, he visited the local state primary schools to conduct religious instruction classes.

A woman teacher at the North Fitzroy state primary school in 1971-4 has told Broken Rites: "Day used to indecently touch Grade 6 girls in the corridors and schoolyard when he visited the school to teach a weekly catechism class. I complained to the principal and Day stopped coming to the school for a while. However, about 1974 he re-appeared at the school for catechism and resumed the molestation. I reported him again and he was banned from the school again. Girls told me that Day also molested them at the parish church, where it was easier for him to get away with it."

Father Day retired from the priesthood in the late 1970s and died about 1988.

Former St Catherine's girls have also named two other sexually abusive priests from the 1960s.

Cruelty

While some girls at St Catherine's experienced sexual abuse, a greater number experienced physical and emotional cruelty and neglect.

Beryl, whom we quoted earlier in this article, told Broken Rites: "Some of the nuns could be nice. However, it was a harsh place. For example, there were terrible punishments for bed-wetting. A bed-wetter could be forced to parade around with her wet sheets over her head and body."

Beryl said: "Some St Catherine's girls came from large families. In some cases, the whole family was placed in orphanages but the family was split, with one child placed here and the others scattered around in various other institutions. Some St Catherine's girls suspected that they had brothers and sisters but they did not know how to find them. Some St Catherine's girls are still searching for a long-lost brother or sister.

"St Catherine's orphanage had some positive aspects — for example, the friendships they made there. But this is due to the girls themselves, not to the institution," Beryl said.

In 1997, Broken Rites alerted The Age newspaper in Melbourne about the physical and emotional cruelty at St Catherine’s, and the paper published a series of articles about this on 16-18 April 1997.