Note: This essay contains material about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse that some readers may find disturbing.
The brothers built their school at the base of a valley. The primary school block was constructed first, the Marist monastery soon after, and the secondary college last. Along the perimeter they planted European trees — poplar and birch. The playing fields fell on ground lower than the classroom blocks, and in winter these ovals were perpetually damp, slow to drain. Some weekends the football fields would churn to mud and smell foul for days.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when I studied at Marist Canberra, the school was considered to be old-fashioned, a throwback to the kind of institution that the brothers themselves might have attended. Teachers caned the boys, and often for minor transgressions. At assembly we sung Latin hymns we didn’t understand. Year-round the primary school pupils wore flannel shorts, or what the brothers called short pants. Only students in the high school were permitted to wear long pants, and in winter the brothers construed the junior school dress code as an extension of the disciplinary code: they said it would do the younger boys some good to feel cold, to toughen up. The students, in many cases, came from families that were new to the city; the parents worked in trades or the public service. On campus the brothers wore a white soutane. Around their neck they pinned a steel crucifix, and at the waist a black cord knotted three times, representing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to god. After professing these vows, a few of the brothers adopted the name of a saint, often Latinate titles such as Flavian or Romuald. Boys were advised to address the Maristians as simply ‘brother’. It was common for the brothers to call the boys by surname — Park, Perez, Pippos — which they pronounced with a combination of familiarity and antipathy, as if these were nicknames.
Now that milieu has vanished: there are no brothers teaching at Marist Canberra. Last year the school installed an open-air memorial in the gardens of the campus quadrangle. The function of the memorial is to remind people of what happened there in the 1970s and 80s and 90s. The memorial comprises two slabs of striped sandstone, before which lays a plaque:
In remembrance of the students who were victims of sexual abuse at this school. Marist College Canberra acknowledges your pain and apologises for our failure to listen, to intervene, and to protect.
Let it never happen again.
Brother Kostka had a pink face and white hair, which he combed straight back. His hair puffed out, crestlike. Some days, during recess and lunch periods, he walked through the school grounds with his golden retriever, named Jason, and boys in the lower grades followed the pair of them, asking to play with the dog. Jason conveyed an odd mixture of neglect and care: his coat was clean, fluffy as a toy, but still he was overweight, because Kostka let students feed his pet their unwanted food, their crisps and slices of cheese. It was ‘very peculiar’ for a brother to keep a dog, one of the school’s headmasters, Brother Terence, told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. In 2014, the Commission held a public hearing into Kostka’s crimes. Asked by the Commissioner whether boys were attracted to the dog, Terence said, ‘Certainly’. Yet asked whether Kostka had used Jason as a grooming device, Terence said, ‘I can’t agree to that notion, no.’
In November, 2012, prime minister Julia Gillard announced the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. The final week of public hearings was held in March of this year, and a report is due in December. Over its duration, the Royal Commission travelled to town and cities in every state and territory, conducting both private and public hearings into cases of child abuse. The private sessions, which were recorded, provided victims of abuse with an opportunity to tell their story to a commissioner. The participants at such sessions were usually limited to the person alleging abuse, a friend or family member, a commissioner, and a public servant. The Commission’s public hearings focused on 57 case studies of abuse. Kostka was case study number 13, and he was significant for being among the worst paedophiles investigated, in terms of the number of out-of-court settlements — at least 38 — made in relation to his abuses.
The day after Gillard announced the Commission, Cardinal George Pell called a press conference to offer his opinion on the matter. (Five years later, Pell himself would be arrested on child sexual abuse charges.) Before the media, Pell said first that he ‘welcomed‘ the prime minister’s decision. But — and there is often a ‘but’ when powerful men make concessions — he claimed the Catholic Church had been unfairly targeted by a press campaign intent on investigating abuse by clergy. Then he put the proposition, ‘One question I think that might be asked is just to what extent the victims are helped by the continuing furore in the press over these allegations?’
One of Kostka’s victims told the Royal Commission: ‘The church and school instilled a culture where children and members of the congregation became followers and silent obeyers.’
