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St Kevin’s College, abuse and the language of pain
An ugly wound has been opened at the heart of St Kevin’s College this week, after revelations in a Four Corners report about the school’s failures to respond to complaints of a culture of secrecy, toxic masculinity and sexual abuse. The scandal at the private Melbourne boys’ school has reached all the way to the top, with headmaster Stephen Russell resigning on Wednesday. As the dust settles, many in the school community, including me, are coming to terms with the extent of reform that is needed. What has become clear in the ever-growing list of allegations is just how tightly the school leadership team controlled every level of the school. With their removal – and the collapse of the strict and dogmatic systems they were determined to maintain – the path ahead seems daunting.
This uncertainty comes at a crucial moment, not only for the school, but also for the country as a whole, to confront a deep-seated culture of secrecy and shame. It is ingrained within the values and language of our most powerful institutions and perpetuated by the most privileged in our communities. As a former St Kevin’s student, I have been speaking publicly about the problems of private schools such as mine for half a decade now, and I think this moment, more than ever, is a chance for us to examine a culture of extreme privilege and stubborn ideology. It is a chance to break away from narrow conceptions of loyalty and pride.
This week’s revelations make very clear how male privilege and power directly shape institutional failures to respond to child abuse. We have seen how privately funded schools treat education as a business. They have a brand to protect and wealthy parents (investors) to keep happy. Students are treated like walking billboards who must conform to a clean and homogeneous public image. Each school must leverage what makes it unique, and for private boys’ schools that is a tradition of masculinity, strength, wealth and pride.
For many, it is a deeply enticing image – the promise of power and success – but it leaves little room for weakness, failure, difference or shame. It protects a self-serving culture of nepotism that prioritises “old boys” and loyalty over inclusivity and progress. It perpetuates a smug religious piety, one that is certain of its moral superiority. It is so enamoured with tradition that it refuses to admit fault, to listen to criticism or to make compromises.
In my experience, when anyone tried to raise concerns about the safety of children within this environment, the response was to silence dissent. I have no reason to believe this is isolated to St Kevin’s, or that it would be different at other schools around the country.
This culture is exactly why former student Paris Street’s mother, Caroline Redmond, was brushed off when she first raised concerns about her son’s safety with St Kevin’s. It is why staff have faced intimidation and bullying when trying to report potential cases of child abuse. Many times, my friends expressed discomfort among themselves, but didn’t recognise their concerns were even worthy of public attention. They did not want to admit they were uncomfortable, and they did not have the words to describe what was wrong. These communities struggle to confront painful truths directly because there is no space for failure or vulnerability in their macho public exterior. There is no language to deal with pain within the masculine vocabulary of strength and success.
This is a problem that extends well beyond the failures of a single headmaster or school. We must look at how we begin to reform the elitist and sexist values that have dominated and controlled our communities for so long. This is a conversation for the whole country. It is about how we structure our schools, our offices, our places of worship and even our families. I think, if there is an answer, it lies in the example set by Paris Street and Ned O’Brien – the two students at the heart of this week’s revelations, who sought to speak honestly and openly about their experiences. They stand as an example of the courage necessary to overcome the fragile pride that maintains silence and shame, of how vulnerability in pain will bring reform.
We need a way of articulating the imperfections in our community, rather than continuing to pretend that everything is all right. The glaring absence of an apology in Stephen Russell’s resignation letter is an example of this “business as usual” attitude. The school’s leadership seems incapable of remorse because they do not have a language of imperfection with which to describe their own flaws.
In 2015, I began to speak publicly in the media about being a gay student at a Catholic school in an attempt to encourage conversation around toxic masculinity and locker-room culture. I expected to face criticism from the school, to be punished for speaking out, but instead I was met by silence. Almost no members of leadership ever followed up on my concerns. When I approached them, I was told they were already taking steps to address the problem, and my contributions were not necessary.
Hypermasculinity functions by this avoidance. The paranoia about acknowledging it stems from privileged people who are anxious to protect their power; it is the condescending belief that powerful people “know what’s best” for young boys. I have discovered by speaking out that boys are more than capable of articulating their needs themselves. More than making them strong and successful, we need to empower boys to embrace their vulnerability, we need a language of honesty and self-criticism, and we need our leaders to model this behaviour, too.
Many current St Kevin’s students have reached out to me in the past few days expressing frustration and fear. They know they are angry, but they are struggling to express why they feel this way. They are coming to recognise the hypocrisy and flaws in the ideals they have built their lives around, but they seem unable to articulate any alternatives. In many ways, this too is a consequence of a narrow image of what it means to be a man, which has failed to give students many ways to process negative emotions. Trained to follow militaristic routines and sing violent chants, the only script boys have been given is one that protects the school and upholds masculinity. Without the words to voice their disorientation, many have been left with a queasy uncertainty for the future. But if we want to build a space for vulnerability and change, we must embrace this discomfort.
Over the past four months, since a video surfaced of St Kevin’s students singing misogynistic chants on a Melbourne tram, the symbols of the school that were once stable sources of pride for many boys – the school colours, the uniform, the emblem, the songs – have been dragged through the mud. We are being forced to consider exactly what these symbols mean, and how to relate to them. I do not think this is a bad thing. Our symbols do not exist exclusively for our celebration and veneration; they are complex, laden with meaning; they deserve our interrogation and questioning. It is not about how they look in the best of times, but how they weather challenges. If they fail or fall apart, we should not be afraid to reshape them or do away with them completely.
Some former students have removed mentions of the school from their public profiles while current students have refused to wear their blazers. But if we mean to deal directly with this problem, we cannot turn away. We need to find a constructive pride in vulnerability. This task is not easy. It requires us to be radically honest about our privilege and our fears. This is a language of pain that schools, churches and families have made every effort to quash and ignore – particularly in young men.
I am far from the most marginalised or vulnerable in this conversation, and language alone will not be enough to overcome deep injustices and prejudices. But these organisations are not going anywhere soon and, in the meantime, we need a language of hope and survival. Systems of abuse, bullying and privilege will never end until we overcome the fragile pride that maintains silence and shame. That means everyone has a part in this conversation, even when it compromises us and our community, even when it is painful.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "We need to talk about St Kevin’s".
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