The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

… so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In May 2015, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse came to town, and opened public hearings in the Ballarat Magistrates’ Court, with Justice Peter McClennan presiding. Counsel Assisting, Gail Furness SC, outlined the evidence that was expected to be given, and a number of victims gave evidence about the abuse they had suffered. The next day’s proceedings opened with the evidence of Gordon Hill about his abuse at the hands of priests and nuns while he lived at St Joseph’s Home in Sebastopol, a southern suburb of Ballarat. He was followed by a number of other witnesses, some of whom alleged that they had informed the then Father George Pell about abuse centred on the Ballarat East parish, where Pell was, for some time, an assistant priest. David Ridsdale also repeated his allegation that Pell attempted to bribe him to keep quiet about his abuse at the hands of his uncle, the then Father Gerald Ridsdale.

All of these allegations about Pell had been widely canvassed before, but Gordon Hill’s opening statement, completely unrelated to Pell, was sensational, and coloured all of the reporting of the day. The Ballarat Courier headlined “Ballarat abuse survivor Gordon Hill tells of ‘dungeon’ assaults”; Melbourne’s Age had “Memories of abuse at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Ballarat, still haunt Gordon Hill at 72”. Online, the Daily Mail had two stories: the verbosely headlined “‘Father wants to cleanse you, 29’: Nun’s chilling words to a young boy, 5, who was given a NUMBER instead of a name when he was raped by a priest in ‘horror room’ for the first time”; and the more succinct “Nun laughed after priest’s abuse: victim”. This latter headline was also used by’s online site. ABC News online had “Child sex abuse inquiry: Victim had teeth pulled out by nuns with pliers, royal commission hears”. Later in the year, the ABC got down to brass tacks with “Abuse survivor Gordon Hill calls for Catholic Church to properly compensate victims, not offer apologies”.

Gordon, at a very young age, was placed in a home in the small town of Gordon, east of Ballarat. Just before his third birthday, he was taken to St Joseph’s Home by bus. He has “vivid memories” of other toddlers entering the bus as it travelled to St Joseph’s. In Gordon’s telling:

There are three categories of kids in St Joey’s. There were kids who came to St Joey’s during the day for school, then there was other ones that still had outside links with a relative … Lastly, there were the kids that didn’t have anybody outside at all …

Gordon was in the last category, the “drones”, as he called them. The drones, he said, received no schooling. He did not discover his surname until he was ten or eleven, when he was told he had a younger brother in the home, and that he had an older brother, who was by then working in the associated home for the aged. Until then, he was known only by his locker number, twenty-nine. It is unlikely that this depersonalisation applied to the day pupils or, by extension, to the category two pupils, but only to the twenty-five “drones”.

The first assault against Gordon occurred when he was five or six. A nun told him, “Father wants to cleanse you, Twenty-nine.”

I was thrown into one of the horror rooms where I was made to strip off and get into an old-fashioned small bath. A priest gave me a drink … I have no memory of what happened after that. When I came to, I hurt like bloody hell. I was bleeding from the top of my back, down to my shins. My genitals and my bottom were the worst, they hurt like they were on fire. I later discovered I had bite marks on my privates. I don’t know how long I was out for. When I woke up … the nun … was waiting outside. She was laughing—big joke to her …

There were three stages to progress through the home, as also described by other St Joseph’s old boys: nursery until five years old, school dormitory from six to thirteen, and farm-boys’ dormitory for those fourteen to seventeen. The locker number by which Gordon was known would not have been assigned in the nursery. Gordon says that the abuse he endured as “Twenty-nine” continued while he was in the school dorm.

As well as his regular “cleansing”, one of the three priests who abused him during his stay devised a devilish, if less physically traumatic, form of abuse when Gordon was nine or ten:

I was chosen to be an altar boy … The priest used to strip me down in the vestry, touch me and dress me in the altar boy outfit, which was a pink smock. He would then make me sit on the floor beneath the padded bench in the confessional box. I used to enter the confessional box before the parishioners came in for Saturday night confession. The priest then used to come in and sit on the padded bench. He would pull me by my hair, rub me, and I had to play with his genitals while he listened to confession.

