The whitewash: how the Marists cleaned the reputations of dead paedophiles

Stuff [Wellington, New Zealand]

July 14, 2022

By Steve Kilgallon

[Includes brief video interviews with Dr Murray Heasley, of the Survivors of Abuse in Faith-based Institutions, and Moeapulu Frances Tagaloa, a survivor of abuse by Marist serial offender Francis Fitton (“Brother Bede”).]

The Marist Brothers and Fathers have educated prime ministers, judges, cardinals and All Blacks at their prestigious Catholic high schools. But their record of sexual abuse is horrific. Worse still was their handling of the abuse when it was exposed. In this series, The Secret History, Steve Kilgallon investigates the power, abuse and cover-ups at the heart of two highly-influential and wealthy religious groups.

This is Part 5. More chapters will be published in the coming weeks.

Warning: This story may be upsetting to some.

May 3, 2019. The Royal Commission into Abuse in Care has been announced – and part of its investigation will be the Catholic Church. In a public show that they have changed, and they are sorry, the church has welcomed the news.

Under the vaulted ceilings of Sacred Heart church in Vermont St, Ponsonby, in the heart of the church’s rich inner-city Auckland land holdings, a clutch of senior clergy gather, huddling in the car park to gossip beside a black hearse.

The occasion is the funeral of Marist Fathers priest Tom Laffey, who has died at the age of 86.

Among those present are three bishops and senior members of the SM Marists, including the then provincial (or leader), David Kennerley, and senior Marist priest Brian Wysocki, who both offer eulogies.

Also present is survivors’ advocate Murray Heasley, who records the entire, “nauseating” ceremony on his GoPro. It records Kennerley asking: “May we imitate the faithful spirit Tom demonstrated.”

It also records Wysocki’s warm address about his friend, in which he thanks Laffey for “the good you did for so many in your life”, before touching briefly on an uncomfortable topic.

“An accusation emerged linked to an incident many years previously,” Wysocki says. “All of this had a devastating effect on him [Laffey], he withdrew into himself and ceased ministry…. Tom was profoundly sad.” He thanked those who stood by Laffey at that time.

But they weren’t simply accusations. Tom Laffey was a confessed paedophile. He admitted sexually assaulting a 13-year-old altar boy in the 1960s. The altar boy, Mike Phillips​, went public about the abuse when he was terminally ill. Laffey admitted to it in 2003 and retired from the priesthood. The Society of Mary paid Phillips $10,000 and apologised, but denied telling him there were four other victims of Laffey.

The order of service for deceased Marist priest and confessed paedophile Tom Laffey. Supplied / Stuff
The order of service for deceased Marist priest and confessed paedophile Tom Laffey. Supplied / Stuff

In August 2017, the Auckland diocese held a mass to celebrate long service by 14 priests – among them Laffey, who was marking 60 years. The New Zealand Catholic newspaper included his name in an online report of the mass; but sometime since 2018, Laffey’s name has been quietly redacted from the page.

Marist Fathers leader Tim Duckworth says, in a statement, that Laffey was stood down once the complaint was made; the complaint was upheld and “the complainant supported”. He says the funeral followed “established rituals” including asking “forgiveness for sin, commending him to God’s mercy and allowing family and those who care for him the chance to mourn. The Catholic funeral ceremony does have a focus on prayer to God for the forgiveness of sin. Most, if not all, of those who attended the funeral knew of his offence and would have recognised it was acknowledged in the comment given in the eulogy. Many people today see a funeral as a chance to laud the life of the deceased. For Catholics it is primarily to pray for the deceased.”

The veneration of Tom Laffey isn’t the only example of the record being whitewashed when a paedophile Marist passes away.

When former Sacred Heart and Xavier College principal Ken ‘Bosco’ Camden died in 2014, Marist Brothers nationwide, including the then district leader, Dave McDonald, turned out to his funeral in Napier. Messages of sympathy came from Fiji, Kiribati, the Philippines and Rome.

