A dying Dunedin man tells Chris Morris his story of a savage beating he received as a 10-year-old ‘‘cheeky little Catholic boy’’ at the hands of a nun.
Russell Butler is in a race against time.
The 63-year-old South Dunedin resident and practising Catholic has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and recently received the Last Rites from a priest.
Published in Otago Daily Times
Now he spends his days in his small Melbourne St flat, surrounded by medication and family photos, facing the inevitable.
But, before he dies, Mr Butler has a story he wants to tell.
He wants people to know about the savage beating he says he received as a 10-year-old boy at the hands of a nun from the Sisters of Mercy.
And he wants his story put on record by the pending Royal Commission of Inquiry into historic abuse in state and faith-based care.
Mr Butler told ODT Insight the beating occurred in 1966, when he was a pupil at St Mary’s Primary School in Mosgiel.
At the time, most of the lessons at the Catholic school were still delivered by nuns from the Sisters of Mercy religious order.
And, more than 50 years on, Mr Butler says he can still recall every detail of a lesson handed down one day by Sister Mary James.
That day, Mr Butler, a self-confessed “cheeky little Catholic boy”, had become embroiled in a playground fight.
Afterwards, he fled – running home to his parents’ house, before returning to school later in the day.
Upon his return, he was punished by the school’s head nun.
“I got six of the best for fighting in the playground, and then I got six [more] because I took off home,” he said.
Then he was sent back to class, where Sr James was waiting with her own leather strap.
“I got 54 off her. Fifty-four lashes, my mates counted,” he said.
“The first six were on the hand and then – I don’t know if I protested not to have any more or whatever – but the other 48 just landed wherever they landed.”
The beating left the young Mr Butler with “bruises or marks all over my body”.
When he got home and his mother saw the results, she erupted.
He recalled her on the telephone, complaining to the local parish priest and threatening to go to then-Catholic Bishop of Dunedin, John Kavanagh.
“He [the priest] must have talked her down,” Mr Butler said.
Instead, he was sent back to class with his older sister to clear out his desk, then pulled out of the school and transferred to another.
But, more than 50 years on, Mr Butler said he could still recall the beating – and Sr James – in vivid detail.
It was not the first time the young Mr Butler had been on the receiving end of the nuns’ punishment at the school.
He recalled an earlier incident, as a 5-year-old, when another nun refused him permission to leave class and go to the toilet.
“I ended up wetting myself, and being taken out into the toilets, and I had to go out and play in the playground wearing girls’ bloomers. That’s what they put on me.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but I can still recall not wanting to go into the playground.”
Mr Butler conceded he was “no angel” as a child, and the “belting” from Sr James when he was 10 was not the first.
“But that was the worst one that comes vividly to mind.
“I can still see her face now. She was a big, big nun … a nasty, abusive nun. Any excuse to give somebody a whack.”
One of his classmates, Michael Haggie, agreed.
He recalled Sr James as “a tough, uncompromising nun who we were all scared of”.
“She used the strap without mercy. Very harsh and angry person. She would march around the school threatening any boy offenders.
“She had a very black and white idea of misdemeanours and what was a sin.”
Now, as he faced his own death sentence, Mr Butler said he wanted people to know the truth.
“It’s only sort of recently I’ve thought … well, I bet you there’s a lot of people who don’t realise just how abusive nuns were. It’s not just the priests.
“You can bet your boots I won’t be the only one that was abused by the nuns.”
He also wanted answers from the Sisters of Mercy, including copies of any records of the incident or his mother’s complaint, and to know what happened to Sr James.
He also wanted to have his story recorded and included in the upcoming Royal Commission, before he died.
Sister Sue France, from Sisters of Mercy New Zealand, said when contacted the organisation had no record of any complaints filed against Sr James.
Despite that, the incident as described “would be unacceptably harsh treatment of a 10-year-old, even 53 years ago”, she said.
The files showed Sr James taught in Mosgiel in 1962 and again from 1966-69, and spent her entire working life as a teaching sister in Otago and Southland, dying in 1998.
Mr Butler’s account was “a very sad story at many levels”, and the organisation would be contacting him to offer to talk “if he wishes to do so”.
“We are planning to make contact with him directly, especially given the urgency with his illness.
“We understand it is very important to him, as it is to us, that he has the opportunity to share his experience and his hurt.
“It will also help us to work through together anything that he might want to do about the situation in the short time he has left.”
The Catholic Education Office – part of the Catholic Diocese of Dunedin – also had no record of the incident, and neither did Catholic Bishop of Dunedin the Most Rev Michael Dooley, he said.
Despite that, he also planned to meet Mr Butler “to find out about it from him”.
A Royal Commission spokesman said a “large number” of survivors wanted to share their experiences as soon as possible, including those who were “very unwell”.
They were encouraged to contact the Royal Commission, which could offer help ranging from assistance with writing or technology to having commissioners visit them.
“We will do everything we can to prioritise those who are older or unwell and want to share their experiences of abuse with the Royal Commission.”
In the meantime, Mr Butler said he was continuing to receive Holy Communion each Sunday, and his memories of the beating had not shaken his Catholic faith.
“I don’t go to church every Sunday, but I have always believed in the faith.”
By Chris Morris
Published in Otago Daily Times
11 April 2019