In cleaning its Augean stable after a wave of sex-abuse scandals, Brisbane’s Anglican diocese has dishonoured and besmirched one of the country’s great educators, Dr. Henry “Harry” Roberts, who is no longer here to defend himself against false charges and specious assumptions
When he was charged with tax fraud a few years ago, Italy’s then-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, pleaded innocence through ignorance of the details of his companies’ affairs. But the magistrates responded with a little-known article of the criminal code: in his position he could not have NOT known what was happening. He was indicted on a double negative.
Australia has no such trap on its statute books. Yet that is what has happened in Queensland to one of the state’s – and, indeed, Australia’s – most respected educationists. The Anglican Church has made Dr. Henry Emmanuel “Harry” Roberts, headmaster of Brisbane’s Church of England Grammar School for 23 years, the scapegoat for a handful of student abuse allegations because he must have known about them. Never mind that many are fanciful, lies purveyed by boys now men hiding behind the protection of anonymity. (There is nothing to stop them ‘outing’ themselves if they wish).
This is a time when the Anglican Church in Australia is being scarified by revelations of abuse or betrayal by its bishops, priests and youth workers. As part of the cleaning of its Augean stables after a wave of scandals, the Brisbane Diocese under Archbishop Phillip Aspinall has dishonoured a man no longer here to defend himself against false charges and specious assumptions. The Church has effectively vilified Dr. Roberts as a protector of paedophiles.
A five-month investigation into how the Diocese came to order the removal of the Roberts name from a new, $23 million library only a few months after the foundation stone was laid in his honour, has revealed not only a scandalous disregard for principle and justice, but also a raft of hitherto unreported scandals. Dr. Roberts had to be discredited in haste, to carry the can for what the Church knew must inevitably surface.
Now it is happening. Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission is undertaking a secret investigation that links the school, best known as Churchie, with a notorious pervert who photographed and measured naked youths for twenty years, until he was discovered and took his own life. My enquiries have also revealed how activists influenced the Church’s decisions and fed false information to journalists who unquestioningly reported scurrilous rumours about the late headmaster, and continue to do so. It’s a sordid story, in which the School Council weighted the scales of justice in favour of a few damaged and vindictive victims and against a headmaster who set the school on the path to its present reputation and success.
In a previous article in March this year (“Dead Men Can’t Sue, More’s the Pity“), I described the removal of Roberts’ name as a cruel and panicked exercise in revisionism. I reported that the School Council decided simply, without consultation or providing evidence, that Dr. Roberts’ handling of abuse allegations in the 1960s did not match current standards. It has subsequently refused to provide the documents on which the decision was based – documents provided by the Church.
In response to a wave of protest by outraged Old Boys, Chairman Dan O’Connor told me and others that his great fear was the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse and the school being forced into a humiliating backdown. Since then he has proved impervious to reasoned appeal, further inflaming the dispute by declaring the new building will be named the Centenary Library when it is opened next year. In fact, the School Council was a puppet, acting under instructions from the Brisbane Diocese, which appointed its members and is the legal owner of the school. How the School Council’s announcement to remove Roberts’ name was arrived at is a minor scandal in itself.
I have learned that the wording was decided at a meeting at diocesan headquarters unde what can only be described as extraordinary circumstances. Chaired by the General Manager of Anglican Church Southern Queensland, Bishop Geoff Smith, those present included Mr O’Connor; Ann Gummow, Queensland manager of the legal aid group Knowmore; and a “victim” of abuse at the school. Also present was the crusading abuse journalist Amanda Gearing, there at the request of the “victim”.
This meeting hammered out the wording of the email Dan O’Connor sent to Old Boys and others on March 4. I understand that the final draft moderated some of the more forceful language requested by the victim (who can’t be named for legal reasons, but I refer to as #204). His presence was both improper and coercive. He had been the principal campaigner against the Roberts name, petitioning the Royal Commission and demanding also that the school change its uniform because he found it offensive.
