Growing up in 1950s and 60s Auckland, Mike Ledingham and his two brothers Gerard and Chris were all victims of parish priest and sexual predator Father Francis Green. Each was affected for life, although it would be decades before the brothers revealed their childhood trauma to each other.
This article is part of The Quarter Million, exploring the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care. Read part one here.
Illustrations by Ant Sang.
Content warning: This feature describes physical, sexual and emotional violence, child abuse and neglect. If this is difficult for you and you would like some help, these services offer support and information: Auckland specialist service Help, 0800 623 1700; specialist men’s service Male Survivors Aotearoa, 0800 044 334; and Snap (Survivors network of those abused by priests). Please take care.
On the face of it I grew up in a great example of a Catholic family, with strong Irish roots, in New Zealand. We were typical of many of those who lived in the area: my father worked, my mother stayed at home, and us eight kids were raised to respect adults and those in authority, especially priests of the Catholic church.
My brothers and I served as altar boys at the local church. We attended the local parish convent school, St Joseph’s, in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga. There were many religious visitors to our house. We became accustomed to seeing them, liked most of them and unfortunately, as it turned out, trusted them implicitly. In our small wee eyes, the Catholic church was all powerful, always correct; in fact infallible.
What was not apparent to outsiders was that, one by one, two of my brothers and I were picked off and abused by a sexual predator, the parish priest, Father Francis “Frank” Green, during his time at St Joseph’s Catholic School, circa 1957 to 1969. But we didn’t know about each other’s abuse at the time.
For me, the actual physical abuse proper began in 1958 at Father Green’s aunty’s place. Previously when doing gymnastics or especially when riding in the front seat of his car, he would rub up and down your legs and body quite inappropriately, although we certainly didn’t understand this at the time.
We’d gone up there, to Green’s aunty’s place, ostensibly, as I remember it, to redecorate the place while she was away. We worked for a while and then stopped for a break. He asked me about my training, for the silver badge in gymnastics I think it was. I said OK except for the splits exercise which I found hard. Green said he could help me and got me to do it while he got down behind me and then he began rubbing the area of my crack and my balls, which surprised and unsettled me. After a while, he said it would be a lot easier if I took my strides off. I was unsure and unwilling about this, but he ordered me to do it. He then started massaging and stroking my whole genital area, while he went quiet and strange, breathing heavily, with some sort of movement of his body going on. I understand now he was masturbating himself.
At the time I was totally uncomprehending of what had happened, shocked, frightened and sickened. I felt very dirty somehow. When he was finished, I went to the toilet and locked myself in and just sat there in abject misery until he ordered me out, dropped me home, then left with not a word spoken. My life had inexplicably turned into a total nightmare. More especially after all the teaching about piety and purity and burning in hell-fire forever if you sinned being hammered into us from an early age.
I now understand that for eight-year-old me, this was a catastrophic event. A priest was the next thing to God in our family. I was so traumatised that I never once managed to tell a soul what had happened till years later. I developed asthma around that time. The doctor told Mum that there didn’t seem to be a clinical reason for the asthma so it must be a nervous thing. (And as soon as I left home the asthma disappeared and I’ve never had it since.)
My attention at school was sadly lacking and the nuns were quick to dish out the strap or other punishments for this.
Green very quickly followed up the abuse with orders to the nuns for me to report to him at the presbytery after school for unspecified reasons. After just about sweating blood over this all day, sick and frightened about what may occur, I knew I could not ignore the instruction to go. Once there, he would accuse me of some sort of misdemeanour, all bullshit of course: theft, damage to the school or church or graveyard. But his favourite subject was masturbation. He seemed to have a fixation on this heinous sin but I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I remember him asking what colour the fluid was that came out of my penis when I played with myself. For me, aged eight, this was absolutely incomprehensible.
This type of interrogation happened on at least four to six occasions that I recall, so you can imagine my attention at school had been well and truly diverted. I spent my time with my head over my shoulders, worrying, and after school could not get out that gate fast enough. My asthma continued to plague me, meaning days at home in comparative safety.
But it wasn’t really safe at home. Father Green turned up often because Mum did typing for the church. And remember, this priest was God on earth to an Irish Catholic family at that time. The intimidation continued on a regular basis.