The younger boys, those in the primary school and lower years of secondary, received corporal punishment more frequently and tended to be afraid of the brothers. The brothers knew this power and used the currency, in one way or another. The culture of fear and deference that once prevailed at Marist Canberra is worth describing, because to some degree it contributed to the abuse, or the response to the abuse. One source of such deference was the brothers’ status: these were men of god who had taken the vow of celibacy and devoted their lives to the work of teaching, to caring for boys, and they’d made enormous sacrifices to do this job. They were well regarded by parents: the brothers occupied the senior positions at the school. They were feared by students: the brothers carried out corporal punishment. Of all such punishments, caning was the most feared. You could be caned for not standing straight in line at assembly. You could be caned for arriving at school without a tie. There may have been the anomalous disciplinarian among the lay staff, but as a rule, the brothers were stricter, they were the higher authority. They were running the school, and the school was bringing the future into being, and for guidelines they looked to tradition, they replayed their own schooldays, where the cane and strap were crucial and daily tools, Latin and Greek were taught, and where, it turns out, some of the brothers were themselves sexually abused, as happened to Kostka in his childhood.
When he grew angry, during class, his mouth would tighten and his face abruptly reddened, just before he either exploded in rage or somehow suppressed the urge to explode. In his later years, in my time, Kostka wasn’t known as a harsh user of the cane: he’d rather yell at students, or find another way to humiliate you. But earlier in his career he fetishised corporal punishment. One of his former students, known to the Royal Commission by the pseudonym AAJ, said, ‘he used the cane a lot. He also used it as a means of intimidating and frightening people at my age. For example, I remember him coming into the classroom in the early days of the year with a number of canes. In class, he would use a candle and meticulously burn the ends of the canes to give them a sort of sloped, backed-off end. After he had finished working on his canes, he would whoosh them around and smack them against his cassock.’
Most of the victims came forward much later, as adults — sometimes decades later. Before the Royal Commission a number of these victims reported feeling a sense of shame. Some of them supposed, at the time of the abuse, that they might not be believed. In court it would have been their word against a Marist brother. And there were other extreme inhibiting factors that dissuaded boys from coming forward: one boy believed Kostka was the only person who understood him; Kostka threatened another student, a victim of abuse, that he would tell his parents about the boy’s stash of pornographic magazines.
Decades passed around Kostka’s crimes; the children he abused grew up; they came forward with allegations. In 2008, about fourteen years after he was removed from teaching duties, Kostka pleaded guilty to nineteen counts of child sexual abuse against six boys at Marist College Canberra. He served two years in prison, and a third year in weekend detention, while the remaining three years of his six-year sentence were suspended. Then more former students came forward with complaints of sexual abuse. After his sentencing, 48 men made civil claims against him — forty of these abuse claims concern his time in Canberra — and 38 of these cases have been financially settled. In the past decade, the Marist Brothers and Catholic Church Insurance have paid a total of something close to $7 million to Kostka’s victims (an average of nearly $180,000 per complainant). (Out-of-court settlements are usually confidential, and these figures have been drawn from the claims data subpoenaed by the Royal Commission in 2014, meaning it’s possible, and perhaps likely, that the number of settlements related to Kostka have changed since that time, given some claims were being processed while the public hearing took place, but I could not confirm an update on the settlements.)
During Kostka’s seventeen years in Canberra he worked under several headmasters, and his long tenure gave him a set of privileges that few other staff enjoyed. Kostka had his own office, where he committed abuse, he was allowed to keep a dog, which he used to groom boys, he organised film nights, where, again, boys were molested. In Canberra he shared a monastery with at least four other child abusers: Brother Gregory Sutton served twelve years in jail; Brother Peter Spratt received a two-year good behavior bond for child sexual abuse, and Brother Gregory Carter served eighteen months in jail. Gregory Carter was the headmaster of the junior school when I was a student, and I remember him walking the corridors, taking charge of the space, easy-going but proprietorial, chatting with staff and students, a singsong quaver in his voice, a big smile, not at all presenting the cold and professional mien of other headmasters we’d known. Some brothers looked at students like they wanted to change quite a number of things about you. Gregory Carter came across as friendly, a new type of brother. It surprised me when I heard that he’d been convicted of abuse. I thought: him too?