Dan O’Connor, in letters to Old Boys, has asserted that the majority of all the accepted cases of sexual abuse at the school occurred during the Roberts’ headmastership. It is difficult to deal with this claim since he provides no evidence. But of the seven or eight known paedophiles in the school’s history, only three were in the Roberts period (1947-69); two of them he removed and the third’s activities were not known to anybody until 45 years later.
O’Connor also has repeatedly stressed that Dr. Roberts committed a crime in not reporting allegations of abuse to police at the time, and he has further claimed the evidence is “irrefutable.” Des Sturgess, Churchie Old Boy and former Director of Public Prosecutions in Queensland, was adamant in rejecting this claim: “No criminal offence was committed by Harry Roberts.”
It was Sturgess QC, in his 1985 report on Sexual Offences Involving Children, who recommended that mandatory reporting of abuse should be legislated for. But the Queensland government did not act until 2004.
Mr O’Connor told me the School Council assessed Roberts’ conduct in dealing with sexual abuse in the context of the 1960s. He claimed it was a gross breach of trust.
But Old Boys who are eminent lawyers are angry that Roberts was not accorded due process. As one, Tony Morris QC wrote to me:
“Questions of guilt or innocence are to be determined, not on the basis of what people may imagine to be acceptable standards of behaviour at the time of the hearing, but in accordance with rules and principles which were established at the time when the relevant conduct was committed. It is a complete perversion of due process to find a person guilty of misconduct because, 50 years after the event, opinions have changed as to what is acceptable and what is not.”
Other lawyers have pointed out that Roberts would not have acted without advice from the Church’s legal advisers, restricted by its insurers, and with regard to the risk of defamation or an action for wrongful dismissal. Police would not have acted without corroborating evidence, and since there was then no legislation protecting the identity of the complainant, no parents would have been willing to have their son’s name plastered over the pages of Truth, Brisbane’s scandal-sheet Sunday newspaper.
So, while anyone could have reported an allegation of sexual abuse to the police, and the headmaster certainly would have had the authority to do so, the practicality of the matter is that any such report would have been futile without the consent and co-operation of the boy’s parents or guardian. We know of one parent who chose not to do so.
At the time, the policy and first priority of the Church was to protect its interests. Archbishop Aspinall admitted this in 2003, when he listed his achievements as including shifting the “say nothing, admit nothing, do nothing” standard approach of lawyers/insurers to any claim against the Church. Yet thirteen years later he superintended the professional crucifixion of Dr. Roberts, who operated under precisely that standard. A cloud of lies, exaggerations and scurrilous rumours, perpetrated behind the pretext of confidentiality and privacy laws, now obscures the truth of what might have happened half a century ago. Here’s an example:
- A man who claims he was abused by a boarding master in the senior school (I give him the code #713) says that when he reported the alleged incident, the headmaster demanded, in front of the master, that he retract the claim. That when he refused, he was caned on his bare buttocks, first by the headmaster, then by the master, then by a prefect, 17 stokes in all. That he was so damaged he spent a whole term in the sick bay, and still had scars when his parents visited six months later.
There are just too many problems with this story. This was supposedly in 1967. Prefects did have limited caning rights when I was at school in the 1940s, but in 1950 under new disciplinary protocols Roberts established, caning by prefects was prohibited. David Rathie, school captain and prefect, later a senior partner in a leading Brisbane law firm, told me only a limited number of people were permitted to cane, the headmaster rarely, and caning on bare buttocks never occurred.
Rathie describes as simply untrue the claim that a prefect could have taken part in a serial caning, and unbelievable that anyone spent months in sick bay after a caning, or would have “scars” six months later. School captains, prefects, probationers and senior boys I have spoken to are adamant that no caning on bare buttocks ever took place. It would have been sensational news around the whole school. They are now furious that these scandalously unsupportable allegations are being flung about.
I found the campaign to de-name the Roberts building goes back four years, to an initial demand from the mother of an abuse victim, but it gathered pace last year in a world-wide attempt to re-write history in politically correct terms. Some eight hundred U.S. universities have been subjected to demands; Confederate flags have been removed from state capitols, schools and car licence plates; Princeton had to fight off demands from the Black Justice League to remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from one of its schools; Yale refused to remove the name of U.S. Vice-President John Calhoun (1824-32) from a residential college because of his support of slavery. But the hardest-fought has been the attempt to tear down the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford.
