Look back without anger: A memoir of abuse at school

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The Empty Honour Board
Martin Flanagan
Viking, $24.99

The Empty Honour Board is possibly the most wise and insightful book to so far emerge from the mangled mess of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions. It is marked by Martin Flanagan’s characteristic vulnerability and deep questioning.

Martin Flanagan doesn’t homogenise the experience of abuse.

His biography of Michael Long, the Indigenous footballer who stood up against racial discrimination, The Short Long Book (2015), is not only a book about an influential character. It is also a work about how difficult it was to write such a biography with justice and authenticity. This is even more the case with The Empty Honour Board. It addresses questions that have escaped much attention. The book begins “I was warned against writing this”. I, for one, am enormously grateful that he did.

Between the ages of 10 and 16, Flanagan, who used to write for this masthead, was a boarder at a Catholic high school, which he chooses not to name, in northern Tasmania. The school was run by an order of priests, no longer involved in the institution, and was a chamber of horrors. Three of the priests who worked there during Flanagan’s incarceration, for want of a better word, have been convicted of crimes and sentenced. On top of that, there was savage corporal punishment and appalling emotional deprivation.

Flanagan claims he was relatively unscathed because he never bought into the Catholic narrative that put priests on a pedestal where they were accountable only to God. He explains that he did not experience the kind of existential abuse that others suffered because his existence was in no way beholden to this institution.


He thanks his father for this. Arch Flanagan returned from abuse on the Thai-Burma Railway with plenty of time for reflection but none for God. As a principal of a high school in a bleak mining town, Rosebery, he barked at a pompous archbishop who expected him to send his kids to the Catholic school.

Flanagan’s mother was Catholic, but Martin found his healing in sport and in the natural landscape. Figures such as Archie Roach were important to the shaping of his centre. Flanagan is a deep and sensitive listener. He doesn’t package stories. He takes time to understand them and drink deeply of their meaning.

Flanagan’s description of abusers is unsparing but never dehumanising. While the behaviour of many priests was horrific, Flanagan describes how one gutsy priest, John Girdauskas, who happened to be gay, led a push for justice. He is withering in his remarks about people who seem to know more about the impact of the behaviour of the abusers than the people who experienced the abuse.

He asks his brother: “Doesn’t it strike you as strange that lots of people who weren’t at our school are certain they know what happened there, and you and I were there and we’re not?” Flanagan emphasises that “I speak for no-one but myself”.

One of the priests at the school was a bad-tempered man called Eric who seemed to take a liking to young Martin. It’s typical of Flanagan that he points out how overworked and unappreciated this man was. The students were carefully policed but always allowed to visit the rooms of the priests in their pyjamas. One night, when Martin was around Year 9, Eric offered him a massage for his football injuries. He made him remove his pants for the purpose so that the boy was naked from the waist down.

The small number of people with whom Flanagan has shared this story over the years have assured him he was abused. His wife, a former teacher, thinks so as well. Flanagan is not so sure. Flanagan doesn’t homogenise the experience of abuse.

Flanagan is by no means the hero of his own tale. He describes the ways in which he succumbed to a bullying culture among the students and stood back while others copped it. “Adolescent politics are fascist politics.” Yet he was also one of three students who went to the rector to report the behaviour of a priest called Greg. The rector expressed no surprise and Greg was shipped somewhere else.

Read this book alongside another compelling recent title, Still Standing by Chrissie Foster. Foster’s pain is raw on every page and the reader is in awe of her strength. Flanagan is also strong. There is nothing to be gained from comparing these two approaches. It is better just to listen and to thank the witness.

Michael McGirr’s most recent book is Ideas to Save Your Life (Text).

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