Peter Blenkiron holds school photos of himself taken as a student in grade six. He was abused by Brother Edward Dowlan in 1974.
They did it one night in Ballarat, 1974, at an otherwise normal teen sleepover. Two 13-year-old boys tiptoed out the backdoor of a grey-brick house in suburban Alfredton and rode their pushbikes seven kilometres through the piercing wind to a post box in Sebastopol, on the town’s south-western edge. They wanted to put some good distance between themselves — their identities, their homes and families — and what they were about to do.
It was here, in the black of early morning, they dispatched a letter — a note really, just a couple of short paragraphs — for the attention of Brother Edward Dowlan.
Forty-two years later, John* struggles to remember the exact wording on the letter he and David* wrote to Dowlan, but he says the point was too blunt to miss: “We know who you are and we know what you are doing.”
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What Dowlan was doing was molesting children.
In 1974, Dowlan was teaching at St Patrick’s College, a Catholic secondary school founded by the Christian Brothers in the late 19th century. John and David were both students of Dowlan’s in year 8 (or form 2, in the old money).
They had no concrete evidence, of course, just sinister gossip, which echoed inside tin ears for decades, but which was compounded for the boys at the time by Dowlan’s “bizarre behaviour” in the classroom.
“I can tell you about how he insisted that boys take a shower after P.E. lessons and that he would stand there watching,” John said.
John also tells how Dowlan would “deal” with any boy who misbehaved in class. First he would make him stand in a corner. Then, when the other students were busy with their workbooks, Dowlan would walk over to the boy in the corner. He would stand very close, so it looked to the others that their torsos were touching, until his larger frame and black cassock eclipsed the child in front — “that was very unusual; I never saw any of the other brothers do that”. Then Dowlan would start whispering, inaudible to most boys, but confirmed later in the schoolyard by students he’d trapped there.
It was surreal. But John figured he and his peers were the only ones with a clear view of this perverse sideshow. It wasn’t until decades later he found out incidents like this had been reported to parents and authority figures, many of whom roundly dismissed them. Much has been written of this collective blind eye. Call it Catholic obeisance or the arrogant incredulity of adulthood or maybe both, but the result was the same: children were being sexually abused and no one stopped it.
The boys’ midnight strike proved a success. A few days passed, mail was sorted and dispatched. Dowlan received the letter. But the ride out to Sebastopol — to obscure the letter’s source via a postmark from a far-off suburb — had been pointless: “We didn’t realise that all mail went through the one sorting depot.”
But Dowlan still wanted to know who had sent the letter.
The next day at school, Dowlan instructed John’s class to take out their exercise books and “write down the following words …”. He wanted to test the boys’ handwriting against that in the note. But John and David had taken precautions: “We had cleverly disguised our handwriting in the prediction that he would pull such a stunt” — taking it in turns writing different letters, switching hands. John reckons he’d seen something similar in a spy film, but he later regretted not thinking to hide his fingerprints as well. Not that it mattered in the end.
This past Monday, while giving testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, Cardinal George Pell cited Dowlan (now known as Ted Bales) as one of the first Christian Brothers in the diocese to have attracted suspicion for “paedophile activity”. Seems Pell had heard the rumours too.
Eventually, Dowlan would plead guilty to molesting at least 20 victims. He never did find out who wrote that letter.
*Names have been changed.