The stench of rape in God’s house
St. Catharine’s Standard
Wednesday, September 6, 2017 10:27:38 EDT PM
A smashed statue of an angel photographed by Jay Morrison in 2007 in the abandoned building that used to be the St. John’s Training School for Boys run by the Christian Brothers. More than 1,700 boys were physically and sexually abused by the Brothers for decades, including St. Catharines resident William O’Sullivan. Photo by Jay Morrison.
A note to readers: For a more than a decade, Catholic priest Donald Grecco sexually abused children in Niagara. On Thursday, he will be sentenced for the abuse of three boys in the 1970s and 80s. This three part series is the story of one of his victims. Be advised this story contains language that might upset some readers.
It was the smell. It clung to everything. His hair. His clothes. His skin. It seemed to lurk inside his nostrils.
In the halls of St. John’s Training School for Boys, decorated with images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, that stench was the telltale sign that someone had been in Brother Bernard’s room.
It was the stench of rape.
“I will never forget that smell. Even now, just talking about it, I can smell it. I cannot really describe it. I don’t know what he was burning in there. Incense or something. I don’t know. But you couldn’t get it off you,” says William (Sully) O’Sullivan of St. Catharines ,who was incarcerated at the Uxbridge school in 1986 and 1987. “It was such a strong, distinctive smell that if another kid walked by, you knew he had been to see Brother Bernard. And you’d think ‘Oh, did he just get it, too?’”
As a 16-year-old, O’Sullivan spent 18 months in the St. John’s school, an all-boys reformatory school run by the De La Salle Brothers of the Christian Schools.
Backed by Queen’s Park, the school opened in 1956 and the Brothers, who also ran St. Joseph’s Training School for Boys in Alfred, Ont., were to take truants, trouble makers and teens with records and set them on a better path.
“They walked in there and thought they thought this was going to be heaven,” says Darcy Henton, an investigative journalist who wrote extensively about St. John’s and St. Joseph’s and published the book Boys Don’t Cry in 1995 about the sexual abuse scandal.
“They saw the beautiful stained glass windows and the terrazzo tile floors, and they thought this was going to be heaven, and it turned out to be hell.”
The Christian brothers routinely beat their charges, even chaining boys with balls and chains and whipping them. They’d be hit with sticks and razor straps.
“Some of them lived in constant fear,” Henton says about the boys at St. John’s. “Especially the ones that were preyed upon sexually. Kids were put into solitary confinement, where the Brothers would come in and fondle them. There was nothing they could do. They fondled them. They raped them, had their way with these children.”
O’Sullivan was thrown into this factory of horror and abuse after being sexually assaulted by two priests in Welland — one he only knows as “Father John,” who visited his home and sexually assaulted O’Sullivan when his parents were not present. The other, Donald Joseph Grecco, sexually assaulted O’Sullivan from 1979 to 1982 at St. Kevin’s Roman Catholic church in Welland.
The abuse by the priests started when O’Sullivan was nine and continued until he was 12.
Grecco — who will be sentenced on three counts of gross indecency Thursday for the abuse of O’Sullivan and two other men who cannot be named under a court ordered publication ban — spent 18 months in prison in 2010 for the sexual abuse of three other boys during the same period.
During his years as Grecco’s victim, O’Sullivan was made to masturbate the priest or would by masturbated by him. Sometimes, Grecco would ejaculate on O’Sullivan. The incidents happened more often than O’Sullivan can count.
The abuse ended when Grecco left the Welland church about 1982. By then O’Sullivan had begun acting out and causing trouble. He was sent to John Bosco Home for Boys in Guelph, but it did little to set the teen on a better path.
After a conviction for a petty crime in 1986, he was sent to St. John’s in Uxbridge.
“It was worse for me in St. John’s. It was more violent,” says O’Sullivan. “We were older kids, you know. Harder to control us because we could fight back. So the abuse was much more violent. And there was penetration. It was just … it was worse.”
As was the case with Grecco, O’Sullivan told no one. In Welland, Grecco strongly implied O’Sullivan’s devout mother would be exiled from the church if anyone knew of the abuse. O’Sullivan feared his father would think he was lying and would beat him.
By the time he was sent to Uxbridge, there wasn’t anyone to tell even if he wanted to.
“We didn’t even talk about it amongst ourselves,” O’Sullivan says. “You knew it was happening to so many of us, but you didn’t say anything. If I smelled Brother Bernard on someone, I knew what happened, but I didn’t say a word.”
Secrecy was the order of the day in the world of the Christian Brothers. Abusers, witnesses and most victims maintained a wall of silence. Those that did speak out were attacked.
“When children complained, and many of them did, to their parents or authorities, they were just categorized as liars,” says Henton, who believes the abuse scandal at St. John’s and St. Joseph’s was worse than the more well-known abuse scandal at the Catholic Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland, which triggered a Royal Commission investigation.
“Right to the very end … the Toronto order of the Christian Brothers just maintained that these people were liars and they were trying to get money out of them and that it was all untrue.”
Sometimes if a boy or his parents spoke up, the complaint was investigated by a council of Brothers. But as it turned out, Henton says, many of those council members were sexual predators themselves.
Faced with a world that didn’t believe them, victims like O’Sullivan would stay silent until the 1990s when the full scope of the horrors committed by the Christian Brothers became public knowledge.
