St Kevin’s College, the elite private boy’s school in Melbourne, stands in the public glare as an institution that has learned nothing.
Considering that two children sexually assaulted by Cardinal George Pell over 20 years ago were also St Kevin’s boys, that might seem particularly surprising. It’s not.
Far away on the same day, another institution fell. The Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy, brought down by a flood of claims by former scouts of historical sexual assaults. That’s significant.
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As I write this, St Kevin’s headmaster Stephen Russell, who gave a character reference to a convicted paedophile who had groomed a 14-year-old student, has resigned due to the deepening scandal triggered by a Four Corners report on St Kevin’s institutional failure.
In the old days, before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Russell would have survived this. As the Four Corners story was about to break, he posted a message to parents on the school website, including a prayer:
This is the time to be slow
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes
That’s how institutions do it. By virtue of their sheer presence, the assumption of their permanence, and the structural protections that they’ve acquired over generations, they can ride out any storm.
All they need to do is lie low for long enough and the circus will move on.
But thanks to the royal commission, that approach isn’t working for St Kevin’s.
It is sickening that even as the commission was in full swing exposing more than 4000 institutions guilty of enabling, covering up and excusing systemic sexual violence perpetrated on children under their care, St Kevin’s was replicating exactly that behaviour.
The Catholic Church was in the headlights as the worst offender of all, yet the men running this Catholic school defended a perpetrator and hung the victim out to dry.
What the commission did was open all our eyes. It brought to our attention, in visceral terms, the scale of the failure of these institutions in the one job they have: to protect the children under their care.
As a result, when Four Corners started sniffing around after the viral video of St Kevin’s boys chanting a song about rape on a public tram, the school’s community did not close ranks. Former students were prepared to speak publicly about the disgraceful culture of misogyny they’d lived through.
After the story broke, you could observe a wild thrashing about in the St Kevin’s universe. Boys reportedly refused to stand for Russell at assembly, parents expressed their disgust and dismay, and the school went into damage control.
That was too late, but there was no landing point available anyway; no normality to be restored. The world, as defined by the institutional integrity of St Kevin’s, had been turned on its head, and nobody knew what to do. Russell had to go.
The assumption that institutions like St Kevin’s will survive, must exist because they do exist, is unsound. They justify their existence by reference to social purpose. That is, to serve a social good (in St Kevin’s case, to educate children and turn them into good citizens).
In return, they are granted a social licence to operate.
On the foundation of social licence are built the structures of solidity, permanence, status and reputation. Critical among these are supports supplied by government: tax exemptions, charity status, registrations, licences, financial grants, contracts. These interlocking strands make it impossible to imagine that the institutions who hold a social licence could ever fall.
A social licence can be lost. Many of the institutions hauled before the royal commission have, arguably, lost theirs.
The Christian Brothers, one order of the Catholic Church in Australia, was found to have 22% of its religious members identified as alleged child sex abusers. Its social licence to exist, to take children into its care and exercise custodial and spiritual responsibility over them, was clearly lost along the way.
And yet, the Christian Brothers carries on. The order runs dozens of schools in Australia, hundreds worldwide. It continues to enjoy exemption from all taxes. Its schools are licensed to operate. It collects tens of millions of dollars in government funding for its schools.
St Kevin’s is a Christian Brothers school (now run by Edmund Rice Education Australia, set up by Christian Brothers as its education arm in 2007).
It took no notice of the royal commission. Otherwise, it would have acted in this case with the integrity it espouses. It would have acted in the student’s interests at all costs, including that of its own reputation.
Instead, like so many institutions, it sacrificed the children in its care on the altar of its own survival.
If the parents so choose, St Kevin’s will go on. Maybe its council will take this opportunity to recall the social purpose that it was created to serve, and start afresh.
If not, the lesson of the Boy Scouts of America will remain unlearned.