The Christian Brothers covered up this 1989 case involving Brother Obbens but Broken Rites exposed it

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 13 October 2016

For several years, Broken Rites has been doing research about Christian Brother William John Obbens (known as Brother "Dominic" Obbens), who was convicted in court in 1989 for sexually abusing a boy (let's call him "Gus") at St Patrick’s College, Goulburn, in south-western New South Wales. The Christian Brothers covered-up the crime and the 1989 court case. They did not tell the school's students or parents about it and did not ask if any victims needed help. "Gus" (and several other victims from the same school) went on to have a damaged adult life. Gradually, each of these families contacted Broken Rites, and this article began to take shape, with occasional updates.

"Gus" (the victim in the 1989 court case) was a boarder at St Patrick’s College, Goulburn, in the late 1980s, aged in his early teens. This was then a boys-only school, conducted by the Christian Brothers until 1999, when it became Trinity College, Goulburn.

In 1988, a senior student ("Dudley") noticed that Gus was upset and asked him why. Gus told him that he had been sexually assaulted by Brother Obbens.

Dudley thought that it would be counter-productive to report the offence to the Christian Brothers because they would cover it up. So Dudley phoned Gus's father, who then came to the school, where Gus told him some (but not all) of the details. Gus's father then took the boy away from the school, forever.

Brother Obbens was transferred away from the school, with the Christian Brothers claiming that he was on sick leave. He was transferred to Sydney, where the Christian Brothers had other schools. He continued to be a Christian Brother, spending the remainder of his career in an administrative position in the Christian Brothers headquarters at Balmain in Sydney.

Gus eventually had an interview with detectives from the NSW Police. He alleged that, on a number of occasions (either in the evening or after lights-out), Brother Obbens took him to another room, where Gus was sexually abused.

The police then prosecuted Brother Obbens in a Local Court.

Not wishing to worry his parents, Gus had refrained from telling the police everything that Brother Obbens did to him. Therefore the charges made in court were reduced to a "touch-up" offence.

The court gave Brother Obbens a jail sentence but this was wholly suspended, allowing him to serve the sentence in the community on the usual conditions (e.g., maintaining good behaviour). Thus, he walked free from the court and was looked after by the Christian Brothers Order.

A former student, who was attending the Goulburn school in 1988-89, has told Broken Rites in 2014:

"When Brother Obbens was transferred from St Pat's, we students knew that this was as a result of the allegations. But the Christian Brothers did not tell us that he had received a conviction and a suspended jail sentence. It was covered up. The whole thing should have been clearly communicated to the students and parents, and boys with any complaints of abuse should have been allowed, and encouraged, to come forward."

Further allegations by "Gus"

Gus's victimisation (and the cover-up) had a bad effect on him. After his family removed him from St Patrick’s College, Gus's life deteriorated and eventually (in his twenties) his life became a "complete mess".

As Gus’s situation worsened, his parents finally learned that the sexual abuse was more than a mere "touch-up".

In 2002, desperate for help, Gus decided to complain to the Catholic Church’s Professional Standards Office in New South Wales. He eventually had an interview with a senior representative of the Christian Brothers. Gus gave the Christian Brothers a written statement, dated 5 March 2003.

This statement alleged in part:

  • "On several occasions Brother Obbens called me out of the second half of night study and took me to his bedroom, where he sexually assaulted me.

    "He would begin by cuddling me from behind, leaning up against me so that I could feel his erect penis. He proceeded to put his hand down my pants and fondle my genitals. On two occasions he removed my clothes and his own and engaged me in mutual masturbation.

    "On another occasion he woke me late at night and led me to the room in the boarding school where the mattresses and blankets were stored. Here he removed my pyjamas and his own clothes and involved me in mutual masturbation and oral sex.

    "I do not know why he began to take an interest in me. Maybe it was because I was good at sport… At shower time, he would stand near the first cubicle and stare at the genitals of the boy who happened to be showering there. He did that to me on more than one occasion.

    "I did not like what was happening and reported it to [a very senior Brother in the school’s administration] the day after Brother Obbens interfered with me in the mattress room. I did not tell [the very senior Brother] or the police who interviewed me later everything because I was embarrassed and because I did not want to make things worse for my parents who were dealing with the sexual abuse of my sister by a teacher at [another school in New South Wales]."

Apology to "Gus"

After 2003, Gus moved to various addresses around Australia, while his life continued to deteriorate. Meanwhile, his parents were still worried about the damage that had been done to Gus and the whole family. The damage was caused not only by the offences but also by the church's cover-up. In December 2007 (when Gus was in his thirties), his parents had an interview at the Sydney offices of the Christian Brothers. Those present at the meeting included:

  1. Gus's father;
  2. the mother;
  3. a very senior Christian Brother representing the order's New South Wales administration; and
  4. Brother Obbens.

