A recent cover-up: A church school failed to protect children from abuse

By a Broken Rites researcher (4 October 2010)

Has the Catholic Church really learned lessons about "child protection"? In an Australian criminal court on 4 October 2010, one of the church's "child protection" officers (Gerard Vincent Byrnes) was jailed for at least eight years for sexually assaulting Catholic schoolgirls. This case raises questions about the Catholic Church's "child protection" procedures and about the church's tradition of sex-abuse cover-up.

After being damaged by worldwide church sexual-abuse cover-up scandals, the Catholic Church says that it has turned over a new leaf by instituting an internal complaints process in Australia called "Towards Healing". And the Catholic Church education system has nominated a “child protection officer” in many of its Australian schools — an adult to whom children can complain about sexual or other abuse.

Gerard Vincent Byrnes (born 12 December 1948) originally began as a trainee Christian Brother. But, instead, he became a lay teacher, working in schools in Queensland and New South Wales.

He pleaded guilty in the Toowoomba District Court, Queensland, to 33 counts of indecent dealing with children under  the age of 12, 10 counts of rape (relating to digital and oral penetration) and one count of maintaining a sexual relationship with a child under 12.

The offences took place between January, 2007, and September, 2008, and involved 13 girls aged nine or 10. All were students of Byrnes at a Catholic school in the city of Toowoomba in southern Queensland (the school cannot be identified for legal reasons).


Court documents have provided the following information:

  • After originally training as a Christian Brother, Byrnes did not make his final commitment as a Brother. He spent the rest of his career as a lay teacher in various Catholic schools, ending up at a Toowoomba school, where he was nominated as the school's "child protection officer".
  • According to police, the administration of the Toowoomba school knew in 2007 about complaints of sexual abuse, allegedly committed by this "child protection officer", but the school failed to notify Queensland's state child-protection authorities.
  • The school allowed the teacher to retire gracefully in mid-2008. He left with a gift, glowing testimonials and a farewell Mass. He was re-employed at the same school as a relief teacher soon afterwards.
  • In late 2008, another family contacted the police, who arrested the teacher. He was placed in custody pending court proceedings in 2009. He had his 60th birthday while in custody in December 2008.

Some questions by Broken Rites

Now the Catholic education authorities have some explaining to do.

Why did the Toowoomba school remain silent after the first allegation? Why were other children allegedly left in danger?

Why was it left to the police — instead of the Catholic education system — to provide moral leadership in this matter?

Just how credible is the Catholic Church's system of "children protection officers" in its schools? Is this system merely cosmetic? A public relations strategy to make families feel that their children are "safe" in a church school?

The Queensland case also raises questions about the Catholic Church's Australia-wide "Towards Healing" process for sexual abuse in general. The "Towards Healing" booklet (in section 44.1 to 44.10) requires the church authorities to take positive action in relation to prevention of abuse. The church authorities have committed themselves (in section 32) to the principles expressed in the "Towards Healing" document. However, in the Queensland case, a lack of positive action within the Catholic school system has allegedly put children at risk.

Court case

The case came up for preliminary proceedings in the Toowoomba Magistrates Court in January 2009.

Byrnes had been charged with a total of 12 counts of sexual penetration (including digital and oral penetration) and 34 counts of indecent treatment of a child under 12. The charges involved 13 girls, who were all all aged nine or 10 when the alleged offences were committed in 2007 and 2008.

The magistrate remanded Byrnes in custody and adjourned the proceedings to a later date to enable case material to be assembled.

Under Queensland law, the teacher's name could not be published during the Magistrates Court proceedings (and the name of the school still cannot be published).

Schools where he worked

According to court documents, Byrnes grew up in Toowoomba (Queensland), completing his secondary schooling in 1965. At 17, he moved to Sydney to study at Mount St Mary's Teaching Training College with the Christian Brothers.

