Brisbane’s Anglican Church Grammar School is obliterating the legacy and memory of the headmaster who did more than anyone else to make the institution what it is today. His crime? No longer being alive to defend his good name
The hysterical pursuit of scapegoats for the mishandling of sexual abuse of schoolboys half a century ago, having run its course in Ballarat, has now extended its tentacles to Brisbane and one of Queensland’s great Public Schools. In a cruel and panicked exercise in revisionism, the school council of the Anglican Church Grammar School – colloquially known as ‘Churchie’ – has dishonoured the 23-year career of one of its finest headmasters, Dr Harry Roberts (left). The chairman of the school council, Dan O’Connor, an old boy from the ‘70s and now deputy-president of Queensland’s Industrial Court, has stunned students, parents and alumni alike with a decision taken without notice or consultation.
In a widely-circulated e-mail that has inspired a furious backlash that may affect fundraising, O’Connor announced the school’s $23 million Centre for Learning and Innovation, now under construction, would not be named the Roberts Centre, as foreshadowed. The reason, he explained, was that the Council had acceded to requests from victims of alleged sexual abuse at the school almost half a century ago.
Dr Roberts was Churchie’s second headmaster, from 1947-69. He is universally recognised as having successfully engineered the smooth progression from the vision of the founder, Canon W.P.F. “Boss” Morris, to the modern prestigious and wealthy school it is today. In his last year, Roberts saw the then-Governor General Sir Paul Hasluck open a new library, study centre and language laboratory carrying his name. It has just been demolished. Its replacement, after fifty years, was to further extend the facilities Roberts saw as essential for “the making of men.”
O’Connor gave Roberts faint and mealy-mouthed recognition: He “is credited with creating the excellence upon which the School prides itself,” he wrote. “Dr Roberts’ standing as a school leader and educator is exemplary in almost every way.“ (Emphasis added). But O’Connor then added:
However the material recently made available to the School Council…suggests that his method of dealing with allegations of abuse in the 1960s does not match current standards. (Empasis added).
Whilst Dr Roberts removed the staff concerned, he took no further action.
The council accepts that this may have been considered an adequate response at the time, but it does not accord with current community standards, nor does it meet the standard that the Council would expect of a Headmaster of Churchie.
That statement amounts to an admission the school council has arraigned, tried and found guilty a former great headmaster, not in absentia, but in his grave. Responding to the bitter demands of a student/students allegedly wronged fifty years ago, it has judged Roberts for the crimes of others, on the basis of standards which did not apply at the time. The lawyerly-worded O’Connor e-mail did not identify those event/events which led to the council’s decision. But on March 5, The Australian, in an appallingly garbled and prejudicial report, linked it to the case of alleged abuse of a 12-year-old in 1967 by a boarding house master, Harry John Wippell.
Under the sensationalist headline “Headmaster’s name removed from school centre after ‘cover-up’” the story, by Brisbane reporter Michael McKenna, failed to mention that Wippell was acquitted in 2010 of all five charges of indecent treatment. Further, McKenna repeated an incorrect statement in an article last December that Wippell committed suicide after being committed for trial. The truth is that he died six months after his acquittal, peacefully in hospital after a long illness. His funeral was held in St John’s Anglican Cathedral, the mother church of the archdiocese which owns Churchie.
Irresponsibly, The Australian also went into some detail in reporting the former student’s unsubstantiated allegations about Roberts’ response to his complaints. These said the headmaster demanded that the boy withdraw the complaints, and caned him six times on his bare buttocks when he refused. On his continued refusal, Wippell, the master who was the subject of the complaint, then caned him as well, after which he was caned by a prefect as well.
Full disclosure: I was justly punished by headmaster Roberts on more than one occasion, but I can assert confidently that no boy at Churchie would ever have been caned on his bare buttocks. The claim that a 12-year-old boy caned up to 18 times by three people in succession is fanciful.
The newspaper also reported that the student had gone to the police. If so, why were no charges laid between 1967 and 2010? Harry Robert’s response to the complaint was the correct one at the time. Unable to determine the truth in claim and denial, he dismissed the master and protected the reputation of the school. It seems that Churchie’s school council has foolishly succumbed to pressure from Brisbane Archbishop Phillip Aspinall to help sanitise the awkward problem of sexual predation in Anglican schools, even to demonising one of its great headmasters.
Aspinall has had his own problems cleaning up the Augean stables of sexual abuse left him by his predecessor, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth. He has also faced questioning in the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Sexual Abuse over what he knew about paedophiles operating in the Church of England Boys Society. Last year, he threw open the door to complainants of sexual abuse to apply for automatic refund of all school fees paid. His was the first Anglican diocese in Australia to do so. The mother of the boy who instituted the charges against Whippell received $55,000 under this policy.