If I made a noise as I was sitting beneath the priest’s bench in the confessional box, he would whack me across the face to shut me up. If any Catholics had known what was going on, they would have been horrified.

One of the things I noticed during the confession was that the women got off lightly when getting absolution from the priest. The guys sometimes had to pay out money in order to get absolution. The priest told the men how much he wanted from them. He asked some of the guys for up to five pounds, in those days it was a lot of money. I used to hear the person confessing slip through a piece of crinkly paper beneath the meshing that separated the priest and the public in the confessional box. The priest took the money and put it in his pocket; I could hear it crinkling.

The “crinkly paper” is a problem. Paper currency, even when near-new, could not be described as “crinkly”. This is a detail too far. If the priest had demanded £5 for absolution, then given absolution without further fuss, payment of the bribe can be assumed. Every adult Catholic in the 1950s would have understood that the priest’s demand for payment was a grave sin, and even if he didn’t, he would have resented the five quid. Did no one complain to the Bishop?

Again, the bodies are hard to locate in the confessional. Cramped under the bench, out of sight behind the priest’s legs and cassock, how is Gordon to access the priest’s genitals? How is the priest to “pull him by his hair” and rub him? Consider also the intimacy of the confessional. Confessions were usually spoken at barely above a whisper, with the heads of both confessor and penitent close to the grill. While the grill obscured shapes, movement revealed them. If Gordon had made a noise, it would have been heard by the penitent; if the priest had been able to whack him across the face, the movement would have been seen and the whack certainly heard.

The story of the “horror rooms” was not over. Gordon has himself graduating to the farm-boys at the age of eleven or twelve:

the sexual abuse got worse … as I got older it went on to the physical and dungeon type of thing. The horror rooms, they had medieval paintings, a big wooden X cross on one wall. I used to be stripped down and tied up and sexually abused by it.

If this description does not give readers pause, nothing will. This scene, with the addition of black latex costumes, would not be out of place in a sadomasochistic dominatrix fantasy.

Extreme forms of corporal punishment were practised by the nuns. For serious offences there was “battle stations”:

In the hall we would be stripped off in front of all the other kids and made to lie down on the ground. We were stretched out with a big kid on each arm and a kid on each leg and held up in the air. The nuns hit us with drill sticks … They were about 1.5 metres long or sometimes we would be hit with a small whip …

I was thrashed with a drill stick across the bare skin of my back and buttocks. About after ten whacks the drill stick broke. I still have scars on both sides of my torso because the sticks broke on an angle. When I started to bleed on the back, they turned me around to the other side and whacked me again. I have the scars on my waist straight across from where I was beaten, and I was bruised everywhere.

While this punishment was public and, to an extent, ritualised, there were severe ad hoc punishments:

Sometimes the nuns would punish us by pulling a tooth out with a pair of pliers or whacking us across the face with an engineer’s hammer, which broke a lot of our teeth. I’ve even got scars to prove that. This happened to me a few times. On one occasion I was hit across the mouth for eating carrots from the garden I was weeding in with a lump of wood, and I still have the scars on my face.

“Battle stations”, because it was a special punishment for special infringements, was often accompanied by solitary confinement:

what we called a dungeon … was a four by four room away from the orphanage down by the incinerator. That was where I was left with a bucket, a soundproof door, a light above me, there was no windows. For a bed, I had a concrete slab and three or four hessian bags for blankets. I stayed down there for about a month.

There was still another punishment in the armoury. In the mid-1950s (Gordon was eleven in 1954) he follows some “bigger kids” into a blackberry patch outside the grounds. With threats to keep him quiet, they throw him into the briar patch. It’s getting dark, so he follows a light:

but it turned out it was a little hut where they used to clean the cans from the sewerage … The weather was freezing, so I got up on the bench and there was two or three old bags … which I got underneath and slept there for the night.

