Ballarat schools on moving from dark past into the light

With the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse concluding next week, the Ballarat Catholic education system has shared some of its positive changes. 

St Alipius Parish School

The most common response when the St Alipius Parish School principal meets with survivors of clergy sexual abuse is the words, “I just want to know that this can’t happen again, I want to know these kids are safe”.

While the horrific abuse occurred in a different location, at the former St Alipius Christian Brothers Boys School, St Alipius principal Eileen Rice said the school recognised “a really dark chapter of abuse” would always be part of its history.

The school has welcomed the royal commission's search for answers and is committed to preventing future abuse.

St Alipius Parish School principal Eileen Rice. Picture: Jeremy Bannister

St Alipius Parish School principal Eileen Rice. Picture: Jeremy Bannister

Ms Rice said a major cultural shift had taken place in the education sector making the school grounds a different place to what it had been previously. 

“Education has in that time transformed,” she said.

“It’s not about the control over the curriculum and the control over the child, it’s more about skilling and empowering children, who are already thriving, contributing members of our society.”

While the school had implemented strong child safety policies and procedures, many of which were preventative, Ms Rice said safety came down to what the pupils experienced with the people around them. 

“You can do police checks, you can do working with children checks, you can check to make sure no one can walk into the school grounds, you can be vigilant, but that of itself isn’t enough,” she said.

“We have to build a culture where child safety is everyone’s responsibility and that it’s not all about the adults... that children are empowered to keep themselves safe.”

To do this education is key, with protective behaviours and human sexuality taught to all pupils down to the preps learning about personal safety, touching and being in control of their own bodies in an age appropriate manner. 

Pupils are also taught about having the right to say no to adults and identifying staff members they can speak to safely.

POWERFUL: These former grade six pupils from St Alipius Parish School, pictured in February 2016, and many other students have acknowledged the victims of clergy abuse in a range of different ways. Picture: Simon O'Dwyer

POWERFUL: These former grade six pupils from St Alipius Parish School, pictured in February 2016, and many other students have acknowledged the victims of clergy abuse in a range of different ways. Picture: Simon O'Dwyer

Meanwhile, staff members are trained on mandatory reporting and picking up on the signs of abuse.

Ms Rice emphasised building strong relationships was crucial because some signs would only be evident to teachers who knew their pupils well.

“No more silence is something we should all embrace and it’s about a whole lot of different aspects about our lives,” Ms Rice said.

“If children don’t feel like they can report that somebody was mean to them on the playground, if that’s dismissed, then they’re not going to report other things.

“It is about believing children, hearing and responding, because you are not going to get children telling you big things if you don’t listen to the little things.”

Child safety also came down to seeking out and supporting the vulnerable.

“I sat through the royal commission when it sat in Ballarat and one of the things fairly evident to me was when families were at risk, paedophiles took advantage of that situation and manipulated parents often to gain access to their children,” Ms Rice said.

“We talk about children being groomed, but parents were often groomed first so they trusted these people with their children.

“So for us as a school community, it’s important that we align families at risk with services that can support them so that they’re not left vulnerable and accessible.”

While the school has embraced the Loud Fence movement of tying ribbons onto its fence, St Alipius is now looking at a permanent symbol of hope and healing.

A sculpture is in the planning stages with the theme along the lines of Martin Luther King Junior’s famous words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that”.

“We can’t stay in the darkness,” Ms Rice said.

“We have to be really conscious of the light and the light that’s in kids, that’s our hope, that’s where we go.”

St Patrick’s College

Headmaster John Crowley has said while the conclusion of the royal commission may mark the end of the formal work, it is just one step in the long journey for St Patrick’s College.

The school is reaching out to reconnect with and provide support to as many past students who desire it, whether it is a conversation over the phone or regular coffee catch ups.

“That’s really important for us,” Mr Crowley said.

“For past students of the school who were victims of abuse to know that we want to walk in solidarity with them and we recognise that the journey of building trust is a long one and we are in it for the long run.”

Mr Crowley described the relationships the school community had already managed to establish with survivors as a “real honour”.

“Often they just want to spend some time talking about the journey of the school over the past three years, their own experiences and what the school is doing to reconnect with survivors, and they are always really fulfilling conversations,” he said.

Through these conversations, Mr Crowley said the school had identified areas where it could make a difference. As a result St Patrick's College was the first school in the state to sign onto the Keeping Safe child protection curriculum, the first place in Ballarat to build a permanent monument to victims and offered a formal apology to survivors in June.

“One of the things that has happened through the commission is I’ve become very close friends with a number of survivors and that’s a reflection of their humanity and their humility,” Mr Crowley said.

“They’ve been able to establish that trust with the principal of the college where they were abused, that’s a really profound thing.”

Catholic Education Office Ballarat

Director of Catholic Education Audrey Brown has said it has been a united effort to ensure the protection of pupils. 

The Catholic Education Office Ballarat oversees 64 schools across the diocese, which Ms Brown described as highly regulated and professionalised. 

“All our schools have child safety officers, very good screening processes and a changing landscape with the regulation over volunteers,” she said.

“Schools self monitor and then the diocese monitors, where an independent consultant goes into the schools on a regular basis to make sure there is evidence of meeting child safe standards.”

The parish priest also does not exert the same control over a school as previously, with more of a spiritual and religious role rather than governance. 

The priests are screened, sign up to a code of conduct and never work alone with pupils. 

“Historically one of the concerns was principals wouldn’t report against a parish priest who was an abuser,” Ms Brown said.

“Those times have changed, there is no protection for anybody who is going to harm children in our schools.”

To contact CASA, located on the corner of Vale and Edwards streets, Sebastopol, call 5320 3933 or free call 24 hours 1800 806 292. Lifeline can be accessed on 13 11 14.