Children's cries for help at 'hell on earth' school, centre ignored by Catholic Church, State for decades - Royal Commission

Warning: This article discusses sexual and physical abuse.

A damning new report has exposed a special school and related community centre set up to care for tamariki and rangatahi in Christchurch as "hell on earth".

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry's report, 'Stolen Lives, Marked Souls', said cries for help from survivors of Marylands School and Hebron Trust were ignored for decades. Both facilities were run by the Order of the Brothers of St John of God.

The report, released on Wednesday, said the Catholic Church, the Order, and State have "never been held accountable for their role or for failing to address the harm".

'Stolen Lives, Marked Souls' is part of the Royal Commission's wider investigation into abuse in the Catholic Church institutions.

Of the 537 boys who attended Marylands School, 118 reported abuse while in the school's care. However, the Royal Commission believed the true number to likely be much higher since there are barriers to disclosure and reporting of abuse by disabled survivors. 

Of the 37 brothers from the Order who ministered in the Christchurch community and Marylands School, 21 had allegations of some form of abuse made against them. Brother Bernard McGrath alone has been convicted of more than 100 offences both in New Zealand and Australia.

Inquiry chair Coral Shaw said Marylands School was "a place of depravity, sexual, physical and spiritual violence" and at Hebron Trust, young people were "sexually and physically abused by one of the most prolific serial abusers of the Order".

"We are aware of no other circumstances or institution where the sexual abuse has been so extreme or has involved such a high proportion of perpetrators over the same extended period of time as that at Marylands School," Shaw said.

Marylands School was established by the Catholic Hospitaller Order of the Brothers of St John of God in Christchurch in 1955. 

Children were referred to Marylands by state agencies, health professionals and parents. It was established for disabled boys but not all boys who attended were disabled.

The work of Hebron Trust, run by the Order, began in 1986. Here was also where young people were "subjected to sexual and physical violence at the hands of one of the brothers of the Order", the report said.

Survivors have referred to these places as "hell on earth".

Until the late 1980s, successive Governments placed disabled children and young people in special facilities to be "trained", the report described it, rather than having them stay at home and be educated with other tamariki.

The report said those who were placed in the care of Marylands School (from the age of six) and Hebron Trust (often teenagers, although some were as young as eight) were among "the most vulnerable" in the community.

"Many of the boys placed at Marylands were disabled or had learning or behavioural needs, and those in the care of Hebron Trust were often 'street kids'," the report said.

"Many were rangatahi Māori, in need of safety, shelter and support."

Boys were sent to Marylands in the belief it was the best place for them and where their needs would be met by the St John of God brothers, under the protection of the Catholic Church. Instead, the report said survivors experienced "extreme abuse and neglect with lifelong consequences".

"Devastatingly, many grew up to suffer painful, life-long physical injuries and illnesses caused by the abuse and neglect," Shaw said. 

"Many survivors contemplated or even attempted suicide. Tragically, some have lost their lives this way.

"When children reported abuse, they were not believed. Not believed by social workers, police, the brothers or the Catholic Church."

The Royal Commission laid out its findings into the extent of abuse.

At Marylands School, there was "extensive and extreme abuse and neglect" of tamariki, including:

  • Sexual abuse by brothers
  • Sexual and physical abuse by boys at the school towards other boys
  • Physical abuse, sometimes of an extreme nature by brothers
  • Pervasive neglect including neglect by brothers, children's development and progression in learning was not prioritised
  • Emotional and psychological abuse, including witnessing violence and sexual abuse and perpetual fear
  • Religious abuse
  • Cultural abuse.

Also at Marylands, the Royal Commission said survivors experienced racism. They added the school had selection processes, policies around admissions and teachability, and standards of care for disabled children that were "reflective of ableism".

At Hebron Trust, the Royal Commission said there was also "extensive and extreme abuse", including:

  • Sexual abuse by Brother McGrath
  • Physical abuse, sometimes of an extreme nature
  • Emotional and psychological abuse, including witnessing violence and sexual abuse, and perpetual fear
  • Religious abuse
  • Cultural abuse.

Young people at Hebron Trust also experienced racism, the report said.

Although the State registered and financially supported Marylands as a special school, the Royal Commission said it failed to protect the boys and put a stop to the atrocities due to a lack of oversight and monitoring of the brothers operating the school.

"Survivors have suffered for years and been robbed of their potential because those who were meant to care for them shamefully enabled the abuse, ignored it or covered it up," Shaw said.

"Without accountability, there can be no confidence that such events will not be able to occur again."

One survivor who spoke to the Royal Commission, who is identified only as Mr HZ, outlined his experience while he was at Marylands School.

He said that after being at Marylands for a while, he "started to adapt to the sexual things that happened" there. He alleged he was physically and sexually abused by two brothers there.

"I told a teacher about the abuse but she didn't believe me. She said brothers don't do things like that so I must be lying," Mr HZ said.

After leaving Marylands, he ended up in prison and became a patched gang member by 25 years old.

"I don't trust people in authority. I've never had proper schooling or any real education - I only learned to read and write after I went to jail," he said.

"I've never been given the chance to develop proper parenting skills, and my own kids have been taken away from me. I've never been taught about normal physical and emotional relationships with people I love."

At the Royal Commission's hearing on Marylands in 2022, Brother Timothy Graham made a public apology to survivors. However, the report said a few survivors found it "lacked any meaningful acknowledgment of acceptance of responsibility for the harm done to them".

The Royal Commission noted in its report that New Zealand must heed calls for accountability and justice.

"We must enable a restoration of mana, and for healing to occur," it said.

"Fundamental changes will be required if we are to ensure that such horrific harm and the repugnant abuse, neglect and exploitation of tamariki and rangatahi does not happen again."

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