I woke up with a very sore head and realised I was lying in a clean and comfortable bed … in … the Ballarat Base Hospital. I must have fallen off the bench and hit my head, because I had a headache—I had bandages on my head. I heard the door open and a woman in a white coat came in, followed by … the matron, then a person in plain clothes and a policeman.

The woman … asked me how I got so bruised and battered … I had about six or seven teeth missing … they couldn’t work out how … the mouth was so badly damaged. They asked me why nobody had reported it. The doctor asked me my name … All I could say was “Twenty-nine” … I tried to tell them about the abuse … I tried to explain to them that I came from the home, because I didn’t know it was called St Joey’s, that I was physically and sexually abused there and how I’d gotten scars on my body. The copper in uniform turned around and said, “No, he’s just a runaway kid that we’ve been looking for, for nearly three or four days … we’ve picked up runaways before.” I said, “I wasn’t running away …”

From that day on, I trusted no one.

There are a few things to note about this incident. If Gordon is, indeed, the runaway they are looking for, he has been unconscious for three or four days. He is from ten to thirteen years old, but he doesn’t know the name of the home. By the age of ten or eleven, on his own telling, he had discovered his surname, and he has presumably known his Christian name from the nursery, or even the home in the town of Gordon.

Back at St Joseph’s, there is retribution for this disappearance:

they tied me down on a bed and had pads on my head and neck with wires coming out … they put a catheter in me and then another tube in my bottom so they didn’t have to clean up the mess after me. There was a big light that shone into my face when I felt intense pain as my head bounced off the bed. Then I heard noises again and I started to feel the pain again. It was like some sort of electric shock therapy.

This is not punishment; it is interrogation by torture.

They wanted to know what I had told them at the hospital … I don’t know how many days that went on for.
[emphasis added]

After that, I was taken down to the dungeon … and locked in a room made out of limestone. There was a thick door with a peephole and a slot down by the floor, and I had wheat bags for blankets. I got bread and water morning and night. Sometimes I could not eat because my teeth hurt so much and I ended up feeding the bread to a little mouse, it was a little pet mouse I found.

I was there for about over a month. Bloody cold down there too.

This is another show-stopper. The nuns had an ECT machine in a back room somewhere, and they would bring it out only in the most exceptional circumstances, such as interrogating runaways. This interrogation could go on for days, and was administered without anaesthetics or muscle relaxants, for obvious reasons. This was in the mid-1950s.

The Child and Adolescent Unit was established in the Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital in New Zealand in 1972, and closed amid controversy in 1978. In a widely-reported scandal, the psychiatrist in charge of the unit was accused of having administered ECT without anaesthetics to two complainants. Two inquiries in 1976 and 1977 investigated the complaints. The psychiatrist, Dr Selwyn Leeks, resigned his position. As a result of extensive publicity, the setting up of a class action, and the government’s provision of a large compensation fund, the number of complainants steadily rose, until by 1999 there were 120. It is not known whether Dr Leeks had been consulting with the nuns of St Joseph’s Home on the management of difficult children. At least he was trained to administer ECT.

The farm-boys were sometimes “farmed out” to work in businesses and properties in the region:

This is some of the places I went to: I travelled to Merbein near Mildura; Wentworth; a sheep farm in Hamilton; an eel farm in Apollo Bay.

In the 1950s, I was about fourteen years old, I got sent to work at the priest’s dad’s place. This was the priest that sexually abused me in St Joey’s. His dad was in his sixties and ran this [REDACTED] … The priest and his relative used to come into the shed together and sexually abuse me. One of them would hold me down and the other tied my legs up and blindfold me, so I had no chance of getting away. The priest and the relative took turns to abuse me … I used to try to think of other things while they were abusing me. I used to think about the babies and the kids I helped look after at St Joey’s and try to put the abuse out of my mind.

When he leaves St Joseph’s, he goes to live with his mother in Echuca, and works in the ordnance factory for three years:

After I finished … I got a job on the farm, and … I was out there for about six years. I only used to come into town once every three months … One day my boss asked me, “You can’t read and write, Hilly, why don’t you bloody well learn?” He took me into an ABC Shop and I picked up a set of books with attached cassette tapes so that I could teach myself how to read and write, since I had never been taught at St Joey’s.