Kostka’s story has a great deal in common with the stories of paedophilic clergy who have thrived at schools and churches in this country. He abused children for thirty years and the boys stayed silent, afraid or ashamed to tell their parents, or their claims were raised with lay staff or senior brothers and went nowhere. Brothers covered for other brothers. Towards each other the clergy behaved like family; they kept matters inside the family, as if the abuse concerned no one else. Senior brothers failed to take allegations to the police, and paedophile clergy were circulated among schools, away from claims of abuse. Christopher Wade, the headmaster during my final two years at Marist, told the Royal Commission in 2014 he heard rumours as long ago as the early 1960s about Kostka having ‘misbehaved’ with children. Wade claimed to have little recollection of his time in Canberra, in the 1990s. This faulty memory wasn’t the result of a health problem, according to Wade, it just came with ‘the passing of the years’. Justice, in some measure, can also come with the passing of time: this year Wade was convicted of child sexual offences against Hamilton and Kogarah students in the 1970s. He will be sentenced later this year.
In 1959, Kostka began his teaching career in Sydney with a post at Marcellin College, named after the French founder of the Marist order, Marcellin Champagnat. Students at Marist schools are taught that Champagnat was a poor boy and an unpromising student, who nonetheless achieved great things in a short life (1789–1840). At Marist Canberra, a bust of Champagnat stood in the foyer, and classroom walls were adorned with his portraits, all of which conformed to an image of idealised debonair smoothness.
In Randwick, the Royal Commission heard, Kostka used the cane as a means to intimidate children. One of the Marcellin students, AAJ, recalled being caned as many as a dozen times in a single day. He said Kostka’s sexual behaviour ‘went from him having his arm around me to calling me to the front of the classroom and fiddling through my trousers in the area of my groin and penis. When (Kostka) abused me, my back or side was turned to the rest of the class and I was not conscious of anyone being aware of what was taking place.’
At some point in 1960, Kostka admitted to the sexual abuse of a boy and this incident was reported to Brother Quentin Duffy, the provincial of the Marist Brothers. The provincial is the most senior position in the Marist Australia hierarchy, and he answers to the brother superior general in Rome. Early in 1961, Duffy moved Kostka to St Anne’s primary school at Bondi Beach. During his term at St Anne’s, three boys approached staff at the school and made claims against Kostka, and he duly admitted to the abuse, some of which occurred on Bondi Beach, after school. One man, ACF, said: ‘While the class was doing work, Brother Kostka would come and sit beside me and put his arm around me and fondle my genitals. His hand was inside my underpants. This was generally a daily event.’
The order transferred Kostka to St Joseph’s in Lismore, where he had gone to school himself: as an adult he told a psychologist he’d been abused there at the age of eleven by a Marist brother. The identity of this brother was never disclosed to the Royal Commission. Returning to Lismore as a teacher, after admitting to abuse at two Sydney schools, Kostka was given the role of primary school headmaster. In 1967 there was another allegation against him, and in 1969 the Marist provincial council met to discuss the gathering claims around Kostka. According to the minutes of that meeting, he was issued with a canonical warning, which is among the weaker disciplinary actions available under canon law. Despite the warning, the provincial transferred Kostka that same year to Marist College Penshurst, NSW, and again gave him the role of headmaster. At Penshurst, despite being an executive member of staff, he taught primary school classes. He was accused of further instances of abuse, and again he admitted to these offences, and again the order moved him to another school — this time Canberra, where he would stay for seventeen years.