Instead of the tough stance taken by Princeton, Yale and in Australia, at Toowoomba Grammar, Churchie’s School Council buckled to pressures from the Archbishop, who had just experienced his own difficulties under questioning before the Royal Commission about his activities in the Church of England Boys Society.
One of the campaigners against the Roberts name, Grant Mathiesen, in January went to the extent of telephoning Toowoomba Grammar School, where Roberts was headmaster before appointment to Churchie, and demanding his name be removed from a classroom block. I have confirmed from the headmaster, Dr. Peter Hauser, that the school refused, saying that Roberts was one of the most significant headmasters in the school’s 140-year history. He terminated the phone call when Mathieson threatened to go to the newspapers.
On April 16, 1981, David Grant Mathiesen, then 26, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a Filipino woman he had lured to Australia, and on whose life he had taken out a $400,000 insurance policy, as sole beneficiary. Retired Detective Inspector Keith Smith, who solved the case, described Mathiesen to me as one of the cleverest conmen he had known.
With the Crime and Corruption inquiry now under way, the school is being dragged into one of the most bizarre and sordid cases of perversion and paedophilia in Queensland history. It is this case the Anglican Church most feared. Checking with dozens of men who were senior boys or prefects at the time, I was told nobody at Churchie heard a whisper about the alleged happenings. Yet it is now presumed that Roberts could not have not known!
In 1979, Clarence Osborne, a parliamentary shorthand writer, was discovered in the bush in a Brisbane suburb, photographing naked youths. Police found in his house a cache of some 24,000 such photos, and index cards with measurements of the boys’ genitalia. They had been collected over twenty years, he freely admitted, for what was a “research project.” Apparently, in that time, no boy had complained; criminologist and forensic psychologist Paul Wilson who wrote a book on Osborne (“The Man they called a Monster“) concluded they had been interested in exploring their developing sexuality and had not been harmed.
When police released Osborne, he committed suicide. At least two public investigations, the Fitzgerald and Kimmins, inquiries, considered whether any of the photos had been misused subsequently for the blackmailing of men in public life, but Clarence Osborne then faded into obscurity.
The CCC’s re-opening of the files has led it to investigate whether, and to what extent former Police Commissioner Frank Bischof and Inspector Terry Lewis, then in command of the Juvenile Aid Bureau had been involved in supplying boys to Osborne. The Commission also learned of allegations from former Churchie students that they had been introduced to Osborne, and photographed. Some were alleged victims of paedophiles at the school. I have to stress that these allegations have never been tested, and the motivations of those who have now brought them to light is unknown. Nor is the possible extent of these practices in other Brisbane secondary schools.
I had a lengthy conversation with a man, (Code #713) now in his sixties, who claimed to have been photographed by Osborne in houses not far from the school. He said he was now trying to get his photos back. I cannot confirm the truth of those statements. Also, I was told that other boys in the boarding school got leave to go for a haircut to a barber’s shop in the Brisbane Arcade. The barber was another paedophile/pervert who told each boy, “I have your name tattooed on my penis.” When the boy expressed disbelief, he revealed himself, showing the words, “Your name.”
These stories swirl around the person of Harry John Wippell, pharmacist and former student, who fulfilled the role of a part-time boarding master at Churchie, with a room in one of the boarding houses. He was not a teacher, and although never employed by the school, was highly popular with the boys, helping with many tasks including travel plans. He later became secretary, and then president of the Old Boys Association.
When a complaint about an alleged sexual impropriety was made to the headmaster, Roberts deprived Wippell of his room in the boarding house. But he continued to be a presence around the school, and nobody saw anything suspicious in his activities. Later headmasters have admitted that he was always “just there”. The school magazine, The Viking, recorded his continued support for the school’s camera club by donating chemicals for the darkroom until at least the mid-1970s. Which would mean across the regimes of two headmasters after Dr. Roberts.