Gordon worked on the farm between the ages of twenty and twenty-six. He turned twenty-six in 1969. The first ABC Shop opened, not in Ballarat, but in Sydney, in 1981.

On the basis of the contradictions and incredulities in this statement alone, there are numerous grounds for scepticism. The casual reader with internet access and a quizzical frame of mind would quickly find reasons for serious doubts about it. Yet it was presented before the royal commission apparently without being queried by counsel assisting or the small army of commission support staff. Three hundred million dollars and five years work should buy a more rigorous process.

The commission’s job in this respect had been made considerably easier by Gordon Hill himself and the efforts of the Senate and the Victorian Parliament. In 2005, the Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care issued its report. This was nine years after the then Archbishop Pell had initiated the Melbourne Response, and eight years after the Australian bishops had adopted “Towards Healing”. The inquiry drew responses from former residents from 2003 to 2005. St Joseph’s Home was mentioned in a number of these submissions—those of Bryan Cronin (submission 290), Kevin Crouch (454), Alan Coleman (471), Gordon Hill (501), and an anonymous submission, number 130.

Eight years later the Family and Community Development Committee of the Victorian Parliament tabled the report of its Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. The inquiry took submissions in 2012 and 2013. Gordon Hill made a submission, and he, along with another St Joseph’s old boy, Joseph Saric, gave testimony. Unlike the royal commission, testimony was not merely the reading of a submission. The Ballarat District Group sent a joint submission. It is in the form of a catalogue of abuses and the responses to them and no incidents of abuse are associated with any individual victim or perpetrator. The list of schools attended included “St Joseph’s Orphanage”, Ballarat. One of the primary signatories was a Gordon Hall. Given the inclusion of St Joseph’s in the list, I suspect that “Hall” is a typographical error, and that this signatory was in fact Gordon Hill.

Apart from the joint document, Gordon has made three submissions to inquiries and given off-the-cuff testimony to one. This enthusiasm lets interested parties see the remarkable development of Gordon’s memory of events at St Joseph’s. Both Kevin Crouch and Alan Coleman received the type of punishment which Gordon Hill calls “battle stations”. Kevin was three years older than Gordon, so their terms of residence overlapped significantly. Alan was older, arriving in 1936, and leaving in late 1945, a few months before Gordon arrived. Bryan Cronin, on the other hand, was at St Joseph’s during the 1960s. Gordon left in 1959 or 1960.

Most of the personal submissions by St Joseph’s old boys were to the Senate inquiry, but the group submission to the Victorian inquiry throws some interesting light on Gordon’s story.

Gordon was the only one of all these old boys to make a public submission to the royal commission. That is probably because none of the others alleged sexual abuse by priests or nuns at St Joseph’s. Bryan Cronin told a terrible story of sexual and physical abuse, but it was conducted by an older generation of alumni who, in the 1960s, would volunteer to look after the residents on weekends. It is possible, indeed likely, that by the 1960s the order was feeling the effects of ageing membership and a drying-up of vocations.

Most interesting of the earlier testimonies are those of Gordon himself. In his 2005 Senate submission, he mentions only one instance of sexual abuse, while on placement at a “pub owned by the parents of the orphanage’s priest”. This abuse, on which Gordon does not go into the details, links to the more elaborate description in his commission statement. He adds a paragraph:

Actually, looking back I now realise that there was sexual abuse at the orphanage. The priest used to make us do things for what he called “purification purposes”. The nuns would also whack you across the genitals and bum while lining up for showers.

This aside on “purification”, bundled with being whacked across the genitals and bum by nuns, will morph into the “cleansing” incidents in later versions. Gordon does not mention “Twenty-nine” at all.

Alan Coleman, in his submission, gives the rationale for the numbers. When he was six, he moved from the nursery to the schoolboys’ dormitory, which housed children from six to thirteen years old:

it was run like a prison, every child had his own number. I was number ninety-six and all clothes were marked with your number even when we went for meals.