The last time I visited the ACT, in July this year, the temperature was -8 degrees at 7am. Minus eight is cold for most Australians; this is not the right weather for schoolboy shorts. At recess and lunch, when students weren’t allowed to stay inside, Kostka opened his well-heated office to a few boys: you had to be invited to his little salon (I never was), you had to be chosen from among your friends and, from what I observed, he tended to pry kids away from groups, rather than take in an established circle. A former Marist student, ACH, said he was abused in Kostka’s office, and in the school’s photographic dark-room, and in the garden shed, and in the chapel in the monastery. Wherever and whenever Kostka might assault him without being seen by a third party, ACH said, ‘He would stroke, pull and play with my penis and testicles and would fondle my bottom, kiss and stroke my body all over. He would also undo his pants and remove his erect penis and then make me — and I stress make me — pull his penis until ejaculation.’
Another man, AAQ, said Kostka played a pornographic video in his office and told AAQ to sit on his lap, and forced AAQ to stroke his penis while the video played. A different man, AAH, said he was abused in Kostka’s office. The Royal Commission heard that a cleaner, in 1982, opened the door to the office and saw Kostka abusing a student (someone whom the Commission referred to as AAU). The cleaner apologised, left the office, and failed to report what he saw. A man known as AAP told the royal Commission that he was abused on Saturdays in the pie wagon and ‘in the canteen when going to get extra stock that Brother Kostka asked us to get’. ACQ, a member of the photography club, claimed he was abused in the dark room on fifteen occasions. Kostka molested boys during class, in the middle of lessons, while they were writing in exercise books. In the junior school we were instructed to jot down the initials JMJ in our exercise books — Jesus, Mary, Joseph — at the upper right corner of each page. Kostka taught religion, and for several years I was his student: he moved around the classroom with a swagger. After his long tenure there, he might have been the most confident teacher at the school. Like many religious instructors he couldn’t stress enough the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Another former student at Marist Canberra, AAE, said, ‘I remember early in year 7 I was in (his) classroom. I was sitting at my desk and Brother Kostka came up behind me and placed his chin on the top of my head and then put his hands down the front of my pants and underneath my underpants.’
One scene I witnessed, and which I’ve returned to again and again over the years, illustrates the unusual level of control that Kostka exerted over his students. In one of my classes, in the Year Eleven, in his final semester of teaching, before superiors sent him away, Kostka caught a boy talking at the start of the lesson. We weren’t long settled at our desks. This boy was a good student, rarely in trouble, and recognised as a gifted rugby player, perhaps a chance at playing professional football. As a penalty for chatting in class, Kostka ordered him to come to the front of the room and sit on his lap. The class giggled and murmured and we shifted on our seats. Kostka slapped his own knee — come here. And this student did as he was told: he was already taller and broader than snowy-haired Kostka but still he sat on the brother’s lap and stayed there for the remainder of the lesson, obviously uncomfortable, as if unable to move. It might be fairly supposed that Kostka gathered some thrill from sitting a boy on his lap, but the scene functioned also as a message: if the rugby team’s best and fairest didn’t make a big deal of such degradation, why should other students complain about what Kostka did to them?
The brothers turned the school into an Elsewhere: a place removed from the rest of the world, stuck in a different time, where the worst of them could behave as they pleased. As a boy I didn’t know what Kostka was doing to other students, couldn’t see the depths of his abuse beyond creepy and menacing displays like the one above. The news stories, the stories shared with friends in bars late at night — all of that came later. Now, when I think of Marist, I can remember the straw-like carpet in the junior school; the pebblecrete floor in the canteen, a surface that the tide of students had worn away here and there: attached to even such innocuous pictures is the presence of the brothers, who seemed to preside over everything in the Elsewhere they’d built. Their power could be an affront to the lay staff: one afternoon an English teacher, perhaps fed up with the hierarchy, began her lesson by writing ‘theocracy’ on the board. The word was new to us, and she defined the term and offered several examples of its use. ‘This school is a theocracy,’ she said, with angry emphasis. Then we continued with exercises from the syllabus.
