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Catholic Teacher Blog: Headmaster of St Patrick College, Ballarat at the Royal Commission

23 March 2017

The following is the Royal Commission hearings transcript from John Crowley, the headmaster at St Patrick's in Ballarat, which had on its faculty some of Australia's most notorious paedophile priests. Today, Headmaster John Crowley focuses on acknowledging the past, supporting abuse victims and survivors and making sure it never happens again.

Mr Free: Mr Crowley, St Patrick's in Ballarat, which you now lead as the headmaster, has a particularly troubled past with child sexual abuse, something you must have been very conscious of when you took on the job?

Mr Crowley: Yes. Yes, certainly I was aware of parts of the history. It would be fair to say that I didn't anticipate the journey that we were about to go on as a school in its fullest extent, but I certainly had an understanding of what I was getting into two years ago when I was appointed, and I certainly did that recognising that we had a part of our history that needed to be acknowledged and we needed to openly engage in.

Mr Free: Can you tell the Commissioners what steps you've taken to try to acknowledge that and engage with it?

Mr Crowley: I think the first sitting for the Royal Commission in Ballarat was in February - it might have been May in my first year. It was very early on in that year. The Royal Commission organised the opportunity for a number of people who represented different sections of the Ballarat community to come together, and I guess it was a session to just put on the table our fears, what we were worried about, our concerns and what we hoped, as a community, to be able to work through, with the hope that, as a community, we can move forward. I think that that was a wonderful opportunity, then, to establish some relationships there.

From that, myself and Eileen Rice, who's the principal of St Alipius primary school in Ballarat, met with a small group initially of men. Those men were made up of victims of abuse from my school, from St Patrick's College. I guess in those initial conversations, we weren't really sure what to say or what to do. It was difficult. But we all seemed to have a connection that it was important for us in terms of moving forward as a community that we did meet.

The questions that we asked in those initial meetings - I used to just ring up some victims and survivors who were part of the group and say, 'Can we meet for a bowl of soup down at the cafe', and we sort of met there every fortnight. The questions were, 'Well, what are we meeting for? What do we need to do to move forward into the future?' In the words of one survivor, and he often says this to me, 'Something good has got to come of this, something good.' So I've always had that ringing in my ears, and Eileen has too.

So we started to ask those questions. Instead of us being the ones talking, we both felt very strongly that we needed to listen, just to engage in a conversation where we basically just kept quiet and listened to the victims and survivors how we could support them, how our community could support them, how the community of Ballarat could support them.

We were let in on a very personal journey and I'm very honoured, as Eileen is, I'm sure, to have been able to be part of that journey. Some of the things that we talked about and were identified that we had been focusing on, in many ways, over the last two years - the first and I think the most important one was open acknowledgment of this part of our history, that there are no excuses; it is what it is and we need to acknowledge that fully. I believe that we've done that.

It hasn't always been an easy journey, but I think that certainly from a very personal perspective, the most hope-filled people that I've experienced on the journey are these men and women who are victims and survivors that we have been working with. So how did the acknowledgment develop? Well, in many ways, I became more confident and more vocal in the paper and in the press to be able to say, 'This is part of our history and we need to acknowledge this', and I've had unbelievable support from the Ballarat community in doing that, from my college board, from the school community and from the parent community, who have never once made me feel as though we're doing anything that we absolutely shouldn't be, and that is walking in solidarity with victims and survivors. So more confidence in that message.

I think people will know that there was a real turning point for us in the acknowledgment of our history in the area of sexual abuse, and it was when three of my senior leaders in year knocked on my door literally one lunchtime and said, 'Mr Crowley, we're watching what's going on and we want to say something.'

