ANDREW Michael Nash was 13 years old when he hanged himself in his bedroom.
Other family members were in the Hamilton home, watching television and doing homework.
His death, in 1974, came after an apparently uneventful day at school where his class teacher was also a serial child sex offender.
More than 40 years later his mother Audrey Nash, 89, wants that teacher, former Marist Brother Romuald – who is in jail awaiting sentence because of offences against another 19 Hunter and Sydney students in the 1960s and 1970s – to answer a devastating and heartbreaking question.
‘‘I want him to tell me if he sexually abused my son,’’ said Mrs Nash, who still lives in the home where her son died.
‘‘I’m 89 years of age. There’s no other reason why it happened, and I thought his conscience might be getting to him now.
‘‘I believe Andrew was abused. I believe he committed suicide. I want him [Romuald] to tell me if he abused him. That could put my mind at rest before I die.’’
Andrew Nash was one of three boys in his Marist Brothers Hamilton class who died extremely young, and in distressing circumstances. A second student drove his car off a cliff at Bar Beach in 1977, aged 16, and a third died after an incident at a Merewether cliff in the 1980s when he was in his early 20s.
On the night Andrew died, in October 1974, Romuald was one of three Marist Brothers and three Maitland-Newcastle Catholic priests who arrived at the Nash home after Mrs Nash ran into the street and begged a passing taxi driver to call an ambulance and a priest.
‘‘We didn’t have a phone. I was hysterical. I wanted the ambulance but I wanted a priest to deliver the last rites,’’ Mrs Nash said.
‘‘When Romuald came I said to him ‘What happened at school today?’ He said nothing had happened, that everything was fine. Then he said to me ‘Did Andrew leave a note?’’’
The three priests who visited that night included former St Pius X Adamstown principal and Toronto priest Tom Brennan, who died in 2012 after he was convicted for making a false statement to police about paedophile priest John Denham, and charged with child sex offences and concealing Denham’s child sex offences.
‘‘They [the priests and Marist Brothers including Romuald] left and we never saw them again,’’ said Mrs Nash.
‘‘No one ever came back to the house after that night, or sent a card. Nothing. Complete silence. No compassion. No pastoral care. I was ignored. It didn’t matter that I’d lost a son. My children were in other Catholic schools but nobody said anything to them; not the priests or the Brothers or the nuns. A wall of silence from all of them. You have to wonder now what was said. These days there’s all this talk about pastoral care but I wonder where it was at that time.’’
Romuald, 82, whose real name is Francis William Cable, has pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting students behind his desk with other students in the room. He has admitted sexually abusing students while swimming with them, and during camps. He has admitted sexually abusing boys at Bar Beach.
Andrew Nash was in Romuald’s year 8 class, went on Duke of Edinburgh camps with Romuald, went to swimming training with Romuald and other sporting activities. Andrew’s late father was often absent from home because of his work, and after a significant work accident in early 1974 which left him hospitalised for many months.
Small incidents less than three months before Andrew’s death are the most troubling for Mrs Nash to recall more than four decades later.
‘‘He always came home from school at the same time, about 3.30,’’ she said.
‘‘There was a day where he didn’t come home. It got to 6 o’clock and I was frantic. I was about to ring the police when he came home, very subdued. I was relieved but I was also angry with him because I thought something had happened to him. I remember saying ‘Where the hell have you been?’ or something like that, and the only thing I could get out of him was that he’d been at Bar Beach.’’
In an agreed statement of facts to a Sydney District Court judge last week Romuald admitted committing offences at Bar Beach where he took boys for Duke of Edinburgh training and at least one school excursion. The court heard Romuald tried to persuade 12 and 13 year old boys to strip naked in the change room while he walked naked with an erection.
‘‘On a couple of mornings in the months before he died Andrew said he didn’t want to go to school,’’ Mrs Nash said.
‘‘He’d say he was sick and I knew he wasn’t so I’d tell him he had to go. Those are the sorts of things you regret. When you think you’d sent them off to that.’’
The details of how Andrew Nash died are distressing, but show a process that stopped a coroner from finding his death was accidental.
His younger sister raised the alarm when she tried to open his bedroom door. Mrs Nash and another son discovered his body. Andrew was in his bedroom, believed to be doing homework, for 10 or 15 minutes. Coroner Reginald Radford delivered an open finding on December 19, 1974.
‘‘Whether he died accidentally or otherwise, the evidence adduced does not enable me to say,’’ he found.
A finding of suicide would have made Andrew Nash one of the youngest people recorded in Australia to have taken his own life. Mrs Nash believes it was suicide, and the coroner was simply unable to say the word at an inquest in front of a grieving Catholic mother and her surviving son.
Less than two years after Andrew’s death her parish priest at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Monsignor Patrick Cotter, who was found after his death to have protected two notorious Hunter priests, was involved in the placement of Vince Ryan at Mrs Nash’s parish.
This was after Ryan returned from a year in Melbourne following serious child sex allegations against him.
Ryan and Mrs Nash became close friends. The priest had dinner each Wednesday at the Nash home.
It was the charging of Ryan in October 1995 and his subsequent conviction and jailing which started Mrs Nash’s questioning of the Catholic church after decades of working as a parish housekeeper, and significant volunteer work including as parish social secretary.
In the past year she has publicly and openly criticised Bishop Bill Wright’s handling of disciplinary action against Maitland-Newcastle priests Bill Burston and her parish priest Monsignor Allan Hart, after negative findings against them following the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry.
Her criticism that has appeared in Newcastle Herald articles, along with Hunter child sex victims Bob O’Toole and Peter Gogarty and Pat Feenan, the mother of victim Daniel Feenan, led to negative comments from Bishop Wright about ‘‘the usual suspects’’ who questioned his handling of matters through the newspaper.
Mrs Nash believes it is time for all Catholics to speak up about the betrayal of people by the church.
‘‘I still believe in God. It’s just the people in the church who are running it have done enormous damage, but they don’t seem to get it, do they? They still think it’s them up there, and everyone else is much lower down the scale.’’
In an anonymous obituary for Andrew Nash in the Marist Brothers Hamilton newsletter in 1974, his fellow students and their parents were told that ‘‘God took Andrew at his best’’.
‘‘He was at a wondrous height of innocence and beauty and holiness, and who knows what might have been?’’ the obituary said.
Audrey Nash imagines what her son might have been like today, aged 54, but the much stronger image even after all these years is of the smiling, bright and much-loved boy of 13.
‘‘I think of him every day. I see his photos. I talk to him all the time. When people read this I don’t expect that one of the priests will ring up and say sorry. I don’t expect anything. Just as long as people know.’’