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Witnesses in a Fragmented World

When I was studying in the United States, I remember talking with a friend who informed me that he had been sexually abused as a child. I felt honoured to be trusted with this information, but remember wondering how best to respond. I was his friend, and did not want to come across in a counselling role, in case this led to him feeling like a client. I wanted to remain slightly conversational to avoid moving into “professional” mode. After a while my friend said, with emphasis, “I need you to witness to what happened to me.” I got the message. What was required was my presence, attention, and a listening ear.

Thankfully my friend did not give up on me, and continued to talk about the abuse and its impact on his life. It was a salutary moment. I hope I did some good as a friend who was trusted with this deeply personal information. For my part, the conversation has found an important space in my memory and the word “witness” (which now has considerable salience for me), has become part of my personal lexicon of significant words, so much so that I proposed that it be added to the Message of the Marist Brothers’ General Chapter that  was held in 2017 in Colombia:

We are called to live life to the full as your witnesses in a fragmented world.

Being a “witness in a fragmented world,” impinged on my life in two significant ways in the last months of 2019. The first was during the Marist Hearings at the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, which took place from 3rd October – 5th November, and the second was during a visit to Rwanda (21 – 25 November), where I made some presentations to a group of Marist Brothers. I also visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. I will share about my visit to Rwanda before returning to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry.


It was only when I landed in Kigali on 20th November that I realized that it is 25 years since the terrible events of the genocide that took place from 6th April – 15th July 1994. I was living in Cameroon at that time, and I was aware of the frightening and shocking events that were taking place on the continent where I was then living. In mid-July I discovered that Brother Chris Mannion, an English Marist Brother who was a member of our General Council, had gone to Rwanda on a mercy mission to give money to an armed group that was holding hostage a group of religious sisters and some brothers. It was Chris who had asked me to go to Cameroon when he was the Provincial in Great Britain.

Chris, along with Brother Joseph Rushigajiki, a Rwandan Marist Brother who was driving the car they were using, was killed near Save on 1st July 1994, probably as the result of a dreadful misunderstanding that happened at a time of confusion. When I visited Save on Saturday 23rd November, to attend the entry into the novitiate of a group of 13 postulants from Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Madagascar, I came across the row of graves of the five Rwandan Brothers who were killed during the genocide. I also came across a grave which had a cross with Chris’ name. I had not expected this. (It is unlikely that Chris is buried there as his body was never recovered). I was also taken to the place where he was killed, which was 200 yards from the entrance to the Brothers’ property. This fact alone added a poignancy to the death of Chris, which affected me, and many others, deeply at the time.

On Monday 25th November Brother Kalisa, the Provincial of East Africa, took me to the Genocide Memorial. I have visited a number of such museums and memorials in the course of my life: Buchenwald and Dachau (where a German Marist Brother died), the Deportation Museums on the Île de La Cité, Paris, and at Compiègnes, France, the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, and the 9 / 11 Museum at Ground Zero in New York. All of these places provide significant information, artifacts, personal stories and commentary on terrible events where human beings were tortured, killed, abused and treated as less than human. If you are open and allow yourself to be vulnerable, you do not leave such places the same as you entered. They inscribe themselves on our souls. We cannot do anything to change what happened, but in being there, giving our time and attention, we stand in solidarity with the victims, and witness to what happened – lest humanity ever forget. Being present at the place where Chris Mannion was killed near Save, and at the Genocide Museum in Kigali, were acts of sacred remembering.

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry

Another act of sacred remembering was my presence at the Marist Hearings of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry. I had attended the Inquiry in June 2017 as Provincial, and it made sense for me to continue to represent the Marist Brothers for the duration of the Marist Hearings. While I was not looking forward to this experience – listening to stories of abuse by Marist Brothers, most of whom I had known – I was not prepared for the impact that it had on me personally. As I listened to men older than me, my own age, and younger, I felt profoundly ashamed of the Marist Brothers whose abusive behaviour was presented to the Inquiry. When there were breaks in the testimonies, I often sat for a few moments to collect my thoughts before joining our lawyers for a coffee and a snack. I wanted to approach the men who spoke to apologise on behalf of the Marist Brothers, but knew that it would not be possible for me to meet them even if I wanted to. It would also be wrong to propose such a meeting in the context of the Inquiry.

