Damning revelations from a former church fixer reveals that almost all St John of God Catholic brothers faced allegations of physical or sexual abuse. Steve Kilgallon reports.


In 2002, Sydney clinical psychologist Michelle Mulvihill made 13 trips to New Zealand; visits which took her the entire length of the country.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience: she was here to negotiate settlements with survivors of the worst episode of child abuse in the history of the New Zealand Catholic Church.

In 2002, Sydney clinical psychologist Michelle Mulvihill made 13 trips to New Zealand; visits which took her the entire length of the country.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience: she was here to negotiate settlements with survivors of the worst episode of child abuse in the history of the New Zealand Catholic Church.

The church itself last week conceded that 14 per cent of all historic complaints it has received related to the Marylands residential school in Christchurch, but did not disclose the number of alleged abusers.

But Mulvihill, who has kept her own records of complaints, has for the first time revealed statistics suggesting the figure could be as high as 91 per cent of religious brothers who worked there.

Mulvihill says the Government and the Catholic Church should tell the order, the Hospitaller Brothers of St John of God, that they are no longer welcome in New Zealand.

She will tomorrow deliver explosive testimony to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care’s special Marylands hearing via videolink from Australia, and talked exclusively to Stuff about her upcoming appearance.

Mulvihill, a former nun, cut ties with the St John of God Brothers in 2007 in disgust at their treatment of survivors. She says the order has since shunned her.

She had worked with various religious orders on their redress schemes for abuse victims and first became involved with St John of God in 1998 when The Age newspaper revealed 40 abuse complaints against the brothers in care homes in Australia.

She was reluctant but hoped the order’s background, which specialised in nursing and mental health, meant they might be different to other Catholic orders in their response. She will tell the inquiry: “Sadly, I was wrong …

They are all the same.“

Mulvihill says that in 2002 the Australian group was offered a “take it or leave it” $4 million group settlement negotiated via lawyers which kept the offending brothers’ identities secret and saw none of them stood down.

The deal was negotiated despite strong opposition within the order. Mulvihill recalls attending one meeting where an overhead projector slide showed the names of accused brothers; she describes the atmosphere as “one of total denial … it was deeply entrenched”.

However, she says the brothers then agreed a new survivor-focused approach of instant support, including free-call hotlines, funded counselling and long-term support would be applied in future cases. Shortly afterwards, the first six complainants from boys who had attended Marylands, run by the brothers between 1955 and 1989, came forward.

In the end, over 120 complaints, the majority from the 1970s, were made about abuse at the school. The most prolific offender was unmasked as Bernard Kevin McGrath, now 74, who remains imprisoned in New South Wales and has been sentenced to a total of 61 years’ jail across five trials in two countries. The school’s now dead former principal, Roger Moloney, was sentenced to 35 months’ jail for offending against five children; Raymond John Garchow and William John Lebler, who are also both deceased, were both deemed unfit to face trial.

Accompanied by the order’s then Provincial (district leader), New Zealand-born Peter Burke, Mulvihill began her series of visits here, and a total of 70 survivors were eventually identified.

Mulvihill gives a harrowing account of that experience, including trips to meet survivors at Rolleston, Hawke’s Bay, Paparoa and Invercargill prisons. She recalls one survivor arriving at their meeting sniffing glue and vomiting on the table. Another met them at his freezing cold shared hostel where he was so impoverished there were no chairs to sit on, but he had borrowed a small electric heater for the visit. A Māori survivor explained how as a child he had been forced to perform parodic cultural displays for brothers before being abused. Some were homeless and Burke took them shopping for clothes, haircuts and food. He visited the graveside of one survivor who had committed suicide.

Mulvihill says all were promised enduring relationships and long-term support but after their “paltry” settlement payments were made, those promises were broken every time.

She says Burke was shaken and traumatised, questioning his membership of the order and genuine in wanting to help, but on returning to Sydney each time would “lose his bottle” under pressure from the recalcitrant brothers. Burke died in 2010, and Mulvihill believes that was advanced by the stress. She had professional support, but found the experience “truly heartbreaking”.

“I sat there with Peter Burke and looked into the eyes of these victims and their families and promised them an enduring relationship for as long as they required, assistance and accompaniment, and they believed me,” Mulvihill says.

“Now they have been abandoned twice, in the beginning by attending this school and being abused, and now by not being believed and disregarded by these people.”

For example, in the case of the glue-sniffing survivor, Mulvihill says she will tell the inquiry: “There are no records of any interaction with this man once he received a sum of money. No attempts were made to contact him. When I would suggest that an attempt be made, I was told not to do so.”

Mulvihill said 95 per cent of the survivors they met told them of mental health issues post-abuse, and she believes the order’s handling of the cases has caused a “second injury”, “which can be worse than the first in some cases”.

Her insider’s view of the negotiations describes a cynical culture where low payouts were celebrated as victories with “smartarse comments”, a lawyer for the Catholic Church’s insurer was often present, and a public relations professional, Simon Feely, was a permanent fixture on the brothers’ professional standards committee. She says Feely advised at Christmas 2002 for the brothers to make a $1500 payment to each victim as “a good gesture, publicity-wise … because there had been adverse publicity”.

Feely said: “She talks absolute rubbish. I didn’t say that.” Asked if those payments were made, he said: “You’re missing the point. I’ve answered your question.”

She says some brothers would abuse Burke, were obstructive, and even wrote to her professional body to try to have her struck off.

She says Lebler was allowed to answer the brothers’ phone line even after allegations were lodged against him, while Moloney played a prominent role in the Australian settlements as the group’s bursar.

