A former Catholic boarding school student who was abused by a priest says the Catholic Church repeatedly tried to minimise his abuse and deny that it was criminal offending.

The former student, now aged 81, was sexually abused by Father Fred Durning in 1953 when he was a 13-year-old student at St Patrick’s College in Silverstream, Upper Hutt.

Using the pseudonym Mr F, he recounted his abuse before a royal commission of inquiry in Auckland this morning, which is holding hearings on abuse in the care of faith-based institutions.

Published in NZ Herald

Durning, who died in 1999, has been accused of abuse by multiple victims.

Mr F said he was a high achiever at St Patrick’s, placed in the top academic stream and chosen as lead soprano in the college choir.

But after Durning abused him in his office, he started struggling with his classes and eventually dropped out of school at age 15.

“I did not get rid of [his] smell on me until I reported his attack to the Society of Mary 49 years later,” he told commissioners at the hearing.

In an awful twist, Mr F’s son was also sexually abused at a different Catholic school, Chanel College in Masterton, 30 years later.

Mr F laid a complaint about both his and his son’s abuse after reading Durning’s glowing obituary in the Catholic magazine, the Marist Messenger, in 1999.

After calling the Society of Mary helpline, he met with Tim Duckworth, the Provincial for the Catholic organisation, in August 2002.

Duckworth told him at the meeting that Durning had abused other boys and was referred to by other priests as “Fred the Fiddler”. (Duckworth later denied making these comments.)

Mr F noted that Duckworth wrote Durning’s obituary in the Marist Messenger, and despite knowing about his record of abuse he described the priest as “a man of profound integrity and a faithful priest”.

After Mr F’s complaint, the Society of Mary accepted that the abuse had occurred and said an investigation was not necessary. He received an apology letter four months later, which acknowledged “the hurt that he suffered” from Durning.

“I noticed that the letter did not acknowledge that what occurred was sexual abuse and was careful not to even use the word ‘abuse’,” Mr F said.

Concerned about the church’s response and that abuse could still be occurring, he sought a review of his case in 2009. That led to meetings with the Society of Mary’s Sexual Abuse Protocol Committee members Judith McCormack and Neil Vaney.

“When Neil Vaney looked at my file, he said there was no case for Durning to answer. He trivialised and minimised the abuse. He said what happened to me was not against the law.”

He said that McCormack lost her temper with him and asked why he was behaving so differently to other sexual abuse victims.

“I assume she meant why don’t you take the $5000 [ex gratia payment] offered and go away.”

Mr F said he was repeatedly told by the church that the sexual abuse was not criminal.

After the review, he was told all of its recommendations had been adopted by the Society of Mary. He was never given a copy of the review or the recommendations. He received a further, brief apology, and an “insulting” offer of $5000.

The payment failed to take into account the hurt and damage he suffered, the loss of his education and other job opportunities, he said.

He also could not get back the years in which he believed he was the only one who was abused. He could not tell anyone about the abuse, including his wife, until 1999 – after 36 years of marriage.

When he told his wife, she was amazed that he was still a practising Catholic.

“The church I belong to is the people,” he responded. “Not a paedophile priest or brother.”

By Isaac Davison
Published in NZ Herald
1 Dec 2020