By JAMES DUFFY
Yawning students clad in blazers, shirts and ties arrive early every chilly Ballarat morning. They funnel in through the iron gates that have remained unchanged for 100 years.
A few of them glance in the direction of a small memorial garden by the school fence. It was planted several years ago to honour the victims of sexual assault at the hands of priests, who congregated by these very gates, less than 50 years ago.
St Patrick’s College, known to locals as ‘St Pat’s', is by all accounts an ordinary Catholic high school. To its students, the word ‘boring’ is likely to spring to mind. Your typical high school student living in Ballarat is unconcerned with the world outside.
The school’s hallway is adorned with “St Patrick’s College Legends”, visages of St Pat’s alumni who went on to achieve great things. There is an empty space on the wall, where the portrait of perhaps the most well-known “legend” once hung. Cardinal George Pell. Australia’s most senior Catholic Church official who was, in December, found guilty of sexual assault.
It's a conviction he aims to have overturned tomorrow, when the Supreme Court of Victoria hands down its decision on his appeal.
St Patrick’s College Captain Aidan Hanrahan is a tall, handsome, confident lad. He is clean-shaven and neatly presented. He's friendly when smiling, but serious in discussion of a particularly raw subject. He is - what the staff of St Pat’s would call - the epitome of a Patty Boy.
He would look like a leader even without his title, or the six polished badges on his lapel. His family live in Dunnstown, where George Pell worked as a parish priest in his heyday. As a graduate and previous dux of St Pat’s, Pell was once considered “the epitome of a Patty Boy” himself.
St Pat’s is a school that values tradition. “Old Boys”, as they are affectionately called, will always have a place to return to and will be welcomed with open arms. That is, unless they are named George Pell.
Cardinal George Pell, after months of closed trial proceedings, was convicted in December of sexual penetration of a minor, as well as four counts of committing indecent acts in the presence of children.
The two incidents occurred in 1996 when Pell abused two choirboys after a Sunday mass at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral. One of the boys was abused again two months later.
“I was incredibly shocked,” Aiden says when asked about his reaction to Pell’s arrest, “I just couldn’t expect anything like that to come from someone so high up in the church”.
Aiden says the situation created by the allegations was handled quite well by the school's current headmaster John Crowley. “Once the findings were published, the issue was addressed quite quickly. It needed to be.”
Until recently, one of the oldest surviving wings of the school – home to a mothball smell, vending machines and the fine arts department – was named “The Pell Wing”. Now, it is “The Waterford Wing”.
Any mention of Pell in The Pell Wing has been blacked out.
The initial accusations against the church official came at the tail-end of a long and painful saga for victims of abuse, and for the central goldfields community more broadly. The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse was held in Pell's hometown of Ballarat. The many campaigns undertaken to have the Cardinal brought home from the Vatican made local news headlines throughout much of 2017.
A mother in the school community, Maxine Harrison, quips “He’s a slimy creature”.
Her son also attended St Patrick’s College.
A Ballarat citizen since childhood, she was a student herself when she started to notice boys being taken aside and told “Never be alone with the Christian brothers”.
She held strong opinions about the Cardinal’s character even before his conviction. If a child like her could see when something was up, how could George Pell, a friend to many of the perpetrators, have been blind?
Ms Harrison was not shocked by Pell’s conviction. Her only surprise was that a jury found against someone so powerful.
“Pell would have had excellent representation legally," she says, adding the verdict was something she considered a triumph of the legal system. “It was a David and Goliath type battle. And the little guy won.”
While people close to Aidan reeled from the news of Pell’s arrest and the people close to Maxine Harrison celebrated, both are unsure what tomorrow will bring.
If Pell is cleared of all wrong doing and released from jail, will The Waterford Wing be renamed The Pell Wing? Will his photograph be returned to the wall?
"It would be a very interesting move," Aiden notes.
Ms Harrison fears exactly this. She holds out hope that public pressure as well as a basic respect for the victims of abuse will outweigh the school’s pride.
As Maxine Harrison says, “Their grief is far more important than having Pell’s name on a few walls”.
As the boys file out of those same iron gates every weekday afternoon at 3:30, many aspire to be something greater. Not to take Pell’s place on that ‘legends’ wall, but rather to succeed him.