The early years of this century saw the full extent of paedophilia in Queensland church schools burst on the public consciousness, and Churchie was not exempt. Between February 2002 and May 2003, Aspinall received 157 complaints of sexual abuse. A good number of these were triggered by an appeal sent to 20,000 Churchie students and old boys in 2002, inviting them to report incidents of sexual abuse in the school. The then-headmaster, David Scott, spent three months sifting through the responses, referring allegations of criminal activity to the police.
In an ironic throwback from the present controversy, these first seem to have come to light when the school proposed to name a new building in honour of a teacher who had given forty years service to the school and been recently named Queensland’s “Father of the Year.” What then slithered out of the school’s wormy woodwork was the revelation that Frederick Roy Hoskins, prep school headmaster and later boarding housemaster, had abused boys aged nine to fifteen for a decade or more. In May, 2004, Hoskins pleaded guilty to 16 charges involving seven boys between 1947 and 1955 and was sentenced to five years jail. The evidence showed that one boy had suffered four hundred instances of sexual abuse over three years. Hoskins, then 80 years old, had his sentence suspended after serving 16 months.
That case shocked those of us who had known Hoskins as a popular knock-about bloke. An old boy himself, he returned to the school in the war years, a practical and un-academic man without teaching qualifications, as were many in the Catholic Christian Brothers’ schools. His early career had been as a carpenter, when he had lost a finger on a circular saw. In my five years at the school, which included the period in which his depredations began, I never saw or heard anything to indicate what he was up to — a reflection of the secrecy maintained by perpetrator and victims in those days.
The year before Hoskins went before a court, in May, 2003, William Brook Whitelock, gymnastics coach had pleaded guilty to six charges of sexual abusing two students ten years earlier. The investigation also turned up the fact that the school had appointed an Anglican priest, Robert Sharwood, as chaplain without being told by the diocese of an earlier complaint that he had sodomised a 13-year-old boy. Sharwood served as chaplain from 1985 to 2001, but was dismissed as soon as the school learned of his history.
In 2010, Churchie’s deputy head of the prep school, Chris Klemm, was sentenced to five years jail on three counts of indecent treatment and one of unlawful carnal knowledge.
The recent pursuit of Cardinal George Pell, and now the action to “un-name” the Churchie Roberts Centre, (even, it seems, to destroying the foundation stone bearing his name), represent the desperation of victims to pin guilt on anyone accessible and the urgency of authorities to distance their organisations from the past. Where these actions do not accord with the facts, they are wrong.
I spent three of my five years at Churchie under Harry Roberts’ headmastership. “Boofhead”, as we called him for his super-size cranium, was a shy and reserved man, not easy to approach, but always respected for his principles and sense of justice. How scandalous that justice is what he has now been denied! To revisit his decision under 2016 standards is unjust, offensive and a betrayal of the behavioural values the school teaches its students: humility, integrity, honesty, dignity, chivalry and loyalty. The school council should consider in its collective conscience, how many of these it has flouted.
We don’t know what happened in the school forty years ago. The school council was in no position to test the veracity of the allegations, so, shamefully it chose to hang responsibility around the neck of the then-headmaster. Yes, it is possible to defame the dead, as they can’t sue. Long before the school was the wealthy, well-endowed institution it is today, the founder, Canon Morris, underlined sharply the importance of moral and ethical standards for Churchie:
If [the school] exists simply for the glorification of that institution… and if it forgets that its foundation is upon the teaching of Christ and his higher example, then the Church school deserves to be swept into oblivion.
IN A LONG telephone interview, Chairman of the School Council Dan O’Connor, said: “My great fear was a hearing in the Royal Commission and the school being forced into a humiliating backdown if we went ahead and named the new centre after Dr Roberts.” There is clearly a two-pronged strategy by the Anglican Church in Queensland: refund all tuition and boarding fees without question to former students claiming to have suffered abuse, and erase the Roberts name from public sight to placate those still complaining.
O’Connor said there were multiple cases of sexual predation, many more than known publicly. A lot of claims had been paid out some time ago, but others were still under negotiation. “You would be surprised at the number,” he said. When it was pointed out that the library just demolished to make way for the new building had been called the Roberts Centre for 47 years without objection, he said “victims” had become agitated upon learning that the new building would continue the Roberts name, he said.
He had reviewed all court documents and police statements, O’Connor said, and had interviewed some of the former students, leaving him in no doubt as to the correctness of their claims. He rejected the proposition that the school council had acceded to the demands of a small minority over issues long past, to the detriment of most Churchie boys and the school. He denied that Harry Roberts had suffered an injustice by not being heard. As a lawyer, O’Connor was able to identify the legal rationale for removing the Roberts name: sodomy and sexual abuse had always been crimes in Queensland, and the headmaster had not reported them. Simple!
If the offences were as widespread as now seems, perhaps the long arm of the Royal Commission should extend to Queensland Anglican schools.
Irresponsibly, The Australian also went into some detail in reporting the former student’s unsubstantiated allegations about Roberts’ response to his complaints.