No brother to me
He ordered me to remove my shorts, and placed his hand on my bare backside
By Steve Boulton

SOURCE: The Guardian, April 23, 1998

I can still see him coming at me now, a black-clad threshing machine, strangely convinced that a 70 per cent test result was ample justification for brief but brutal punishment. Brother Brickley was a legend, the Irish Christian Brothers' forerunner to mad Father Jack in the Channel 4 comedy, Father Ted. While Jack flails at a world which won't provide enough drink, Brickley flailed at his pupils to bang Latin into them.

Two blows - the minimum punishment - from his leather strap could render your hands incapable of writing for the rest of a lesson. Brickley, the most slap-happy of his peers, even had a name for his weapon: Excalibur. He wore it in the pocket of his black cassock as a Western gunslinger would carry his six-shooter.

I recall how Brickley, one Saturday, arbitrarily raised the pass mark to 8 on 10, snaring many boys who would otherwise have passed. He and Excalibur then set about most of the class. The most surprising thing was that I escaped his wrath; the lust for beating thwarted by an unusually high pass mark. He had previously claimed other victims, most famously John Birt, now the BBC's director-general. A few years later, the press descended on a nearby school when a teacher leaked the punishment book recording hundreds of beatings in a year.

Most people thought this excessive. At St Mary's College, Brickley alone was capable of hammering hundreds of pupils and in much less than a term. None of us thought to call the press. In Liverpool in the 1960s, it was what the Brothers were known for.

Now they're known for something else. In Ireland, England and elsewhere, the Christian Brothers are now issuing public apologies for much darker sins, and offering help to those who were sexually abused by members of their order.

In Crosby, sexual abuse was a sad and furtive business. I was targeted by another senior Brother and so was a friend. The teacher was the kind of Catholic clergyman who left a good impression upon the wider world. The school had a high reputation - it got academic results and discipline was not in doubt.

When I was 12, I was taken by him from a PE lesson to the changing rooms. There was a reason for this - I had been persistently late for school and had already suffered the numb hands of a beating from one of the Brothers. Now I had offended again.

The Brother sat down on a bench in the deserted room and ordered me to remove my shorts and lay face down across his knee. I braced myself for the downstroke of the strap, but it didn't come. He placed his hand on my bare backside instead and left it there for what seemed like an age. Eventually, he told me to get up and dress. I had a been a brave boy, and had shown my manliness by not flinching when punishment was expected, he said. He believed I had learnt my lesson. I was free to go.

The overwhelming emotion was of relief at escape. The humiliation of undressing and splaying yourself across a teacher's knee was nothing compared to the pain of a beating. And at 12 I had no notion why a grown man might want to see and touch a naked boy.

It was only when sharing a drink with a friend years later that I discovered that he, too, had been pulled from a lesson. He was then told to undress and asked to "measure" himself by the same man to make sure he was "developing". Then I knew. Looking back, I am mightily relieved that we were day boys, not the boarders or orphans who suffered gross abuse elsewhere. I suspect that I should also be grateful that the Brother's desires were so lightly gratified. To the best of my knowledge, abuse at St Mary's was confined to this desperate, furtive stuff... and to lashings of licensed violence.

I wonder who, if any, of my contemporaries will contact the Brothers' newly-installed helpline. That they have belatedly turned penitent still astonishes. They were so steely in enforcing their codes. Even their surreptitious thrill-seeking was cloaked in pedagogic duty.

At St Mary's, one of their great devotions was rote learning of the catechism. It started with the biggest of questions: "Why did God make me?" The answer, burnt into my brain, was: "To know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next." If you needed further guidance, Bro Brickley would make sure Excalibur taught you the full warmth of God's love.

Steve Boulton is editor of World in Action


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