At the meeting, Gus's parents demanded a written apology for the damage that had been done to their family. In early 2008, they received a hand-written letter from the Christian Brothers Oceania Support Centre (NSW, ACT and PNG) in Sydney. The writer was Brother Dominic Obbens. Broken Rites possesses a photocopy of this letter.

The letter, dated 1 February 2008, stated:

  • Dear Mr and Mrs ******,

    I refer to our meeting last year which I felt was an important one...

    I readily apologise to you for my behaviour and realize the hurt my behaviour has brought to the whole family.

    I likewise apology to [your son] and acknowledge the grave adverse consequences of my actions.

    I can assure you that I am very much aware of my responsibilities in this regard which will always weigh on me very heavily. I have fully co-operated with the police in relation to the matter and will carry a very heavy responsibility forever.

    I think all I can say is that all of you are in my thoughts and prayers and hope that our meeting in December might help a bit in allowing you to go forward.

    Kind regards,

    Brother Dominic Obbens

A second case ("Felix")

In 2008, Broken Rites learned about another former pupil of St Patrick's Goulburn (let's call him "Felix") who says he was a victim of Brother Obbens in the late 1980s. Felix says that after this abuse his personal development was disrupted.

In 1995, when he was experiencing severe personal difficulties, Felix first told his parents about the assault - 17 years after the abuse. His parents complained to the Christian Brothers headquarters in Sydney, where they were told that Brother Obbens "was convicted of assault in Goulburn Local Court in 1989 and received a suspended sentence".

By mid-2007, Felix was diagnosed with severe depression and alcoholism, and had suicidal tendencies. He was hospitalised and was admitted under the Mental Health Act. His wife finally learned what had happened to him at school and she loyally stood by Felix through this terrible time.

Felix used all his sick leave and long-service leave and by mid-2008 he was on sick leave with no pay.

Felix had a meeting with a representative of the Catholic Church's Towards Healing program, who told Felix that he was the fifth person (as of mid-2008) to make a complaint against Brother Obbens.

A third case ("Barnaby")

Another boy, born in March 1974 (let's call him "Barnaby"), said that he encountered Brother Obbens at St Patrick's College Goulburn in the 1980s, when Barnaby was aged 12-13. At school, Barnaby was a top student and a top athlete but the sexual abuse (and the church cover-up) damaged his later life. After leaving school, he did not achieve his great potential. He began studying law but didn't complete his course. In his twenties and thirties, Barnaby went downhill with the personal trauma arising from his schooldays.

In 2009 Barnaby obtained a letter of apology (signed by a very senior Brother in the Christian Brothers administration). The letter said, vaguely, that the apology is for "what happened to you" — but the letter did not name the Brother who committed the abuse.

The evasive "apology" did not repair Barnaby's damaged life. He ended up dying by suicide in 2012, aged 38, leaving a widow and two children.

Civil settlements

The Christian Brothers have continued to look after Brother Obbens. After the 1989 Goulburn court case, the Christian Brothers headquarters retained him as a member of the religious order and merely transferred him to an administrative position in the Christian Brothers head office in Sydney.

Meanwhile, two decades after the Goulburn incidents, the alleged victims were still feeling hurt. Eventually (and separately) several of them tackled the church authorities, seeking compensation for the damage done to them. Finally Gus, Felix and Barnaby (and possibly other former students) each extracted an out-of-court civil settlement from the Christian Brothers. These modest settlements, which require a victim to give up his right to sue in the Supreme Court for damages, are a cost-effective way for the church to remove its legal liability. However, the settlements are not enough to compensate the victims for their damaged lives.

Help from the police

Broken Rites recommends that any victim of church-related child-sex abuse should not report the crime to the church authorities (that is, don't "tip off" the offending organisation) but should, instead, consult a Detectives Office in the state police force.

If a victim wishes, also, to demand compensation from the church authorities, the victim should ask a solicitor to send a letter of demand to the church authorities (but the solicitor must be one who has had experience in forcing the church accountants to give the victim a proper amount of compensation). This compensation is called a civil settlement.

A victim can obtain justice through both a police prosecution and a civil-settlement solicitor, but it is wise to consult the police detectives first.

  • The above-mentioned victims were not the only victims of Brother William John Obbens. Many years later, three more of his victims finally spoke to the NSW Police detectives, and therefore Obbens was jailed on 13 October 2016 regarding these three victims. To see the 2016 court case, click HERE.