I have to say, initially I thought, okay, I knew that that would be in the press, and I guess, as an educational leader, there comes a point where you have to trust - you have to put faith in your students. I think sometimes we think that they're not listening and they're not looking, and they are. In fact, they're probably on social media times quicker than I could be in terms of conversations and things that are going on there. I said, 'Okay, gentlemen, what do you want to do?' They said, 'We want to do three things. We want to write a letter. We want to acknowledge the hurt fully and openly. We want to stress and reassure victims and survivors that St Patrick's College today is not the same school.' It was very important for them to articulate that message that they are safe. The third one was that they wanted to commit, as a school community, to walking in solidarity.

So they wrote the letter. I said, 'Boys, go away and draft it up.' They came back the very next day and said, 'Here it is.' So we published that. That was a real turning point for us as a school and I think also within the community.

I received a number of phone calls from survivors who were past students of the school, who had been abused, just thanking us and saying what a wonderful thing it was that the boys took that initiative. We had victims come back into the school to have lunch with the boys and to acknowledge and spend the time to talk to the boys about the impact that they had had. That acknowledgment has been one of the things that has come through that conversation.

The other area that I think has been integral to the conversation that we have been privileged to have with victims and survivors has been for them to know that the school is a safe place. It has been a great blessing to me, as a leader, that through the new ministerial order, we have been able to revisit procedures and policies and processes to make sure that if the bar is here (indicating), we're here (indicating higher), and we have that goal, that we want to keep moving forward in the best way we can.

 So as a group - and by that stage, we had some very respected people in health care come on board to help us with the conversation - we started investigating what curriculum resources are out there, not just around child protection, because we knew, as a school, that the new ministerial order spoke very strongly to the new standards, but also around the importance of mindfulness, developing resilience in young people, giving young people the skills to be able to identify when behaviours are in front of them that are not right and really being able to give them the skills to have a voice and know who to speak to.

So we looked at a whole range of possibilities. One of the survivors I worked with was very strong on mindfulness, and very learned, and he was able to share that knowledge with Eileen and myself in a way that drew us to a curriculum that was operating out of South Australia, the Department for Education, and had been rolled out to all Catholic schools. So we started investigating that and speaking to the people who were responsible for authoring that.

The Catholic Education Office in Ballarat came on board and we approached Bishop Paul Bird and said we would like to trial this program. He said that he would be happy for that to happen and thought it was a good idea under the auspices of the office. So we have entered into a negotiated contract with the Department for Education in South Australia. We have signed up on contracts, and we're about to start trialling that curriculum in our schools as a response to one of the child-safe standards around giving the students that voice and the skills to be able to identify where appropriate behaviour is not being demonstrated to them.

It was, I think, an absolute honour to be part of that conversation and actually produce something very meaningful and tangible in terms of the safety of children. We're rolling that out through the pastoral care program at St Patrick's College this year, our child-safe officer. 

Also the conversation around reassuring victims and survivors that St Patrick's College is not the same school today led us to a whole range of appointments. We employed a director of HR with a very strong legal background, a past lawyer, who has been able to guide the school and the staff expertly through the process of introducing the seven child-safe standards, the ministerial order, understanding what that can look like, training staff in the PROTECT Resources, how you respond when something comes across your desk or you hear a conversation with a student, so that everyone is part of that. All of that initiative has come through that initial conversation, sitting down and saying, "We want to listen about how we can move forward, as a school, in our relationship with you and as a community.'

The thing that I know that Eileen and I are most proud of is that we have been able to reconnect past students with our schools. People may know that the day that a survivor came and stood at the front of the gates of St Patrick's College with me standing next to him, and we were photographed and there was a wonderful - beautiful story that was published in The Age about his journey and the damage that had been inflicted on him and then the journey that we had been on in terms of the work as schools was a very proud moment for us as a school. 

So reconnecting, where it's desired, with the school - another survivor once said to me that, for the first time, he felt like an old boy of the school. When that's said to you, that just motivates you to say, well, this is so important.

That initial meeting was a gift to us, and we are so thankful that we've had the opportunity. As a school community, we will continue to engage in conversations with victims and survivors in terms of how we can support them, because I think one of the things that has struck me throughout this whole journey - and, really, I didn't understand it until I had the opportunity to walk in solidarity with victims and survivors - was the damage that had been done to them, the absolute devastation.