Names were not forgotten:

when I was in grade three the nuns told us we were getting some boys from Nazareth House in Melbourne, one of the kids was named Alan Coleman, the nuns said we had to work out who was going to change his name, so the other guy changed his name to Joseph Coleman.

Regarding his education, Gordon asserts to the Senate that he had received only one year of schooling, and he introduces his story of learning to read and write with tapes from “ABC shops”. However, he relates a curious incident:

if you were good enough to get in the band you would get to go outside sometimes. I was in the band and once we went to a Corpus Christi procession at St Pats. About thirty kids and all the instruments etc were loaded onto the back of a semi-trailer to get there and on the way back, the driver took a bend too fast and we all went off the back, instruments and all. We were battered and bruised (not enough though to go to hospital) …

It’s not so much the great good fortune of the thirty in not being seriously injured, as it is the fact that Gordon was in the band that is interesting here. It is inconceivable that he could be excluded from school, yet learn to play an instrument well enough to be in the school band. By 2013, Gordon seems to have forgotten about the band and the accident.

Alan Coleman was more isolated than Gordon. He never knew his parents; there was certainly no one for him on the outside. Yet Alan was educated through eight grades of primary schooling to the point where he topped the class in an exam to determine which two pupils could progress to St Patrick’s College. Bryan Cronin, in the 1960s, claims to have been put into a grade for classes more or less at random throughout his school years, but he was in class.

Physical injuries are witnessed to by an apparently inordinate amount of scarring carried by Gordon’s body, though its provenance may be uncertain. In his 2005 testimony, the side of Gordon’s mouth was scarred when a boy in the scullery threw a fork at him, penetrating his cheek. A nun dragged him out by the still-embedded fork, removed it, and stitched him up with a needle and thread. In no subsequent testimony does the fork reappear.

After his “battle stations” beating, he was thrown into solitary for three weeks, with another needle and thread to stitch himself up. He had “a bucket for a toilet, a bench for a bed that had no mattress and one blanket”. Food was kicked through a kick plate at the bottom of the door. Arrangements for the bucket are not revealed.

In later tellings, the penalty for eating carrots from the garden is so severe that one wonders why anyone would risk it. But in 2005, memories were not so stressful:

One time I was caught in the garden eating carrots by the nuns—I got six hours solitary after being belted with a cane …

There is no mention of pliers or hammers, broken teeth or jawbones, but the hammer does make an appearance elsewhere. In the submission of the Ballarat District Group to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, one of the abuses mentioned is hitting on the face and head with a ball-pein hammer, but it is one particular Christian Brother—no one at St Joseph’s—who is responsible.

Neither is there any mention of blackberry patches or night-soil cans or waking in hospital. No mention either of ECT punishment or interrogation.

Gordon’s story does stabilise by 2013, the time of the Victorian inquiry. Most of the elements of the commission testimony are there, but in very different colours. Even in the two months between his submission and his being called before the inquiry, the first abuse story changes. In the submission, he is seated in a small bath; in verbal testimony, it becomes a chair; and for the commission, it reverts to a bath. Another significant change occurs in the newly-remembered blackberry story. In his submission, he runs away, staying in the washing shed for two weeks, and being discovered when he becomes ill. Two months later, he is away for two days, and then only because he becomes too ill to return.

There is no mention even in 2013 of the abuse in and of the confessional: it is unique to the commission statement, one of the most shocking stories for the rump of believing Catholics. Not only does it demoralise Catholics, but it also plays to the paradigmatic complaint of the Reformation.

Compiling this catalogue of inconsistencies and contradictions is only possible because Gordon Hill has been such an enthusiastic witness at every inquiry that has been conducted over the past fourteen years. Even so, the final version of this tale is so extreme, and in some details so caricatured, that any normally attentive listener, let alone a barrister or a judge, would be sceptical. All of Gordon’s previous documents were publicly available, but it seems commission staff have not availed themselves of the opportunity; or worse, they have seen them and chosen to ignore them.

