Christian Brother John F. Coswello in court in 2009-2010

Christian Brother John Francis Coswello, then aged 70, appeared in Melbourne County Court in May 2009, charged with multiple sexual offences, allegedly committed against two boys at St Vincent's boys' orphanage, 237 Cecil Street, South Melbourne. The alleged incidents occurred in the 1970s when Coswello was aged in his thirties. When he appeared in court (then aged 70), he had been a member of the Victoria-Tasmania province of the Christian Brothers for about 50 years.

The court was told that Brother Coswello lived or worked at St Vincent's throughout the 1970s and his duties included being in charge of a dormitory at night.

At the beginning of the court proceedings, the church lawyers asked Judge Ross Howie to allow Coswello to have a separate trial (with a separate jury) for each of the two alleged victims, instead of one jury dealing with both victims in one trial. Under this court procedure (which is sometimes, but not always, used in cases in which there is more than one alleged victim) each jury would not be allowed to know that there is a second alleged victim.

Any defence lawyer has the right to apply for separate juries. Any judge has the discretion of granting or refusing the application, depending on the circumstances of the case.

After considering the submissions, Judge Ross Howie granted the separate juries.

The two trials resulted thus:

  1. The first alleged victim was "Keith", which is not his real name. The first jury decided that there was not enough evidence to convict Coswello on the charges relating to "Keith" (aged seven at the time of the first alleged incident). The jury returned a verdict of not guilty regarding the Keith charges.
  2. The second alleged victim was "Edward", which is not his real name. The second jury found Coswello guilty on several charges relating to "Edward" who was aged twelve. Judge Howie sentenced Coswello to jail. Later in 2009, the Victorian Court of Appeal set aside this conviction and granted Coswello a re-trial.

The first jury

As usual, a relatively large pool of potential jurors was available for the first trial and the court began selecting 12 jurors. As the name and occupation of each potential juror is announced to the court, a defence lawyer has a right to object to several of the potential jurors. Coswello's first jury ended up comprising nine males and three females,

The court was told that the alleged victim in this trial ("Keith") was born in August 1963. In 1971, after living in an orphanage at Sebastapol (in Ballarat, Victoria), he was taken to St Vincent's Boys' Home, South Melbourne, in 1971, aged seven.

After the hearing of evidence, Judge Howie told the jury that it had to decide on three incidents of indecent assault (that is, indecent touching) which Brother Coswello allegedly committed against "Keith":

  1. The judge said that, when seven-year-old Keith arrived at St Vincent's, he needed to go to a toilet. The prosecution had alleged that, while helping to undo the boy's pants, Brother Cossello rubbed the boy's penis.
  2. The judge stated that in the early 1970s Keith was trying on a pair of trousers in a store-room at St Vincent's. The judge said that, according to the alleged victim, Brother Coswello insisted that the boy remove his underpants, although the boy believed that this was unnecessary. The prosecution alleged that Brother Coswello then handled the boy's body indecently.
  3. The prosecution alleged a third incident, on another occasion, in the same store-room when Brother Coswello touched the boy's body indecently after strapping him on the bottom.

The defence questioned whether the offender was really Coswello or someone else.

The jury decided that there was insufficient evidence and returned a Not Guilty verdict on all counts regarding Keith.

The first jury was then discharged, not realising that there was a second alleged victim, with a separate jury.

The second jury

The court then selected 12 new jurors for the second trial. The church's defence lawyer vetoed several women, including a psychologist and a school teacher. When finally selected, the jury comprised eight men and four women. This jury was told that this trial involved one alleged victim (the jury did not know about the previous trial or the other alleged victim).

The second alleged victim ("Edward") was born in August 1961. By age 5, he was abandoned by his alcoholic parents and became a ward of the state. He was placed in an orphanage — St Aidan's at Bendigo, in central Victoria. In December 1969, aged 8, he was transferred to St Vincent's Boys Home, South Melbourne, where he spent the next seven years, to 1976. He progressed through several dormitories there, one for the youngest boys, then one for slightly-older boys and so on.

"Edward" was not under the care of Brother Coswello but, at the age of 11, the boy attended Scouts meetings which were held in a hall, located directly below Brother Coswello's dormitory. On the occasion of the first charged offence, Coswello allegedly asked the boy to stay behind after the Scouts meeting and Coswello then allegedly engaged in sexual activity.

Similar incidents allegedly happened on subsequent occasions at night during 1972 and 1973, the court was told. Edward turned 12 in August 1973.

"Edward" complained to the head Brother at St Vincent's about Coswello's behaviour but was told that he was lying and was strapped for it, the court was told.

The jury was shown a video taken of the St Vincent's Boys' Home, including the alleyway leading to the scout hall.

Guilty verdict

On 15 May 2009 the jury returned a verdict of GUILTY on two counts of indecent assault and three counts of gross indecency regarding Edward.

After the jury's verdict, Judge Howie ordered that Coswello be held in custody in a remand prison until the sentencing day.

Coswello's background

After this "guilty" verdict in the second trial (unlike after the "not guilty" verdict in the first trial), the judge needed to conduct a pre-sentence hearing to hear submissions from the prosecution and (chiefly) the defence about what sort of penalty should be imposed in the sentence.

On 22 June 2009, Coswello was fetched from the remand prison to attend a pre-sentence hearing. Broken Rites was present in court.

The court was given some background information about Coswello's career. Born on 10 January 1939, Coswello grew up in the St Alipius parish in Ballarat East, in central Victoria, where his father Kevin was employed in the railways.