No mention was made of Camden’s jailing for eight months after admitting indecencies against two boys. Senior Marist Brother Richard Dunleavy – for many years, the man who dealt with sexual offending by his colleagues – gave a eulogy which lauded Camden’s “very significant gifts and talents”, calling him a “visionary” with “energy, simplicity, and humility” who “shared his rich gifts with many”.

A survivor of Camden, molested by him at Sacred Heart, says it was “incredibly disrespectful”.

“They knew he was guilty when they did that. He was buried with full honours, like a religious state funeral, and he’s a kiddy fiddler. My favourite auntie spent her whole life being good, won awards, and is buried in the same sort of ground as him. He should be disinterred, and his ashes flushed down the toilet.”

A year later, in 2015, the Marist Brothers announced the death of 80-year-old Claudius Pettit, who had been jailed for a year for the indecent assault of a child and a young adult, by declaring: “A totara tree has fallen in the great forest of Tane.”

Grant West, who says he was raped multiple times as a child by Pettit, says: “He didn’t give a s….” He says his obituary showed they don’t care about survivors. “They just care about covering their arses.”

Marist Brother Claudius Pettit, a convicted sex abuser. Supplied / Stuff
Marist Brother Claudius Pettit, a convicted sex abuser. Supplied / Stuff

Marist Brothers delegate Peter Horide says they “believe and respect the truth” but “alongside that there’s also the honourable tradition of … deeply respecting those who are deceased”.

Horide says he was not at Camden’s funeral but that the Brothers now would “acknowledge past truths and realities”.

These sanitised eulogies extend as far as official documents – the Marist calendar, for example, has recorded the dates of death of abusers such as Pettit and serial offender Bede Francis Fitton, without any reference to their crimes.

Horide says the calendar will not change; every Brother will remain on it. “Those who we have warm affection for, and those who we might not have such warm affection for.”

Theologian and survivor Christopher Longhurst, leader of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) says the Marists’ explanations run counter to the church’s own catechism, which says “adulation is a grave fault if it makes one an accomplice in another’s vices or grave sins.”

There’s also the curious case of Marist Fathers leader Tim Duckworth’s involvement with Peter Hercock, a Diocesan (regular) priest who was jailed for six years, seven months after admitting sexual offences against four women.

While Hercock wasn’t a Marist, Duckworth was assigned to investigate when one of his survivors, Anne-Marie Shelley, complained in 2003. She says there was no after-care (“It was ‘here’s your apology, now f… off”) and so heard nothing more from Duckworth until 2014, when police finally prosecuted Hercock. In court, she was astounded to hear the judge read a character reference from Duckworth. “I nearly fell off my seat,” she recalls. “I sat there with my jaw on the floor.”

Who are the Marists?

The Marist Brothers – or the FMS Marists – are a religious order of brothers, who are not ordained priests, devoted to education.

The Marist Fathers – or the Society of Mary – are a group of priests; both are named for and aim to honour Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The reference said Hercock “was not the same naive young man who committed these crimes today”; that it had been “madness” to place a young priest as counsellor in a girls’ school; and that Duckworth had “met women who would say Peter Hercock helped them in their teenage years”.

A complaint to New Zealand’s top Catholic, Cardinal John Dew, and an email exchange with Duckworth were both fruitless. Duckworth told Shelley he stood by his decision to provide the statement; that he’d made it clear Hercock’s behaviour was inexcusable and criminal. He said he’d “significantly helped” her by persuading Hercock to plead guilty. He told Stuff he was reluctant to discuss the issue due to “concern for the complainant. It deeply concerns me that, as with this series of articles, there is the risk that survivors will be re-traumatised by, for example, seeing the name of their abuser in the media.”

Anne-Marie Shelley, however, was left with a feeling of “deep betrayal”.

A change for the better?

Statistics generated by the Catholic Church and released last month show that the majority of New Zealand sexual complaints relate to offending in the 1960s and 1970s, and drop away from 1990. That tallies with international research from the John Jay Institute in New York, contracted by the worldwide church to track offending data.

Does that mean the church – and its constituent orders, like the Marist Brothers and Fathers – are doing better, and have changed?