The introduction of Gordon Hill’s sensational testimony immediately before allegations of Cardinal Pell’s involvement in cover-up cannot have been coincidental. It makes the commission’s failures of diligence all the more culpable. Nor is it the case that Furness SC and Justice McClennan lack stubbornly persistent scepticism; it was on display, for example, in their refusal to believe that Cardinal Pell was not in on what the commission seems to view as a Church-wide criminal protection racket.

Justice McClennan is using the platform provided by the royal commission to push for legislative changes to constrain the directions provided by judges according to “empirically validated” views of the reliability of evidence from children in sex offence cases, including, critically, the reliability of memories. Justice McClennan’s own views are, of course, empirically validated, and the commission has issued its own commissions for research, so far publishing fifty reports, none of which seem to have challenged the views of members of the commission. A constant theme in Justice McClennan’s recent speeches is the unreliability of “commonsense” views about the reliability of memory, and the unreliability of judicial views of the commonsense views of jurors.

If the common sense of jurors is to be denigrated, what is the point of having juries in these cases? If both the common and judicial senses of judges are to be likewise denigrated and in pressing need of redirection by members of parliament, what is the point of having experienced judges? If the existing case law relating to sexual offences is so polluted by empirically invalid assumptions, what is the point of the common law in these matters?

There are tremendous difficulties in replacing the creaking structures of the law and the intellectual limitations of a dozen ordinary folk with a system in which scientific expertise is given its rightfully prominent place, though judicial radicals can but try. One assumes that the testimony of Gordon Hill is an example of the evidence that would be stamped with the judge’s nihil obstat in an empirically enlightened court, even as it was in Justice McClennan’s empirically enlightened commission. Still, as the Justice complained to the Australian Lawyers Alliance New South Wales state conference in 2017, some court decisions concerning child sexual abuse are problematical:

They derive from what judges’ [sic] thought they knew about how genuine complainants behave and what they thought they knew about how memory works.

Those assumptions have turned out, with the benefit of empirical research, to be flawed. However, they became embedded in the fabric of the common law and proved difficult even for Parliament to dislodge. [emphasis added]

Here’s a toast, then: to the common law!

Peter West is a retired computer programmer. He blogs intermittently at
Links to transcripts of the statements quoted here can be found at Quadrant Online.


2 thoughts on “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Some years ago I was involved in a particularly bitter divorce. The other side wished to show that I had sexually abused my daughter. There were interviews with police specialising in the field and other activists of my daughter at the age of five. Reading the transcripts I formed the opinion there was a great effort to lead her to make accusations that might be plausible. This article brought back to me the bizarre nature of evidence they were prepared to put into the record. I was accused of beating my daughter with a large lumps of firewood on access visits. Even though I had no guns I still was accused of shooting down planes from the back yard of a suburban house in Canberra. I don’t know how it was produced but she was encouraged to draw pictures of these guns which roughly looked like double-barreled pistols. I was supposed to have sliced my tongue with a razor blade in order to frighten her. The policewoman was a recent appointee to the first position created for sexual abuse cases. She over a period of two days lead my daughter and took as evidence statements from my ex-wife. There are other cases I know of which these sorts of detail make them unbelievable. In the case you speak of was there any psychiatric assessment of the mental state of the accuser?

  • Daffy says:

    The story does sound like confabulation, but let’s put that aside for the moment.
    Were these institutions licensed by government? If not, why not? Were they inspected frequently, searchingly and by inspectors with the suspicious noses of Workcover inspectors? Were inspectors randomly rotated to avoid ‘regulator capture’. Did the inspectors have powers of questioning the children and adults, ordering medical examinations, seizing documents and ‘things’? If not, why not? Did they report to the police, did the police investigate with disinterested vigour? Did charges get laid, did magistrates get involved? Were people convicted?
    No to all the above of course. Thus, any instances of abuse were abetted by government and/or official dereliction of duty. Not in the RC’s terms, I guess.

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