“When I interviewed many of these people years later, decades later, they had never told a soul about what happened to them because boys don’t get raped, you know?” says Henton. “So they never told anybody. So when they were telling me their stories, they were physically and emotionally breaking down in front of my very eyes … They were absolutely destroyed.”
One victim of the Brothers at St. Joesph’s interviewed by Henton for Boys Don’t Cry described life in the home as being “like Dachau with games.”
Henton said not every Brother was guilty of abuse, but “it’s hard to believe the ones who were there didn’t know what was going on and didn’t possibly condone what was going on by not speaking out against it.”
Investigations followed the stories breaking in the Toronto press. Eventually, a reconciliation process was struck and the home shut down.
Henton says about 30 Christian brothers were criminally convicted, although many others had died before they could be brought to justice. It took years, but some 350 of the approximately 1,700 victims of the two schools received reparation payments. Most received about $23,000.
“That’s what I got,” says O’Sullivan, who came forward to authorities with his story when he learned St. John’s was under investigation. “I know that can sound like a lot of money, but it doesn’t seem like much compared to what happened to me and the rest of us.”
When O’Sullivan asked if Brother Bernard, the man who repeatedly raped him, would be facing criminal charges he was told the man had already died.
After he left St. John’s in 1987, O’Sullivan was moved to the Sprucedale Youth Centre in Simcoe. For the first time since he was nine, no one abused or exploited him.
“It confused me, to be honest. My whole relationship with figures of authority had been very abusive, and this was the first time I was treated with real caring and compassion,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do with that.”
O’Sullivan tried to build a life. He eventually got married and had two children, a son and a daughter. He suppressed the memories of what Grecco had done to him. But the demons birthed by years of abuse by clergy could not be so easily outrun.
He began to use drugs, eventually turning to heroin and had to go on a methadone program to get clean.
“I can’t even imagine what would have happened to me if fentanyl was around then,” he says. “I know I would have used it and, given what it is, I would probably be dead from an overdose.”
The petty criminal activity of his youth accelerated. He was convicted several times for break and enters and theft. He served four sentences in federal prisons, including Millhaven maximum security prison. He got divorced, and his ex-wife raised their children while he was in prison.
“We get along fabulously now. We are better friends now than when we were married,” he says. “She is amazing and did just a wonderful job raising our kids while I was inside.”
Recovery would take years of facing hard truths, recognizing his own pain in the faces of other inmates, and a desire to break the cycle of violence and abuse so many victims are trapped in after their tormentor is gone.
Today: The wolf in priest’s clothing part 2
Wednesday: The wolf in priest’s clothing part 1
Friday: Coverage of Grecco’s sentencing in St. Catharines.
Saturday: The wolf in priest’s clothing part 3.
When journalists cry: Darcy Henton on covering the clergy abuse scandal in St. John’s Training school for Boys.
In 1995, award winning journalist Darcy Henton, working with survivor David McCann, wrote Boys Don’t Cry: The struggle for justice and healing in Canada’s biggest sex abuse scandal.
The book was a best seller and remains the most definitive account of the abuse suffered by men like William O’Sullivan at the hands of the Christian Brothers. Here is an excerpt of Grant LaFleche’s interview with Henton about St. John’s and the book:
Grant LaFleche: What was the reaction, Darcy, to Boys Don’t Cry when you published?
Darcy Henton: For one thing, I didn’t know who would want to read a book like this. It’s not your standard summer reading material. But I felt compelled to write it, to tell the story of the victims. It took five years to get this book published because book stores didn’t really want it either.
Every copy of the book printed, sold, and they had to do a reprint and it sold out, too. One of the best things that, or one of the things I take pride in, is one of my friends who I’d given a copy of the book in Saskatchewan, his stepdaughter came home from college one day and she was looking at the bookshelf and she said, “What are you doing with this book on your shelves? We’re taking it in school.”
I get emails about this book probably once every few months, even today. I get emails from family of the victims, and children of the victims. I’ve maintained close ties with Tim Smith (another survivor) and David McCann. Since then, we’ve become actually really close friends. This friendship, I guessed, was forged in the fire of this controversy. David McCann was a Roman Catholic, Tim Smith was a Roman Catholic, I was a Roman Catholic, and we found ourselves pulled into this horrid, horrid story.
I was just thumbing through the pages of it last night in preparation for this interview, and there are still parts of the book that make me cry.
GL: It’s obviously emotional. I can hear it in your voice. It’s a bit of a gut-punch to think about it, is it not?
DH: For sure. These are the most vulnerable people in society. There’s nobody standing up for them. And we put it in the hands of government bureaucrats, and we put this veil of secrecy over all of this stuff, and all it does is cover up the misdeeds and mistakes of the bureaucracy. It should be wide open. We should know when these children are mistreated. We should know when they die in provincial or government care.
GL: You wrote Boys Don’t Cry in 1995, and these stories continue to pop up. Have we not learned as a country to better protect these kids from, whether it’s priests or the way they’re treated in foster homes or other institutions?
DH: No, I don’t think we have. If we really cared about these children, we’d have ombudsmen representing them. Somebody that they could go to who is like an officer of the legislature. Somebody who had real power and authority to change laws and recommend changes to laws, and what we have are people with no power, no ability, all they do is write reports that get unheeded, pile up on the shelves, and I’m not sure children are any safer today than they were before, much to my chagrin.