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Royal Commission: Catholic Christian Brothers leader tells hearing members are dying out -

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KIM LANDERS: The leader of the Catholic Christian Brothers in Australia has told the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse that members of the celibate order are dying out and it will soon no longer exist in its traditional form.

The Commission this week has heard horrific stories of the sexual and physical abuse of children by Christian Brothers in the Victorian city of Ballarat in the 1960s and 70s.

Brother Peter Clinch has today told the Commission that those abusers had come to see the reputation of the church as more important than the welfare of the children in its care.

Samantha Donovan is at the hearings in Ballarat and she joins me now.

Samantha, has Brother Peter Clinch given any explanation for the brutal behaviour of some of the Christian Brothers in Ballarat?

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Kim, Brother Peter Clinch is the leader of the Christian Brothers for the Oceania region. He joined the order in the early 70s so he was very young when the worst abuse was being carried out in the 60s and 70s.

He told the Commission he first became aware of the sexual abuse of children by some of his colleagues in Ballarat in about 1993, when it began to get media attention as victims went to police.

The royal commission chairman, Peter McClellan, has asked him this morning why some of the brothers of the order were so prone to treating children with such brutality? What was the culture that it allowed it to flourish? And Brother Clinch recounted a conversation he had with an elderly Christian Brother in Brisbane recently.

PETER CLINCH: It was a recent conversation that I had with a very elderly brother in Brisbane, an 88-year-old. And he had a very good insight. He said, "We lost our way. We lost the charism of Edmund Rice and we came to see reputation of our schools and institutions as number one, rather than the service of children."

And that physical violence - physical, "corporal punishment" as we softly called it but it was violence - became nearly a common practice.

Some, as I only heard during this week, were just beyond any realm of punishment: it was just brutality. Now, that may have been the exception but corporal punishment - the use of the strap - was seen as a common way of maintaining discipline within your class. And that became accepted, where I think that's fatally wrong.

PETER MCCLELLAN: We've also learnt that the place of the brother or the priest in society was an exalted position. You accept that?


PETER MCCLELLAN: And that that brought power, both over children but also more generally in the community so that adults wouldn't believe a complaint by children that a priest or brother had abused.

PETER CLINCH: It's a warped sense of power, but that's true.

PETER MCCLELLAN: Now, from your perception is that a cultural issue for the whole Church?

PETER CLINCH: From my understanding - I can talk for the Christian Brothers - it certainly was. And I'd say for the Church generally it is an issue that needs to be ongoingly addressed.

KIM LANDERS: Brother Peter Clinch giving evidence to the Royal Commission.

Samantha, has the commission been considering any other things that might have contributed to the abuse of children by the Christian Brothers?

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Yes, it's also been very interested, Kim, in exploring the role the vow of celibacy, taken by the Christian Brothers, has played in the abuse of young boys in Ballarat. Brother Peter Clinch has pointed out that the Christian Brothers haven't had an Australian-born novitiate stay with them for about 25 years; that the vow of celibacy is clearly making a life with the Christian Brothers an unattractive option for young men.

He told the Commission that young men joining the order these days are mainly from the Philippines or Timor Leste or Papua New Guinea. So he said the celibate order will cease to exist in Australia. But he says he's very encouraged by lay collaborators joining the Christian Brothers.

This is some of what Brother Clinch said when he was asked if the vow of celibacy has made offending more likely.

PETER CLINCH: There's a calling to be a brother. You have a sense of a call to be a competent brother in the charism of Edmund Rice. But there's also a call - I mean, you have to be suited or be able to live with it to the form of chastity. And I think it comes to me back is the ability to have mature, adult relationships. So those brothers that I know have offended: often they have shown signs of immaturity with adults. And it's only in hindsight that I can say that.

PETER MCCLELLAN: Again, there will be many people who will ask this question so I'll ask it for them.


PETER MCCLELLAN: If the vow of celibacy was not a requirement of a brother, would the brothers nevertheless be able to fulfil their teaching and other functions in the community?

PETER CLINCH: Yes, they could but it would fundamentally change the nature of living in community and the way of community life.

KIM LANDERS: Brother Peter Clinch. And again: apologies for the quality of that audio from the web stream from the Royal Commission.

Our reporter, Samantha Donovan, is still with us. And Samantha, which other witnesses are we likely to hear from at this stage of the inquiry?

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Well, the hearings have finished up for this week, Kim. Things have moved a lot more quickly than expected because the Catholic Church hasn't exercised its right to question the survivor witnesses. It said it didn't want to make things more difficult for them.

Next week we'll be hearing from a few other representatives of the Catholic Church, including the Bishop of Ballarat, Paul Bird. We'll also be hearing from a psychiatrist with expertise in child sexual abuse.

The witness who will probably attract the most attention, though, is the notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale, now a defrocked priest. He'll be giving evidence via video link from jail late next week.

KIM LANDERS: Samantha Donovan reporting from Ballarat