Tom Doyle, a former priest who is an expert on church abuse, says no. He says society’s shift in refusing to tolerate such behaviour, demanding it be better investigated and significantly restricting the access of priests to children has helped. So too has the steep decline in religious numbers.

But any material change in approach by the church itself, he says, has been driven by pressure from survivor groups, who have forced the church into greater openness. “Survivors groups have had a profound impact because they have made this problem publicly known,” Doyle says. “People at first expressed disbelief, and now they are outraged … it used to be the church was in charge of how this was handled but now the victims and their supporters are driving the bus. They have forced it to the surface.

“Bishops would like to say ‘it’s over because we’ve taken care of it’. But it wouldn’t have happened if it had not been forced by the courts or victims. Without that, today we would be where we were in 1950.”

In New Zealand, two groups have been active: one is the local branch of the worldwide SNAP network, run by Longhurst, who says: “We absolutely support and agree with what Tom says. Cardinal John Dew’s [Royal Commission] testimony … apologised for the system and the culture that caused the abuse must change. But he didn’t say what the system was, or what that culture was.”

The other group is the Network of Survivors of Abuse in Faith-Based Institutions and their Supporters. The Network’s Murray Heasley, a retired teacher and finalist in this year’s New Zealander of the Year Awards, has become expert at confronting the church.

Heasley’s tutors were Sipe – one of the drivers of the famous Boston Globe ‘Spotlight’ investigation of 2002 which first exposed the scale of Catholic abuse in America – and Doyle, an outspoken critic of the church’s abuse.

From, he says, a “position of ignorance”, he’s now encyclopaedic about Catholic church abuse, using his history doctorate to write two lengthy manuscripts. With an abuse survivor he also set up a website, Occulo, which tracked and recorded Catholic abuse convictions. He won’t stop. “I have an institutional knowledge now that’s hard to replace, and I have a duty of care for these people to advocate for them.”

He says connecting survivors is vital. “People can say I am not alone in this … they would often think they were the only ones and as soon as they discovered they were part of a pattern, they found it oddly reassuring.”

Heasley has only scorn for the church’s claims of change. He’s convinced abuse continues, but because of the documented 22-year time lag for the average complaint, we don’t know about it. “The only reason they’ve been forced to recognise this is because survivors have stepped up … but they are still highly suspicious of anything that threatens their finances or their reputation.”

His position is that abuse is far more widespread than anyone has recognised, and a network of ‘enablers’ – those who didn’t participate, but turned a blind eye – allowed it to flourish.

A case from the present day suggests they’ve still work to do.

Moeapulu Frances Tagaloa reached her settlement for her abuse as a young girl with the Brothers in 2002, a deal so hurried they spelled her surname wrong on the documentation.

In 2020, she gave evidence at the Royal Commission, and realised she wanted to know more about her case. It took the Brothers four months to respond to her request for information with just a ten-sentence summary. “And that was it,” she says. “I thought ‘I know there is more. But how much more’?”

The Brothers’ Peter Horide deliberately withheld information. A file note showed that on lawyers’ advice he’d “confined” his response to those sparse details, refusing to say if there were other complaints about Tagaloa’s abuser, Francis ‘Brother Bede’ Fitton, if there were other offenders at the same address, or even the name of the person who took her complaint.

Eventually, six months after the original request, Frances got more information, including that there were four subsequent complainants about Fitton, and a suggestion he’d been a “successful teacher”.

She declined an invitation to meet the Marists, after realising they had taken legal advice, and she did not have any. A Privacy Act request finally extracted more documents, which revealed how concerned the Brothers had been about her approach; she cannot understand why.

Serial Marist offender Francis Fitton ("Brother Bede").
Serial Marist offender Francis Fitton (“Brother Bede”).

The impact

Those interviewed for this series have detailed lifelong impacts of their abuse. It has shattered marriages, caused drug, alcohol and mental health problems, impacted their ability to form friendships, to gain an education, to prosper in their careers.

At the Royal Commission, the Society of Mary’s Tim Duckworth declared that some survivors he had dealt with had simply ascribed too much impact on their lives to abuse.