He completed the Christian Brothers’ three-year teacher-training course, graduating in 1969. He left the Christian Brothers in 1970

He then worked as a lay teacher at various Catholic schools:

  • St Pius X College (a Christian Brothers boys-only school) in Chatswood (Sydney) in 1970-76;
  • Aquinas College (then a Christian Brothers’ boys-only school) in Southport on Queensland's Gold Coast in 1977-90;
  • Our Lady’s College (co-educational) in Longreach, western Queensland (where he was deputy principal), in 1991;
  • St Joseph’s primary school in Tara, western Queensland (where he was headmaster) in 1992-93;
  • St Mary’s primary school in Charleville in western Queensland (as headmaster) in 1994-96;
  • Our Lady of Lourdes primary school in Toowoomba 1997-2000 and
  • another Toowoomba Catholic primary school in 2001-2008. During the court proceedings, the court suppressed the name of this school.

How the case began

The police brief stated that in the third term of 2007, a nine-year-old girl told her parents that Byrnes had been touching her indecently. The school administration was then told. Soon after the complaint, the parents removed their daughter from the school.

The family are understood to have been assured that action would be taken. But it appears that nothing was done.

There is no evidence that the school or the Catholic diocese called outside authorities over the girl's complaint to the school administration.

Outraged parents suspect a continuation of the cover-up mentality of church institutions from decades ago, despite laws dictating the mandatory reporting of any suspicions of abuse at schools to the police. The children allegedly paid for it with their innocence.

The police brief states that, during the next year (2008), Byrnes allegedly touched a number of other girls. This allegedly happened when they were each called to Byrnes's desk, situated at the front of the classroom. Some of the offences allegedly occurred in full view of other pupils.

Police learned of the abuse only after another girl went directly to police with her allegations of abuse, 14 months after the first girl made her complaint to the school.

Catholic spokesman's story

The Catholic Education Office for the Toowoomba diocese confirmed to a newspaper that there had been a meeting between the school's principal and the parents of the first girl in September 2007.

The Education Office spokesman said privacy laws prevented him from detailing the discussions. The office declined to reveal what was done, confirming only that police were not told.

A graceful departure

After the complaint, Byrnes remained at the school.

He finished the 2007 year and then suddenly retired in the middle of 2008, leaving with a gift, glowing testimonials and a farewell Mass.

Byrnes had taught at the school for eight years before his retirement.

The reason for his departure, he later explained, was that he could not bear to defend himself against a separate allegation of verbal intimidation by the parent of a student.

Weeks later, he was re-hired as a relief teacher, taking Year Four and Year Five classes until his arrest on November 14, 2008.

Police told the Toowoomba Magistrates Court during the initial proceedings that if he had not been arrested, Byrnes could have continued working at the school.

The arrest followed the complaint made to police by the second girl, 10, of her abuse, and that of several of her friends.

It is understood she made the complaint after a Queensland Government sex education unit had visited the school.

Byrnes was immediately interviewed by police. Police then interviewed a number of girls from the same school, resulting in the multiple charges in court. Police expect that they might be contacted by other families in future as Byrnes' name is now publicly known.

Police said in a statement, tendered to the Queensland Supreme Court in December 2008 to oppose Byrnes' unsuccessful bid for bail: "It is unknown how many other complainant children there are in the community as the defendant has had a long ... teaching career."

Some parents have voiced their concern that the diocese has not been open enough with the school community about the arrest to encourage other possible victims to come forward. The Catholic Education Office said three small group meetings with parents were held, and that they were alerted by way of an insert in the school newsletter.

The office spokesman conceded there was no specific mention of the arrest of the teacher for the offences in the newsletter.

Sentenced, October 2010

At the sentencing on 4 October 2010, Gerard Vincent Byrnes was jailed for a maximum of ten years.

Under Queensland law, a 10-year sentence carries with it an automatic serious violent offence declaration, meaning Byrnes must serve eight years before he is eligible for parole.

By October 2010, he had already served nearly two years in pre-sentence custody, meaning that Gerard Vincent Byrnes could be released in 2016.