Men in white have surreptitiously shaped my character since the early years of my life. In school, I learned to be careful of men in white, the Christian brothers. They taught Christian kindness and love, yet their tough disciplinarian methods seem abusive now. The unilateral punishment they exacted on little boys, were excessive even then. But I have read about Philomena’s story, watched her movie; hers was vastly worse. Pregnant out of wedlock, the Irish teenage girl was sent to a convent and her child fostered to a couple in America. At least the men in white in my school didn’t sell me to another family. But the men in white did involve themselves with Australia’s stolen generation. Aboriginal children were physically removed from their homes and sent to church run missions, others fostered out to white families. History shows they did less well in schools and were three times more susceptible to drug abuse and petty crimes.
When I arrived in Australia in 1977, my homesickness and vulnerability was noticed by a man in white with a heavy brass crucifix around his neck. Mr Woodward was the school counsellor, soft spoken, gentle and outwardly caring. Quite the opposite of my experience with Lau Haw, but hey, we shouldn’t compare; they were, after all, men of the same cloth. A heavy brass crucifix is a loud banner for holiness, sacrifice and love. But, I was already familiar with the duplicity of men in white, from early school yard gossip. Some were prone to prey on boys whilst praying for forgiveness.
Bob, Mr Woodward insisted I call him by his first name, invited me to a dinner party. He said it is something he does for home sick students from overseas. He understood they miss their folks at home, a coded meaning, they miss their mother’s home cooked meals. Bob said it was also a chance to make new friends in a relaxed and informal setting. A group therapy perhaps for such lonely teenagers, who were lost in a strange new world far, far from the comfort and familiarity of home. His abode wasn’t humble, a gentleman’s bungalow in a leafy blue ribbon suburb. Dinner was a roast chicken with spuds and peas, delicious for a starving chap recently converted from vegetarianism. Dinner was odd though, I was the only student. What sort of parties do these white men hold in a white man’s land? Wasn’t the idea to make new friends in a comfortable setting? To forget quickly about missing home? After dinner, Bob turned on soft instrumental music from his impressive hifi system and changed the mood in the room by turning down the lights.
Come, he gestured to me with his kind eyes, his right hand patting the leather couch. Come, sit down, let’s talk a little before desserts. Like any obedient new arrival, the overseas student innocently sat down, leaving a safe gap from Bob. The experienced Bob was quick to reduce that distance to that of a bad breath. I panicked, suddenly my antenna turned on like that of an injured gazelle. I leapt to my feet and said with a firm voice, I want to go home now. As if on cue, Bob tried to imbue me with calmness, the hunted gazelle sniffed the air and decided the danger had passed. Bob reached out to me, calmed me and reassured me that all was fine. He slipped his hand under my tee shirt and started to stroke my back. I closed my eyes with trepidation, panic overwhelming my senses. In my mind, I saw the man in white, with a heavy brass crucifix hanging from his neck. I was the gazelle about to be devoured. I spoke with a strong voice, “I want to go home, NOW!” I wasn’t going to be his sweet desserts.
Clergy abuse on children has been on the spotlight for decades. Recently in Australia, the previous Anglican archbishop, Hollingworth was forced to resign as Governor General due to his conduct in handling sex abuse complaints. Just weeks ago, Cardinal Pell was convicted of historical sex offences and jailed. He was ranked number four in the Vatican’s hierarchy. Men in white… too many are urghhlings.