“Sometimes a person can believe that everything that hasn’t gone right in their life is caused by one external thing that has happened to them,” he said. “And you’ve got to be able to weigh that up. By that I mean, I have dealt with a person who probably in the modern parlance would be said to be differently abled, and you know … my brother is a lawyer, my sister is a doctor, but I’m not. Realistically if I’m honest I would have to say I don’t think that you were going to be a lawyer or a doctor or whatever. So the person’s belief may be sometimes slightly erroneous as to the cause of their impairment.”

Survivor Tane Davies*’ siblings all went on to white-collar careers. “I am one of eight. The rest of my family are successful, and I am not,” he says. “I made bad choices, I acted rashly….” He says anxiety drove him to substance abuse and cost him relationships and education. “What I would have earned is at least $1m more than I have over a lifetime.”

John Wilson* has a brother who is a senior banker and a sister who is a successful accountant, but he’s always had a modest income as a self-employed cobbler, because he left school at 14 and found himself unable to work for others – both outcomes of his horrific abuse.

Ben Lewis* was left with a “complete lack of respect for authority … I’ve still got those issues today with senior managers, I can’t form productive and relaxed relationships with people who have authority over me. I’ve changed jobs a lot.”

Sarah Jones* worked in banking, but would quit every time she began to climb the promotional ladder. “Every time I got to a higher position, the boss was an older man, and he’s now got some control of me, I have to answer to him and do whatever he tells me … I was looking for another job because I was scared to be left alone in a room with them,” she explains. “I just couldn’t get past that. So I’d sabotage myself.”

Tom Nikau* had such a complete disengagement from society he chose a job as remote and individual as he could imagine: diving for paua and cray in the Chathams. Before that, he grew salmon in Tasmania. “I didn’t want to be seen by anyone I knew growing up. I just worked, went home by myself, drank myself unconscious. A good 15 years down the tubes.”

For Graham Rush*, it was a life of crime. For Chris West*, it was importing commercial quantities of ecstasy, drinking, and taking huge quantities of ecstasy and meth.

Jim Clifford* had severe issues with his vocal cords, causing him to quit his job early.

Any sexual abuse is incredibly damaging. But there’s a compelling argument that religious sexual abuse comes with aggravating factors.

Tom Doyle believes there’s a “significant difference between the average run-of-the-mill child abuser who is walking the street and a priest or brother”.

Religious abuse, he argues, is worsened because the church sets the religious up as sacred, entirely trustworthy, and next to God – speaking against them is sinful, and thus their victims are often convinced it is their fault and they’ve committed a mortal sin: “They are paralysed by what has been done to them.”

Accompanying the abuse is a debilitating effect on the victim’s spirituality and psyche as their belief system is destroyed. It’s called ‘soul murder’. One survivor, Anna Thompson*, says: “I’ve lived a life of continually trying to make up for being a bad person. I’ve been to confession and told hundreds of priests what has happened, literally hundreds … and I have been sent away with penance [prayers to be said to cleanse you of sins]. It’s not just a religion, it is a culture.”

Since Stuff began writing this series, we’ve heard from over 20 more survivors of Marist abuse, many of whom haven’t told their stories before.

Asked how he would describe their handling of abuse issues since 2002 – the year Catholic church abuse began to be exposed worldwide – Marist Fathers leader Tim Duckworth says: “We’ve done our best. I know it has not been good enough for some who have made known their dissatisfaction … I’m sorry we weren’t able to help them to the extent that they would have liked. We tried. While some are not satisfied, some have been grateful.” He apologised: “It should never have happened … I am sorry.”

Marist Brothers delegate Peter Horide sees it as “conceivable” that in a decade, a non-Marist will hold his position, they will publish an annual safeguarding report and have “direct substantial dialogue” with survivor groups. He too, has an apology to offer: “We regret the abuses that happened under our watch, acknowledge the pain and suffering that has been caused and are motivated to do better by the courage of those who are coming forward and sharing their stories.”

* Some names have been changed to protect the identity of victims