The hidden shame of St Benedict’s

By Tim Clarke
West Australian
February 21, 2016

The monastery at New Norcia.

Testing time: Bishop Max Davis.

For Roman Catholic Bishop Max Davis, the detached township of New Norcia - established in 1846 by Benedictine missionary Rosendo Salvado - was where his religious calling was realised.

And for most of the boys he schooled during his time as a teacher and dean of discipline at St Benedict’s boys college in the town, he was remembered as a firm but fair master who could cane and comfort in the same day.

Others, however, held very different memories of the young priest known as “Bang Bang”.

Last week, five St Benedict’s old boys unequivocally named the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Australian Catholic Defence Diocese as their sexual abuser of nearly 50 years ago. And despite the passage of time, they could not have been clearer in their recollection.

“That's a definite remembrance, there's no reconstruction there. I remember exactly who's done it -Brother Max,” said one.

“The person who abused me was with the church - the person who abused me was Max Davis,” said another.

Those recollections made up the core of the case against Bishop Davis, who became the most senior Australian Catholic figure to ever face sexual abuse charges when he came before WA’s District Court.

But this week, those memories were dismissed by a jury, who cleared the Bishop of all six allegations, recounted by five men who did not know each other, but who all thought they knew who had abused them.

The reason behind those acquittals was in part the disturbing picture painted of the school founded under the Benedictine order - but in reality was run and staffed by paedophiles using their religious position to feed their perverted predilections.

The boy’s college in New Norcia was first opened as St Ildephonsus’ in 1913, five years after the sister college for girls, St Gertrude’s, next door.

Operated for more than 50 years under the Marist Brothers order, in 1965 it was passed to the Benedictines who renamed it after their founding saint, and the patron saint of students.

Many who attended were come to feel that no-one was looking out for them, least of all the Lord.

“It was very harsh by my account and recollection. I hadn't experienced anything like it,” one pupil told the jury.

“Punishment was given for the most minor of misdemeanours. Either the cane on the hand or on other parts of the body. Or the strap on the hand and the back of the leg.”

Max Davis was used to discipline, having been in the Navy from 1961 to 1964. But after being posted to the school in 1969 as part of his ascension to the priesthood, he had not seen anything like the what was meted out by Brother Dom Benedict.

Known by the boys as “Goofy” because of his prominent teeth and strange demeanour, Brother Dom was the ‘Master of Discipline’ when the younger Davis arrived.

“It was like something out of Dickens,” Bishop Davis said.

“He was a very imposing figure and often used his hands to strike the boys, and smack them fairly savagely. He would push the boys up against the bricks walls. It was inappropriate, personal and intimidating.”

So disturbed was the young teacher by the treatment of the young boys, he took his concerns to the rector of the school Father Justin Bruce - who said if he was so worried, then he should take on the role himself. Which he did.

“I wanted to try and create an atmosphere of learning, culture and development,” Bishop Davis told the court.

Other staff were not as noble.

During Bishop Davis’ trial, there was never any question that the ritual and regular sex abuse detailed had taken place at the school in the late 60s and early 70s.

Five sordid tales of boys being isolated from their peers, then abused, on the pretence of medical examination or sexual education were the subject of the criminal charges. More emerged as trial progressed.

It happened at night, in offices away from the dorms. Or it happened in the morning, out of sight. The only question was, by who?

The first allegations came in 2011 from a former pupil who now lives in the UK. He insisted to police it was Max Davis, who interviewed the Bishop in Canberra and then charged him with gross indecency. The publicity prompted four more men to come forward with similar allegations.

But Bishop Davis was equally insistent they had got the wrong man.

The boys, now all men in their 50’s, said they were abused by ‘Brother’ Max. But Bishop Davis had never been called Brother at the school - rather ‘Sir’ before he was ordained and Father afterwards.

Some spoke of the man abusing them wearing a habit, with a hood, and a rope belt. But Bishop Davis only ever wore the soutane, an ankle length black cassock, on special occasions and usually wore black trousers and a white shirt.

And tellingly, Bishop Davis told of how it was he who had exposed the rector of the college - Father Justin Bruce - after a group of boys confided in him the school’s head was “fooling around” with pupils. That same day, the Abbot recalled Father Bruce to the monastery where he remained until he died in 2009.

Neither the Abbot, nor Davis, made any mention of Bruce’s abuse to the police - who were also unaware of rumours that as well as wielding the strap and the cane, Brother Dominic also wielded a camera to take indecent photos of the boys. He was also hands on, at times.

“He was a masochist, overbearing, weird,” said a man who came forward during the trial and offered to tell the story of how Brother Benedict had called him into his office to measure his growth. Part of those measurements included using a tape measure on his penis.

Contrast that with a description by Retired Navy Commander Leigh Costain of Bishop Davis as the most gentle, personable people he’d ever met. Major General Peter Phillips, former National President of the RSL said he was a man of “total integrity”.

After a week of evidence, the jury had a holy picture full of holes.

“It's effectively word against word,” Judge Julie Wager told the jury. After four hours, the jury chose the word of Bishop Davis.

He has said nothing since, with the military diocese saying only that the 70 year-old would take some time to decide whether to return to public ministry.


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