I remember once when my brother Gerry had a friend come over on the weekend and Green heard about it, he called my brother and me up to the presbytery, split us up into separate rooms and told each of us that the friend had told him we’d all masturbated ourselves round the back of the house. We denied this, but he kept us there until we both finally admitted it and then he warned us that he would tell the nuns and our parents if we ever got together with that boy again (years later we found out he’d abused all three of us, including the friend).
On the way home Gerry told me he hadn’t done it and so did I, but neither of us told the other of our actual abuse at that time. We were too scared.
I left school after the fifth form after failing School Cert. From memory I had asthma around the time of the exams, which didn’t help, but I feel I never really regained the ground that those last miserable years at that convent cost me. I was certainly very mixed up and confused.
My sister sums it up with her statement: “With the abuse came our journey from a happy family with the usual happy feisty kids to one of troubled teenagers who became angry, abusing (and self-abusing) men, with consequences for themselves and traumatic results for our family.”
It’s important at this juncture to say that most of the happy memories, if not them all, come from the period before the abuse started.
After that I felt very vulnerable to Father Green’s designs, either at the convent school or at home. I was unaware that he was systematically abusing my younger brothers and others, I only knew that he might be telling Mum some lies about what I was supposed to have done or maybe trying to jack me up to go on a trip with him. I know the frequency of my asthma attacks got me out of many proposed trips, and I tended to disappear when he was at our home, often going to the park and wandering through the bush or just lurking up at the local shops. We boys all had paper runs. If Father Green was at home we’d all go up to where the papers were dropped off ages before they were due. We’d muck around up there, each for the same reason but not having an inkling of the others’ thoughts.
A host of silent victims
Of course, we now know Green was abusing other boys at the convent school in the era of 1957 to 1961. We think probably more than a dozen. And, as Green was stationed at Onehunga for another eight years after our time there, who knows how many he abused.
After I wrote and published a book about my experience, The Catholic Boys, my publisher was contacted by a woman. She told him that her brother had been abused by Green around that time also and had committed suicide.
Recently I met and talked to an old school friend from those days. He knew or suspected who the victims were when we were together at school, and shared with us his own horrific story of abuse by Green.
His father was killed in a car accident when he was about seven. Immediately after that, Green zeroed in on him and began abusing him. Soon this boy became pretty wild, which you might well understand. His mother, with four other children younger than him, the youngest a babe in arms, could no longer control him. In desperation she eventually sent him off to stay with relatives in another region. There, away from the perverted attention of the predator, he settled down again and was happy.
After some months of this, Green told the mother that he should be at home. He, Green, would help control him. Green went to where this child was staying, and picked him up. He continued abusing this child for some years afterwards, until after finally leaving the convent, this child refused to attend a Catholic school and went to a public one. Sadly, now, he has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is in palliative care. He may never be able to report his abuse in person.
My brother Gerry does not remember how old he was when he became the victim of Green’s abuse. Gerry is 11 months younger than me. We are very similar in thinking but have a few differing personality traits. He is a very private man and I’m not sure if he has told me the full extent of the abuse. What I do know is that he loathes the Catholic church and distrusts them completely.
My brother Chris was always a far more gentle and studious type than me and Gerry. We used to have to fight his battles for him at school. Mum would always say “look after your little brother”, and so we did. Finding out in 2002 that Green had got him badly upsets me greatly. I felt I had let him down and I cried. My sister, Mary, pointed out that, given the powerlessness of our situation, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything anyway. But if I had known while Green was still alive I’d have probably nailed the bastard.
A lifetime of recovery
I believe any chance of a decent education was stripped from me, especially when the campaign of intimidation started shortly after the initial abuse took place. I began to have doubts about myself and developed the asthma that would cause me to miss a lot of school.
I probably left home at too young an age, to get away from the presence of Father Green. I compensated for lack of confidence, especially around females, by drinking heavily. I lacked stability, drifting from one job to the next, never staying too long in one place and never being able to trust or form a close relationship with anyone, thinking there was something wrong with me because of what had occurred. Keeping my unspeakable secret buried deep.
The abuse suffered by myself and my brothers has had a profound effect on the rest of our lives. Like many other victims/survivors: (a) I lived in confusion and silence; (b) I achieved no qualifications; (c) I mistrusted authority; (d) I developed an almost blind hatred of intimidation which was to cost me a good few jobs; (e) I did not feel safe letting people get close to me; (f) I developed a drinking problem which I probably still have; (g) I committed a few minor crimes in the latter 60s which should have had me in jail or borstal if I’d been caught, and after I joined the army I did spend a bit of time in the military prison.
