Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Keaney, Paul Francis (1888–1954)

by F. D. Shortill

This article was published online in 2019

Paul Francis Keaney (1888-1954), Christian Brother, was born on 5 October 1888 at Corralskin, Kiltyclogher, Leitrim, Ireland, son of Terance Keaney, farmer, and his wife Mary, née McGowan. He helped on the farm before migrating in 1911 to Australia where he worked on the land in northern New South Wales and probably as a policeman in Queensland. His sister Christina, a Dominican nun, influenced him to become a novice with the Christian Brothers in Sydney in 1916. Keaney chafed under the rigid rules of the novitiate, but next year was appointed to St Vincent's Orphanage, South Melbourne.

In 1919 Keaney moved to Perth, to the St Peter's Intermediate Orphanage and farm for boys at Clontarf. He then taught at Christian Brothers' College, Fremantle, before returning to Clontarf as superior in 1924. In 1927 he helped to develop St Mary's Agricultural Farm School at Tardun, 300 miles (483 km) to the north, for the boys' further training. He lived primitively, on black tea, damper and kangaroo meat, while building and labouring. Of his clothes he remarked, 'Well you can't expect me to run a farm and build a monastery dressed up like a model'. Keaney was a 'big stout man with the neck of a bull', a mop of white hair and rosy face. Building materials were improvised: old tram and train rails, sweepings from the cement works. During the Depression he enlisted the help of wage-earners, who gave small donations and voluntary work, and of the wealthier who provided money, skills and influential contacts. Though abstemious, Keaney was described by adult visitors as a jovial host and raconteur.

In 1930-35 he taught again at the Brothers' colleges in Perth and Fremantle. He then returned to Clontarf as superior. When the property was requisitioned by the Royal Australian Air Force in World War II, most boys were evacuated to Tardun, but a few went to a property near Bindoon to begin the new St Joseph's Farm School. This site was the gift of Catherine Musk. Having suffered a nervous breakdown, Bindoon was seen by the Brothers as a relatively light assignment for Keaney. In 1942 he began building there; his pupils, of all religions, later included child migrants. Finances were minimal. State wards often stayed on to work on the farm and buildings and some, at Tardun, were assisted to buy nearby farms.

In 1945 Keaney went to Tasmania and Melbourne to recuperate from ill health. In 1948 he was back as superior over the pupils at 'Boys' Town', Bindoon. He was appointed M.B.E. and I.S.O. in 1953. Next year he planned to visit Ireland but died at Subiaco on 26 February, two days after a farewell dinner. He was buried at 'Boys' Town', Bindoon, where firstly the chapel, and then the school, was named for him.

For many years Keaney had earned widespread praise for his success with boys considered troublesome; often they had come to him from the courts. The peculiarities of a strict, hard-working father endeared him to some, as did his highly picturesque sayings, impatient outbursts and humour. Over the years, however, an increasing number of former Bindoon inmates, now adults, portrayed Keaney as a brutal disciplinarian with an ungovernable temper, who neglected their education, exploited their labour and administered violent punishments which scarred his victims for life, emotionally and physically. He also turned a blind eye to sexual abuse of inmates by other members of the staff. Facing mounting criticism and increased negative publicity, the Christian Brothers in Western Australia commissioned in 1991 an historical investigation to ‘address factually and objectively, the issues raised by the critics’, followed by a report specifically on child sexual abuse. As a result of the overwhelming evidence against Keaney, the school and the chapel were both renamed. His remains were exhumed and relocated to an unknown place. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013–17) heard evidence that, not only had Keaney tolerated sexual abuse, he was a regular perpetrator.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Scott (compiler), Biography. Reverend Brother Paul Francis Keaney (Perth, nd)
  • B. Coldrey, The Scheme: The Christian Brothers and childcare in Western Australia (Perth, 1993)
  • D. F. Bourke, The History of the Catholic Church in Western Australia (Perth, 1979)
  • G. Faulkner, In Initial Report on Child Sexual Abuse (Perth, 1998)
  • H. Sutherland, Southward Journey (Lond, 1942)
  • People (Sydney), 13 Jan 1954
  • PR 1810 B/KEA (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, ‘Report of Case Study No. 11’, (Canberra, 2014)
  • West Australian, 26, 27 Feb 1954, 7 Oct 1957

Citation details

F. D. Shortill, 'Keaney, Paul Francis (1888–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keaney-paul-francis-6902/text11973, published online 2019, accessed online 22 November 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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