I knew that it was important for me to be there as the representative of the Marist Brothers, not least to know first-hand what had been shared by the applicants in their own testimony before being called upon to give my own testimony, both personally and on behalf of the Marist Brothers. Having said that, I became aware that being open to listen to what had happened to these men in Marist Boarding Colleges, and being ready to give my time and attention to their abuse and suffering, was as important, and perhaps more significant, than preparing for my own testimony, or being in the room where the Inquiry was held as an official representative. There was something deeper going on, and it was only when I spoke to the consultant whom I have been meeting since I became Provincial, that I was able to put words on what I was intuiting, but could not articulate clearly.

Witnessing to the experience of the men who were abused and being present when they spoke about these personally embarrassing and shameful events was perhaps the most valuable role that I had at the Inquiry. I can only imagine the courage it took for them to come forward and speak about these “unspeakable” acts in a public Inquiry. It was undoubtedly the most difficult thing I have done as a Marist Brother. It was important for me to be there in solidarity with them, even if I was the person to whom they may have wanted to direct their anger because of their experiences as children. I had no expectation that my presence would have any impact on them – expect insofar as a Marist Brother had made the commitment to be present to listen to the terrible things that had happened to them and not walk away.

My intuition about this aspect of my presence was confirmed by John Scott QC, the advocate for INCAS (the group representing people who were abused in boarding institutions) who said in his Closing Submission:

I wish to I acknowledge the attendance of Brother Brendan Geary during this Case Study. Survivors appreciate his presence to listen to their testimony and are glad that he has been able to hear the truth first-hand for himself. It clearly informed his evidence on 25th October. There was no “yes but” moment of the type mentioned in his article earlier this year[1], and his profound apology is significant and is likely to help some survivors.

While John Scott’s comment was personally gratifying, I share it to highlight the point about the importance of being a witness to the experiences and sufferings of others, and of the value of personal presence.

Presence and witnessing

Pope St. John Paul II once said to men and women who were members of religious orders that people valued them for what they did, but that their real value lay in who they were. Members of apostolic religious orders, in particular, put their energy into mission, which is where they derive a great deal of the meaning and satisfaction in their lives. They also do a great deal of good in line with our Gospel values in the course of their ministry. The same is true, I suspect, for many people.

Very often our presence is not simply “sufficient,” but it may be precisely what is called for if we wish to respond to the sufferings and tragedies of others, and to be with them in their sorrow and their grieving. The act of witnessing requires that we let go of our own need for a role, or our need to “to do something,” and to believe in the value of our human presence. Visiting memorial sites and museums that commemorate terrible tragedies does not change the past, but does honour those who suffered and who have the courage and humility to tell their stories. Among the most moving moments in the Genocide Museum were the video interviews with survivors, many of whom lost all of the members of their families, and who often saw them being attacked, tortured and killed, but who were now hopeful for a Rwanda where violence and revenge would belong to their terrible past and not the future they are committed to building together. I learned in the Genocide Memorial that the division into Tutsis and Hutus, which was the source of the conflict which took over their country in a terrible eruption of anger and violence, was an artificial distinction created by colonial rulers to separate people who owned ten cows or more (Tutsis) and those who owned less than ten cows (Hutus).  This became the basis for the supposed ethnic division between these two groups.

Often, as we know, survivors and victims are able to transcend their suffering to call for healing, and to avoid revenge. The same is true for victims of sexual abuse. We have no right to expect their forgiveness or to ask for it. We can, however, be grateful for their generosity of spirit which looks for justice and healing for themselves and, on the part of some remarkable individuals, for their perpetrators. These recent experiences at the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry and at the Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, have served to remind me of values that I hold, but tend to forget in the busyness of life. As 2019 comes to end, I will consider the significance of the act of witnessing and the importance of personal presence as solidarity with those who have suffered, as the two gifts that I will carry forward from 2019.


[1] Geary, Brendan (May / June 2019). The Vatican Abuse Summit. Open House, 21, pp. 9 – 10