John Coswello was educated at Catholic primary schools in Ballarat and then did the first two years of his secondary education at St Patrick's Christian Brothers College in Ballarat.

The court was told that, at St Patrick's College, the Christian Brothers were always on the lookout for boys who might become Brothers. Coswello was selected in this way. Thus, at age 14, Coswello was transferred away from home to a Christian Brothers training college in Melbourne, where he spent two years with other aspiring future Brothers. Next, at the age of 16, he was sent to a Christian Brothers training college in Sydney, where he completed his secondary education in the company of other aspirants. This was followed by a couple of years of spiritual training and teacher training. Thus he became Brother Coswello.

Brother Coswello spent the rest of his working life in the order, living with other Christian Brothers. Holidays would, for example, mean going to Sydney, where he would stay in a house with other Christian Brothers.

By the early 1960s, he was teaching. He taught at Catholic schools at Blackburn (in Melbourne's east) about 1964, in Launceston (Tasmania) in 1965 and at Middle Park (inner-Melbourne) in 1966-1970.

From 1969 (when he was about 30) to 1979, Coswello lived at St Vincent's Boys' Home, 237 Cecil Street, South Melbourne.

In 1980-82, he taught at St Joseph's Technical School, South Melbourne.

From 1983 to 2006, he worked at Christian Brothers College (C.B.C.), St Kilda, Melbourne, teaching social-studies subjects. He retired from teaching in 2006, and then helped to run an aged-care home for Christian Brothers in Westbury Street, St Kilda.

Coswello submitted character references to the court from: Brother Vince Duggan (leader of the Christian Brothers Oceania province); Brother Roger Cripps (a former principal under whom Coswello worked); and Father Barry Moran (parish priest of Coswello's local parish, St Kilda East).

Judge's comments about the Christian Brothers

Sentencing Coswello to jail regarding "Edward", Judge Howie said that the boy was a vulnerable child, who had no family support. He said Coswello was in a position of moral authority at the orphanage.

The judge said that the boy reported Coswello's actions to the head Brother at the home [the judge named the head Brother in court] but there was no proper inquiry. The boy was called a liar and was punished, the judge said.

The judge said the crimes raise serious questions about the culpability of the Christian Brothers Order. He said that:

  • there was no adequate supervision of what went on at St Vincent's Boys' Home;
  • there was no fair or appropriate way for a boy to complain; and
  • there was no proper system for dealing with a complaint.

Judge Howie noted that, when police interviewed Coswello regarding "Edward" on 30 January 2007, he refused to comment about the allegations. He said that Coswello (exercising the defendant's legal right) declined to give evidence in court (and therefore was not cross-examined).

Throughout, Coswello had not shown "shame, contrition or remorse", the judge said.

The judge referred to a written impact statement, which the victim had submitted to the court, showing how the breach of trust at St Vincent's had adversely affected the victim's life. The damage done to this victim is profound, the judge said.

Edward's background

Interviewed by journalists outside the court after the sentencing, "Edward", said that he received a only a patchy education while at St Vincent's, and this was a disastrous preparation for life. On leaving St Vincent's, Edward tried to cope as best he could with the adult world, but with great difficulty. He developed a drug problem and had trouble with the law.

The lack of a family was a handicap for Edward. He has two older sisters but they regard him as the "black sheep" of the family. His two sisters shunned and abandoned him, just as his parents had done. He has one other sibling — a younger brother — but has lost contact with him.

Eventually, when Edward was in his early forties, someone arranged for him to see a counsellor, who identified the alleged sexual abuse at St Vincent's as a big disruption in Edward's life. An appointment was made for Edward to have a chat with a police officer from Victoria's Sexual Offences and Child-Abuse (S.O.C.A.) unit. Detectives from the South Melbourne criminal investigation unit then made inquiries and laid charges against Brother Coswello.

The St Vincent's Boys Home building is still at 237 Cecil Street, South Melbourne (between Napier and Raglan Streets). The building is now occupied by Mackillop Family Services, a Catholic welfare agency. A statue of St Vincent de Paul still stands at the front of the building. "Edward" says that his dormitory (at the time when he encountered Coswello) is one of the upstairs rooms (at the front of the building) that can be seen from the street.

Christian Brothers' apology

The Coswello case was reported on the Catholic news website (under the heading "Christian Brother gets jail for abuse"). The Cathnews report included a statement of apology from the Christian Brothers' Australian headquaters.

Executive Officer for Professional Standards for the Christian Brothers Oceania, Br Brian Brandon said the Christian Brothers are saddened by the matter and reiterate their commitment to promoting healing and reconciliation for all hurt in any way in their schools or former institutions.

"The Christian Brothers apologise sincerely for this hurt," Br Brandon said. "We state with the utmost conviction that we repudiate absolutely all forms of abuse and seek to promote the very best outcomes for all those committed to our care."

"We fundamentally erred on occasions in the treatment of young people entrusted to us in previous generations," Br Brandon said. "Such abuse, coupled in some instances by denials and cover-ups by the congregation, compounded the pain and suffering of the victims and their families."

Appeal and acquittal

John Coswello appealed against his May 2009 conviction regarding "Edward". Later that year, the Victorian Court of Appeal set aside this conviction on grounds relating to aspects of Judge Howie's procedures during the trial.

In 2010 a new jury was selected to hear the charges charges regarding "Edward" (indecent assault and gross indecency). This jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty.


The detectives responsible for the Coswello investigation were from the South Melbourne Criminal Investigation Unit (C.I.U.). The principal investigator in the case was Detective Senior Constable Jason Crawford.