NZ royal commission hears from survivors abused by Bernard McGrath ahead of Australian transfer

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

February 9, 2022

By Giselle Wakatama, ABC Newcastle

A New Zealand royal commission into abuse in care has heard horrific evidence about a member of a Catholic order who was transferred from his homeland to a boys’ home near Newcastle.

Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of abuse that readers may find distressing.

Key points:

  • St John of God was established in New Zealand in 1955 after starting in Australia eight years earlier
  • Survivors say Brother Bernard McGrath used fear to force them to remain silent during his time in Christchurch
  • A representative for the church said McGrath’s crimes and the way they were handled internally were “deeply shameful”

The commission comes four years after Australian victims of the St John of God order called on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden to set up a special inquiry to investigate brothers there.

An Australian royal commission into child abuse heard 40 per cent of St John of God brothers were abusers, the most of any order.

On Wednesday, the inquiry heard the percentage of brothers who abused children in New Zealand was closer to 60 per cent, but could be more.

“The evidence you are about to hear can only be described as chilling,” Counsel Assisting Katherine Anderson said.

“That is in relation to what happened to these individuals, but also in relation to the lifelong impacts they carry with them.

“Commissioners, I say to you that there is much more about this dark chapter of New Zealand’s history that is to be known than that that was revealed through criminal justice processes.”

‘Geographic solution’

The royal commission heard from church officials and survivors that Brother Bernard McGrath was the common thread in the order’s so-called “geographic solution”.

It involved shifting known abusers between Oceania Province countries, including Australia.

The commission’s hearing is focused on abuse at three Christchurch Catholic institutions, including Marylands School, the nearby St Joseph’s orphanage and the Hebron Trust.

The trust was set up for street kids in 1986, when McGrath, a known abuser, returned to Christchurch after eight years at the Kendall Grange boys home near Newcastle in New South Wales.

McGrath is serving 33 years jail in Australia for abusing 30 boys at Kendall Grange.

Boy shown corpse

Survivors have given evidence detailing how St John of God brothers ruled by fear.

Marylands was co-located with a hospital and survivor Donald Ku said told the commission McGrath took him to there to scare him.

“Once he took me to the hospital morgue and showed me a corpse as a way of silencing me,” Mr Ku said.

Survivor Steven Long said he too was abused and threatened.

“Once Brother McGrath made me strip naked and clean out one of the coffins,” Mr Long said.

“He then flipped me up, slammed the coffin lid down on me … I was crying, scared and defenceless.

“He lifted the lid, grabbed me around the throat and said, ‘This is where you’re going to end up’ if I said anything about his abuse.”

Mr Ku said one boy was a constant target.

“McGrath would make him eat his own shit because he messed his bed and he had to do this in front of the other boys,” he said.

‘Sick’ and ‘evil’

Advocate Ken Clearwater fought back tears when he said McGrath’s crimes as a St John of God brother were heinous.

“It is deceitful and evil at its best,” Mr Clearwater said.

“This is betrayal, this is sick, this is evil.

“Anybody who continues to support the molesters, the soul stealers, the child rapists — shame on you.”

Sally McKechnie, who is representing the Bishops and Congregational Leaders of the Catholic Church in Aotearoa at the commission, said the crimes were “deeply shameful to the Catholic Church”.

“It should never have happened,” she said.

“The church and the brothers absolutely acknowledge that Bernard McGrath is one of Australasia’s worst child sex offenders.”

The commission will also examine the abuse of former Brother Roger Maloney, who was transferred from New Zealand to Rome after his abuse came to light.

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