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In plain sight – the paedophile headteacher who escaped justice for 50 years
The Marist Brothers and Fathers have educated prime ministers, judges, cardinals and All Blacks at their prestigious Catholic high schools. But their record of sexual abuse is horrific. Worse still was their handling of the abuse when it was exposed. In this series, The Secret History, Steve Kilgallon investigates the power, abuse and cover-ups at the heart of two highly-influential and wealthy religious groups.
Warning: This story may be upsetting to some.
He was an exceptionally good teacher who brought history to life, who could spark teenage boys’ interest in Aristotle, Plato, Marx and the Reformation. He taught in some of New Zealand’s best-known schools, and ascended to be rector of one, St Patrick’s College Silverstream, a prestigious boys’ high school in Wellington. He lectured at Victoria University. He died with a glowing reputation, eulogised as a “brilliant and inspiring teacher”.
Francis ‘Frank’ Durning was “a very fine scholar”, Sir Tipene O’Regan recalled in his autobiography; Durning’s Christian theology classes were “one of the most liberating intellectual experiences of my life”.
Another former pupil always credited Durning as the teacher who transformed him “from an average student to a boy who topped his class”.
But Durning was a lifelong paedophile. His record was so lengthy, it seems incomprehensible that his behaviour was not known at the highest levels of Catholicism.
FRED THE FIDDLER
The present head of his order, Tim Duckworth, now denies ever telling a survivor of Durning’s abuse that his nickname within the Marist Fathers was ‘Fred the Fiddler’. Several former students, however, recall Durning being widely known as ‘The Fiddler’ and ‘The Groper’
Durning never faced the courts, police or even internal sanctions for his behaviour before he died in April 1999 at the age of 84. His story illustrates how entrenched paedophilia was in some Catholic schools, and the generational impact the abusers had even after they were long retired.
Durning was rector of Silverstream, and then vice-rector of its brother school, St Patrick’s College Wellington (known as ‘Stream’ and ‘Town’), both owned by the Marist Fathers.
Former pupils say his behaviour was common knowledge.
Everyone knew what was going to happen when you went up to Fred Durning’s room,” says Roy*, now 76, who was a third-former at St Pat’s Town in 1957, where Durning had moved a year earlier from Silverstream.
Every new arrival was given an appointment to visit Durning in his study-bedroom for a facts-of-life talk. When Roy arrived, Durning fondled his genitals. “It almost seemed an acceptable thing. I never said anything to my parents … It’s a wonder someone didn’t. Maybe they did?”
Mike Nicholas also had the summons. Durning pulled him close, pressing his erect penis against him, before Nicholas broke free and ran from the room. “It threw my head,” he says. “I felt so uncomfortable. What did I do to cause that? Durning was a very intelligent man, and he deliberately cultivated this image of being a holy priest… it must have been me, I thought [that caused his behaviour].”
Only after counselling many years later, in which he was invited to imagine ‘flushing’ Durning down the toilet, did Nicholas come to terms with the incident.
Another former pupil recalls: “I was outside his door once and a student came flying out of his room and said ‘you’re not going to get your hands on me, you dirty old bastard’.”
Roy wondered why nobody had complained
But perhaps they already had.
Before his arrival at Town in 1956, Durning had been rector – headteacher – of Silverstream from 1950 to 1954.
One of those he abused in those years was Pat Cleary. Cleary gave evidence, albeit posthumously (he passed away at the age of 82 in July 2020), to the Royal Commission currently enquiring into sexual abuse by the state and religious institutions.
Cleary, who said Durning had molested him and demanded intimate massages when he was a third-form student in 1951, and that another Marist Father, Patrick Minto, had kissed and cuddled him, was convinced two contemporaries had “blown the whistle” on Durning to the authorities, and Durning had been swiftly removed from the school to avoid further controversy.
The Catholic Church failed in an attempt to have much of Cleary’s testimony struck out and the names of Durning, Minto and others suppressed in the Commission’s transcripts.
Tim Duckworth said they wanted five names – including Minto’s – suppressed because they had no cases of abuse upheld against them and they “considered it similar to a person having name suppression in a court hearing until the evidence is heard.” He said he would welcome anyone with complaints about Minto to contact him.
Durning definitely departed Silverstream midway through the 1954 academic year. In 1955, his Rector’s Report in the school magazine thanks a Mr Watson for “accepting my invitation to come to our assistance when I was going on leave” and also, “I owe a special debt of gratitude to Father George who deputised for me during my absence from the school early in the year”.
Duckworth said he had no information that complaints were made about Durning in 1954. “I am happy to receive information that you are able to provide.”
Among the others Durning abused was Albert Lewis*. “Durning was 43 when I was at St Pat’s,” says Albert. “If he was abusing boys at three or four a year, he would have abused 200 boys.”
Now aged 83, Lewis says Durning is a name discussed when old boys gather. “This is a topic that can now be discussed around the barbecue,” he says. At one of them, a former classmate said at least 15 of his friends knew of Durning’s activities, or had been abused by him.
Lewis is convinced that Silverstream at the time was “like a crime ring”, citing Durning, Minto – whom he says was aware of Durning’s abuse of him – and the theologian Michael Shirres, later accused of multiple cases of abuse. He also named another teacher, also a Marist Father, of that time as an alleged abuser.
Responding to Lewis’s testimony at the Royal Commission, Tim Duckworth said: “I’m absolutely convinced when I read [his] evidence he believes we all knew about it all of the time. But I can and I would, if you wanted me to, and will subsequently show you that that’s not true, and couldn’t have been true.”
Asked about that declaration by Stuff, Duckworth said he would not comment on individual cases.
Durning would later teach at St Bede’s in Christchurch, spend time in Samoa (which later prompted former leader David Kennerley to promise to alert officials over there), and at Holy Cross College, a Catholic seminary in Mosgiel.
Mike Nicholas was studying at Holy Cross when a now elderly Durning arrived to deliver a lecture on the Reformation. He says Durning carefully avoided him. “I can really understand why people rave about Durning … he drew you right into it. It gave me a great appreciation, but I was still wary of the bastard.”
Durning was later appointed chaplain at Rochester Hall, a Canterbury University hall of residence, and lectured history part-time at the university.
Even as an elderly man, Durning continued to offend. Another former Canterbury student remembers arriving as a first year student and being asked by Durning to dress a ‘carbuncle’ on his inner, upper thigh. “I got out of there as soon as I could, and when the veterans arrived, I was warned immediately about him … told it was not unusual, and I’d had a lucky escape.”
Nicholas recalls one former Rochester student saying they had pranked Durning by turning on a communal shower then using a stopwatch to time how long it would take Durning to arrive to catch a glimpse of a naked student.
Imagine a so called “religious” abusing boys for 50 years!
Imagine his superiors covering all that up for 50 years!
But hear this story time and time again.
We have been hearing it now for 20 + years.
We will continue to hear it for 20 + more years.
We will probably end up with MILLIONS OF CASES of children abused by Priests, religious brothers and nuns.
Imagine the reports yet to come from AFRICA and SOUTH AMERICA and ASIA where thousands of Irish and other national missionaries were despatched to.
How can it be inaccurate, unjust or over the top to call this suffering a HOLOCAUST?
And unlike in Hitler’s case ALL DONE IN THE NAME OF GOD!