Kostka invited some boys to dinner at the Marist monastery, which stood apart from the primary and secondary schools. The tan-brick monastery was a square building with a courtyard at its centre: at the front were fir trees; at the back a vegetable patch. When I was in Year Six, a classmate who’d been a dinner guest at the monastery asked whether I’d ever been invited for dinner with the brothers: I said no. He asked another boy, who also said no. Then he asked another kid, and another. The Commission heard that AAN — who was not my classmate — found himself to be the only child at the table on the night he visited the monastery for dinner with the Marist brothers. Kostka usually cooked for the group. After the meal: ‘Kostka invited me to his room. He undid my belt and lowered my trousers. (He) lowered his trousers and began fondling me and masturbating himself.’
No other member of staff held as many extracurricular roles, and he used these schemes to further his paedophilia. Kostka’s film club presented two films (one rated PG, one M) each month in the school theatre. ACK was outside the theatre on a film club night when Kostka sat beside him and touched the boy through his trousers. When they went inside to watch the next film, Kostka sat next to him and touched the boy again. ACK said this abuse continued at the school’s film nights for three years, until 1989. At some point in 1986, the Royal Commission heard, the provincial of the Marist order, the highest-ranking figure in the country, Brother Alman Dwyer, instructed Kostka to stop running the film nights. Brother Alman is now dead, and it’s not clear what he knew of the abuse. In any case, Kostka ignored the order and continued running monthly film nights until he was removed from Canberra in 1993, after the school received allegations that he’d abused a current student. Marist did not give him a farewell ceremony. No police were involved — it almost goes without saying. He never taught again. The Marist order sent him to their administrative offices in Sydney, to a desk job, and later retired him to their farmhouse in Mittagong, where he helped maintain the property and cook for other brothers.
Complaints to the Professional Standards Office of the Marist Brothers were made against him in 2002. Six years later he was charged by ACT police.
From the start of his career, the allegations against Kostka were treated by his superiors as confidential, best forgotten. The systematic keeping of such secrets is among the reasons why we’ve had a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. The Commission heard that on at least seven occasions, at several schools, claims regarding Kostka reached the offices of senior brothers, headmasters, or the Marist provincial, yet for thirty years his career continued, more or less unhindered.
The Marist brothers insisted on celibacy and as a result promoted sexual guilt and repression. They believed themselves honest to an unusual degree, and as a result they were blind to the normal human capacity for deception. If a senior brother questioned another member of the order about an allegation, the accused was expected to admit to any crimes. When they denied an allegation, as Kostka did in Canberra, where he committed the majority of his abuse, the denial was usually accepted as truth and the matter dropped. The brothers invested too much in the notion that they were almost pure and almost perfect. Kostka’s superior in Canberra for many years, Brother Terence, another headmaster, said brothers were considered to be trustworthy, every one of them: ‘That’s the way we should be. That’s the way we are. To be true and honest and take responsibility for our behaviour.’
According to the Commission, 4444 people claimed they were abused as children by Catholic priests or brothers between 1980 and 2015. This represented 37.9 per cent of all incidents of abuse within institutions addressed by the Commission. The average age of victims was 10.5 for girls, and 11.5 for boys. Twenty per cent of the Marist order were identified as perpetrators of abuse.
The school still bears the name of the Marist order, but the brothers do not teach there anymore. Lay teachers run the place. Boys are no longer caned. There are new buildings, a different staff, a different culture. The cruelty and depravity of the past will be remembered; a memorial on the campus promises us that the abuse will never be repeated. Kostka, now 85 years old, shares a home with retired brothers in NSW, who do not consider him one of them, who no longer address him as ‘brother’. Last year he was charged with additional child sex offences from the 1980s, including what the court describes as buggery. One of the alleged victims said his abuse began when he was patting Kostka’s dog and the brother touched the boy from behind. In July, an ACT court found he was unfit to plead, on account of his Parkinson’s and consequent advancing dementia. In court documents, Kostka is referred to as John William Chute. His adopted name can only be understood ironically: Stanislaus Kostka is the patron saint of students.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, quoted material is drawn from transcripts of the public hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, held in Canberra over eleven days from June 10 to August 7, 2014. The eleven transcripts can found here.