She says an advocate for some of the men, Ken Clearwater of the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust, was regarded with suspicion by the brothers who “wanted him shut down”.

She says the New Zealand survivors were treated “as some kind of second-rate, second-class citizens” and recalled one meeting where a senior brother, shortly after a survivor left the room, burst out: “Get this bastard out of here; get this scum out of here”.

The average payout, says Mulvihill, was $25,000 and after that there was little contact due to internal conflict within the brothers.

“The perpetrators and their protectors were horrified that any victim received one cent,” she says.

Her testimony also shines a light on the main Catholic Church, as she describes Burke telling her of a meeting with the then-bishop, the late John Cunneen. Burke says Cunneen had told him to “just fix it … he just wants it out of the papers”.

Among other revelations in her testimony is a meeting between Burke and McGrath where McGrath, by then named as an offender, asked for a payment of $30,000 from the order “to get on with my life” (he was refused). Her testimony also reveals more of McGrath’s horrific offending, including grooming boys who slept in his room to assist his abuse, and taking boys down to the boiler room where he would immerse newborn ducklings in the boiler and threaten them with the same treatment if they spoke up.

McGrath and Moloney were both moved from Marylands and continued offending in Australia and McGrath alleged to the ABC from prison in 2020 that senior leaders were aware and covered up his offending.

The Brothers responded then with a statement saying they fielded an anonymous complaint in 1977 about McGrath and Moloney which “could not be sustained…[so] no further action was deemed appropriate”; it again fielded a complaint in 1992 about McGrath when he was internally investigated and “withdrawn from ministry”.

The order’s provincial in the 1970s, Brian O’Donnell, once said the practice was to keep no records of abuse complaints to “avoid compromising the good name of the person in future” or keep a “record of the sin which could jeopardise his future within the order”.

Mulvihill says she now considers herself a victim of the brothers as she was used as a frontwoman for them, without, she believes, any genuine intention.

“I was exploited, and I didn’t see it so if a mature, intelligent, professional woman like me doesn’t see it, imagine what chance these kids have got?” she says.

“The rug was being pulled out from under my feet while I was walking – because there was another play going on.”

However, Mulvihill continued on the order’s Professional Standards Committee until 2007. “People say why did you stay so long? Why didn’t you get out? But I had made a commitment to those people, and I was determined I was not going to abandon them.”

She says she quit when Burke was replaced by Timothy Graham and Graham’s deputy was named as John Clegg, who already faced accusations of sexual abuse (Clegg was convicted and jailed in 2015 on multiple counts of abuse). She says when she went to meet Graham to resign, Clegg hovered outside the room, and Graham told her: “There are just so many people out there who are wanting to get our money … we are so vulnerable.”

Mulvihill says her only contact with the order since then has been when she has given evidence at various trials. She says Graham refused to greet her at the trial of Moloney.

She has spoken rarely of her experiences, but after an interview with The Press in 2007, received a letter from the Catholic Church’s then national public relations officer, Dame Lyndsay Freer, accusing her of bringing “disapprobation” on the church.

Freer said she did not have a copy of the letter, and had “no recollection of it”.

Figures released by the Catholic Church last month on historic abuse allegations made special mention of the St John of God order. They made up 14 per cent of all complaints received, the church said, and 8 per cent of all religious brothers had been complained about. Australia’s Royal Commission surveyed every Catholic order and considered the St John of God the worst, at 40 per cent. “I was amazed to see those numbers coming out of New Zealand … that number is just a joke,” she says.

Mulvihill has kept a list of the 70 survivors who made complaints and a corresponding list of brothers who worked at the home, and says 21 of 23 had allegations of physical or sexual abuse made against them: 91.3 per cent.

Mulvihill is worried the commission will focus solely on the gravity of the offending, and not on the order’s response to complaints. She says the commission must challenge the brothers’ narrative of being unfairly treated.

“Behind the scenes, they really don’t believe much has happened. They try to focus on the one, two or three people who have been in jail … and it was just these blokes who were bad apples.”

“To this day, they show no capacity for the mammoth task of walking with these men, and there are now hundreds of them [across NZ and Australia]. They haven’t outsourced that, they have shut the gate – there is all this window-dressing going on. It’s done with the crispness of an air fryer.”

The order, which has not admitted any new brothers in Oceania since 1998 and has just 19 surviving members in Australia, is extremely wealthy, having amassed substantial property interests which Mulvihill believes they use to “defend themselves at all costs”.

The hearing is set for another week, and a total of 21 survivor witnesses, as well as lawyers, police, and former teachers – as well as Mulvihill – will give evidence, alongside the provincial, Graham, and the former Catholic bishop of Christchurch, Paul Martin, now the church’s number two in New Zealand.

Feely remains the St John of God Brothers’ public relations representative. Stuff put specific questions to him, on behalf of Graham, about the relationship to survivors, the alleged comment about the Brothers being vulnerable, Clegg’s role in the leadership team, the view of low payouts being considered successes and Mulvihill’s 91 per cent statistic. Feely responded: “I can tell you that Michelle talks rubbish and that Timothy won’t respond to her. Timothy will not comment to anyone outside the Royal Commission.”

Mulvihill will also give a closing statement when the hearing concludes the following week. She hopes then that she can finally put her dealings with the order behind her. “I want nothing more to do with them, but I do hope they are kicked out of New Zealand.

“We are dealing with evil, I believe,” she says. “It is in their DNA.”

By Steve Kilgallon
Published in Stuff