It’s now alleged that Wippell introduced boys to Clarence Osborne and processed some of his photographs in the school darkroom. None of these stories surfaced until recently, when it was too late to question Wippell; he died of cancer in 2010. A few months earlier he had been acquitted of five charges of indecent treatment of boys in 1966-67.
I understand the offences were at the very lowest level of seriousness. One of those “victims” (Code #204), disappointed at the verdict, is alleged to have attempted to disrupt the funeral of Wippell in St John’s Cathedral.
These stories have the potential to do great damage to the school. They are disclosed here for the first time, with the disclaimer that they are unproven, because I have learned that a Brisbane crime reporter, Matthew Condon, is about to publish a series of sensational articles in the Sunday-Mail newspaper.
Condon is well known for his reporting of Queensland police corruption from the time of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. He has published three books on the subject – Three Crooked Kings, Jacks and Jokers and All Fall Down. However many of the claims in these books have been disputed by people much closer to the events and the information on which he relies.
Tony Murphy, an Honest Cop, written by his son, Michael Murphy, specifically refutes several of the most damaging Condon allegations against his father, made after his death.
The other person closely involved with the Churchie paedophilia complainants is the journalist Amanda Gearing, referred to earlier. Gearing’s articles exposing sexual abuse in the Toowoomba Preparatory School and the Anglican Church’s cover-up led finally to the downfall of the then governor-general, Archbishop Hollingworth, beginning the slow process of church reform. A person close to Gearing had been abused as a boy by a priest, Robert Sharwood, in 1974. In 1985, the Church appointed him Chaplain to Churchie, without telling the school of his background. He remained there until 2002, when Gearing persuaded the victim to denounce him. Sharwood was later sentenced to two years and nine months imprisonment, of which he served twelve months.
Amanda Gearing has campaigned on behalf of victims of abuse, at times blurring the line between journalist and activist. She provided unverified claims to Michael McKenna of The Australian for his stories, some of which I showed to be false, and for which the newspaper published an apology. She has compiled a dossier on abuse by priests, and teachers in church schools, and made submissions to the Royal Commission. She told me she now doubted that the Commission would institute a special inquiry into the Churchie complaints. That leaves the many wild claims about people now long dead both untested and unverifiable. Even more grossly unfair is that they have been hung around the neck of a respected headmaster.
“Follow the money” is often a good tip to sleuths in criminal mysteries. Big payments for victims of alleged abuses half a century ago are now certainly in prospect for people of whom little had been heard until recently. A Royal Commission report has recommended a scale of payments, from a miniumum $10,000 as a “tangible recognition” to a maximum of $200,000, but an average of $65,000.
Last year, Archbishop Aspinall was pressured to announce that tuition fees would be refunded to parents of abuse victims. But he insisted that those monies would come from the schools, not the Church. His stated attitude has been to refuse to accept liability in schools, on the grounds that students were educated in charity, not on the basis of an educational contract.
Now the Queensland Government is going to lift the statute of limitations on the time for civil claims, a campaign is beginning, to remove the restriction of deeds, under which victims forfeited their rights to future claims as a condition of accepting compensation payments. There are moves for a national Redress Fund.
When the Churchie School Council stripped the Roberts name from his library building after 47 years, it blamed him for things he did not know about, associated him with behaviours he abhorred, and condemned him for crimes he did not commit. When it said that its action did not remove Roberts from the history of the school it cynically pretended it could shred a man’s reputation, yet leave his legacy intact.
Reading the Henry Emmanuel Roberts entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography with its extensive list of his contributions to Australian education, it seems inconceivable that the Anglican Church, though its School Council would smear such a man in a cover-up of its own deficiencies. The Brisbane Diocese, and Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, owe Roberts a huge apology. The Old Boys of Churchie have already de-legitimised the School Council for its craven obedience to a clerical diktat. Dr. Aspinall must now be prepared to make amends in a tangible form to fully restore the honour and reputation of a man who was a pillar of the Church’s education system and is no longer here to answer the scurrilous charges against him.