There wouldn't be one meeting, one gathering, one lunchtime, where one of the members of the team didn't take a phone call from another victim and survivor who was suffering, who was really distressed. It's really hard to watch someone who themselves finds it hard at times to get out of bed and come along and have a meeting about this horrible, appalling abuse and, at the same time, be the person who is providing that support. There is so much work to do in terms of redress, the importance of providing safety nets for people and providing that ongoing counselling and support.

One practical thing that has also come out of the conversations for us as a school is that we've employed an alumni officer, whose job it is to harness the huge power of our old boys. We have thousands and thousands of past students. We're putting together a database. Then we need to work out, as a school, how we can connect with past old boys, including victims and survivors who are desperately doing it tough. How do we connect? For example, for someone who just needs their lawn mowed, someone who cannot get their finances together, someone who needs professional assistance, tapping into that database, as a school, and ringing that old boy up who has donated their services and saying, 'We have someone here. We need you to talk to them.' We're also putting our energies into that. That's just a very personal summary from a school perspective.

Commissioner Murray: Mr Crowley, I'm conscious of the time. I recognise the improvements in child safety and protection that you have outlined to us. What has been exercising my mind is how you stress test, which is a phrase used in financial prudence, the system to see whether in fact it is robust and is indeed providing the safety that you have outlined.

I want to talk to you briefly about a very instructive experience for the Royal Commission, and that was our Case Study into a Toowoomba primary school, and that was in, so it's relatively current. It concerned the employment and re-employment of a teacher against whom child sexual abuse allegations had been made.

Now, there were five protective mechanisms, which would imply that that school should have been child safe. Firstly, there was a state accreditation, regulation and reporting regime in practice. Secondly, the bishop, the ultimate authority over that school, was able and responsive in matters of child protection. Thirdly, there was a professionally run and capable Catholic Education Office. Fourthly, there was a quite deep and extensive range of policies and procedures with respect to child protection. Fifthly, there was in-service training annually at least.

Yet there were great failings at the school, by the principal, by staff members and by the Catholic Education Office, which allowed for children to continue to be put at risk. So when someone says to me, 'My school is now safe', I think I'll accept it's safer. What do you do to test whether that safety is real? How do you audit, enforce, stress test, do your very best to make sure that somebody who should be reporting is and that proper procedures are understood and that the training has worked?

Mr Crowley: Yes, I agree. Our goal is to be the safest possible school we can be, and I think part of that is to consistently, with staff, re-inform them of the processes that are in place, making sure that we are ever mindful of consistently setting aside regular time to make sure processes are clear and followed; having open conversations with teachers in terms of how they're finding those processes, so testing those out through conversation; making child safety related matters something that is part of the fabric of the school, the conversation that goes on; making sure that everyone understands their role, and part of that is through the appointment of a director of HR, who is working in conjunction with the director of OH&S risk management to make sure that those conversations are going on.

So I think from my perspective, you can never sit still. It's about that ongoing conversation, day in, day out, about things that are in place, looking at ways in which processes can be improved and procedures can be improved. For example, at our school, with Working With Children Checks, we have gone through the whole process of saying, well, what is included in the Act and -- 

Commissioner Murray: Can I interrupt you. Do you do role plays? You heard Mr Free earlier talk about scenarios. One of the instructive ways business trains people is to role play and use scenarios. Do you use modern techniques of training?

Mr Crowley: At my past school, we had the VIT come in and talk through role modelling, so examples. That would be something that we could do more of at St Patrick's College. So the answer is no, but that would be one way that we could do that. Certainly the examples through the conversations with the director of HR and legal advice around specific examples are very good learning tools that we could develop more.


Read about St Patrick’s College, Ballarat plans to install a reflective garden for victims and survivors of child abuse.


Topic tags: healthycommunitylife, valuesandmoraldecision-making, buildingpeace

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