My brothers and I eventually received a settlement from the church and Chris used the money to go to uni in Australia and earn two degrees. But he was in his 50s by then. If he’d had the education he was supposed to, that would have been in his 20s, with the chance of earning good money for far more years. Like the rest of us who were abused, he hasn’t got much to retire with.
For me, doing national service in 1971 and then joining the regular force army afterwards was a good thing discipline-wise – it probably kept me out of jail although, as mentioned, I did do time in the military prison. In 1978 I surprised myself by applying and being selected for the SAS where I spent seven years. And nothing the SAS threw at me, physically or mentally, fazed me as much as the sexual and mental abuse I suffered as a child at that convent.
But sadly the old intimidation thing arose again when, as a corporal, I attacked a warrant officer after an altercation. The boys broke it up when it became obvious I was going to mangle him. That was effectively the end of my service after 15 years. In another five years I would have got a full military pension.
In my 30s I married a Māori girl I met in the army, although I still had closeness and trust issues. We had five children rather rapidly, but sadly one died just before she turned three. My wife suffered from depression after this and, with my own problems as well as grief, I wasn’t much good to her and in the end we split after 25 years.
I brought my children up as heathens with a great contempt for any religion. You don’t need a bible in your hands to be a good person. They also knew that if they struck any problems, especially people problems, Dad would be there for them. I am lucky. My children are good people with many friends from all cultures and walks of life. I now live next door to one daughter who has two boys, and five minutes from another who has one girl, my mokos. Life is good. But I can’t help feeling it should have been much better for all of us victims. We all had something snatched away from us that you can never get back: trust and innocence.
A culture of denial
We, like other victims/survivors, have been asked why we told no one at the time. Why has it taken so many years?
The culture of the time was that we, as children, had no power at all. If you were accused of something by a nun or priest, you were automatically assumed guilty. If you did have the temerity to protest your innocence, you were generally punished twice – once for the supposed misdemeanour and once for calling the nun or priest a liar.
I never once managed to tell a soul of the abuse until my brother Gerry and I finally spoke about it in 1985. Green was still alive and I suggested, “Let’s do the bastard”, but Gerry cautioned that it would destroy our mum so we let it go. It was not until 2002 that my brother Chris, encouraged by his counsellor, shared his abuse with us.
Chris also informed us that he had written to the church twice in 2002 and been ignored. That’s when we wrote further to tell them about we other two.
What did the church do? They did what they’ve proved good at – ignored, delayed, deferred, detracted.
The bishop of Auckland at the time [Patrick Dunn] claimed that nobody had known anything about Green’s offending in his 12 years at Onehunga parish, but I find that extremely hard to believe.
In December 2002, as the church fluffed around with committees and meetings and excuses, my brothers and I made the decision to go public with our story in the NZ Herald. This certainly produced some reaction, with the bishop flying over to Perth (we were all living in Australia) to meet us, and the story also resulted in various other victims coming out of the woodwork.
It wasn’t our greatest wish to have the whole sordid business aired in public but we felt we needed to get some sort of resolution. They church flew Chris and I over to Auckland for a hearing in 2003, but not too much eventuated from this meeting. They showed us a balance sheet claiming there was no money, and I do recall the bishop actually stating that they didn’t want to pay us too much as it might set a precedent for future cases.
The saga dragged on through 2003; there was another release in the Herald ,“No joy for abused trio”. Both my brothers had begun to have nightmares or flashbacks by then. So in late 2003, when an offer was made, we decided to accept it. We never heard from the church again.
To the church I say: do the right thing. You have the assets. Sell some of them and fund a programme for victims run by professionals. I’m sure Jesus would agree with that.
I would also like to address all the abusers and enablers out there: many of you are getting closer and closer to the Big D Day. You may think you have been forgiven by going to confession, but I really do have my doubts. Why don’t you do something to break the cycle of silence and perhaps even gain back some vestige of your own self-respect. Own up. Own up for abuse and/or its cover-up. At least have the balls to stand up and be counted, a last chance to do the decent thing, before you front up to the Big Man.
This is an edited version of Mike Ledingham’s statement to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care