How the church harboured Father David Rapson, putting schoolboys at risk

By a Broken Rites researcher

This Broken Rites article tells how the Catholic Church harboured Father David Edwin Rapson for two decades, thus endangering boys in Catholic schools in Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. His colleagues and superiors kept quiet about Rapson's behaviour because some of colleagues, too, were a danger to boys. If boys or parents complained about Rapson's behaviour, Rapson would be moved to another school — and he was even promoted to a more senior position. Some of his Victorian victims have succeeded in getting Rapson jailed in that State but, so far, his Tasmanian and NSW victims have not brought Rapson to justice in those two States. A significant number of Rapson's Tasmanian pupils have died prematurely.

Rapson was born on 30 July 1953 and grew up in Melbourne. As a schoolboy, he attended a school conducted by a Catholic religious order, called the Salesians of Don Bosco. Here, according to statements made in court, he was inducted into the Salesians' practice of sexually abusing boys.

In his late teens, the Salesians recruited Rapson for training to become a priest in their religious order. As he had come from a humble family background, this seemed to him to be a promising kind of career. Furthermore, he welcomed the opportunity to gain easy access to young boys.

The Salesians are an Australia-wide order which operates schools, and subsequently Rapson worked in Salesian schools in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.

The Salesian religious order was founded by "Saint" John Bosco in 1859 in Italy. Operating world-wide, the Salesians expanded to Australia in 1923. The order began developing several Australian schools for boys -  notably in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. It also developed Boys Town (a home for troubled youths) in Engadine, south of Sydney.

In Melbourne (where they have their Australian headquarters), the Salesians operated three schools:
* Salesian College "Rupertswood",  at Sunbury in Melbourne's outer north-west;
* Salesian College, Chadstone, in Mebourne's south-east; and
* St Joseph's  College, Ferntree Gully, in Melbourne's east.

In addition to these schools, the Salesians also had a residential training centre near Melbourne for their recruits into the priesthood. This centre (originally known as "Auxilium College") is in a rural setting at Lysterfield (30 kilometres south-east of Melbourne). Nowadays, with the decline in the number of priests, the Lysterfield property is known as the Salesian Retreat Centre, used for Catholic schools for "spiritual retreats". The centre has overnight accommodation for several dozen visitors. There have been complaints about students being sexually abused while visiting this Lysterfield property.

As well as studying at the Lysterfield property, trainee priests would receive on-the-job training while they visited Salesian schools around Australia. While in training, these recruits were called "Brother". After being ordained as a priest, they became "Father".

Thus, Brother David Rapson soon became Father David Rapson.

As the Salesians are a teaching order, Father Rapson spent his career working in Salesian schools.

At various times in the 1970s and 1980s, Rapson worked at the "Rupertswood" school. (This was then a  boarding school.) During that same time-span, he also left Victoria to spend periods working with the Salesians in New South Wales and Tasmania.

Rapson at BoysTown, NSW

Broken Rites research has ascertained that Brother David Rapson spent some time in 1978, working at Boys Town, Engadine, NSW. Broken Rites is doing research about Rapson's activities at Engadine.

Allegations in Tasmania

Broken Rites has ascertained that, for three years (1983-5), Rapson was on the staff of Dominic College, Glenorchy, in the northern suburbs of Hobart. This school had girls as well as boys and Rapson was a supervisor of male boarders.

A former student there later alleged that he had been sexually abused repeatedly by Rapson at the age of 14 and 15 during 1983 and 1984. This Tasmanian ex-student alleged that Rapson would go away with boys from Dominic College at weekends to a Salesian-owned beach house where he would commit molestations. This victim said the abuse (and the cover-up) damaged his later life. The Salesians eventually paid some compensation to this ex-student to keep the matter quiet.

When the Catholic Church pays compensation to a sex-abuse victim, some victims are led to believe (wrongly) that the "settlement" document is a "gag-order" to continue the cover-up. However, it is never too late for a church victim to talk to detectives from a police child-protection unit, as some of Rapson's Victorian victims have demonstrated. So far, police in Tasmania or New South Wales have not laid charges against Rapson for any incidents that allegedly occurred in those two states.

An ex-student from Dominic College has told Broken Rites that several students from Rapson's clique have had difficult adult lives, even ending in premature death.

Jailed in Victoria in 1992

In early 1986, the Salesians transferred Rapson from Hobart to Melbourne to teach at Salesian College "Rupertswood" in Sunbury, where he eventually became the vice-principal.

Rapson appeared in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 18 November 1992, charged with five incidents of indecently assaulting a 14-year-old boy at the Sunbury school. Rapson pleaded guilty.

The court was told that Father Rapson was "religious instruction" co-ordinator at the time of the offences.

The prosecutor said the offences took place during 1987 while the victim was a boarder in a dormitory that was supervised by Rapson.

The prosecutor said the offences included occasions on which Rapson offered alcohol and cigarettes to the student to get him inside Rapson's room. On each occasion, Rapson touched the boy's genitals. The priest masturbated the boy three times.

The prosecutor said Rapson had seriously breached the trust that had been placed in him. The prosecutor said that the victim had suffered greatly as a result of the sexual assaults and only revealed the abuse during counselling in early 1992. So the victim finally had a chat with detectives from the Victoria Police, whereas many other victims of Salesian clergy remain silent.

The 1992 courtroom was told that, at the time of this court case [i.e., 1992], Rapson was still a member of the Salesian religious order and was living at the Salesians' training centre for priests (Auxilium College) at Lysterfield, although he was  no longer teaching.

The court sentenced Rapson to two years' jail.

Rapson after 1992

After his 1992 conviction, Rapson still remained officially a Catholic priest, although he did not have any posting in a parish or a school. It is believed that he eventually moved to Sydney, where he lived privately.

In the years after the 1992 conviction, the Salesians became liable to be tackled by Rapson's victims, claiming civil compensation for the disruption of their lives. In March 1993, four former students at the Sunbury school commenced civil action against the Salesians, claiming that the Salesians were negligent in continuing to allow Father Rapson to teach after the Salesians were made aware of complaints about his behaviour.

Also, there was a danger that more of Rapson's victims might report his crimes to detectives in the Sexual Crimes Squad, resulting in bad publicity for the Salesians and for the image of their fee-paying schools. From the viewpoint of the Salesians, it was best if they could transform Rapson into a "former" priest. But it took the church another 12 years for the Salesians to remove Rapson's priestly status. The Vatican finally (and reluctantly) removed Father David Rapson from the priesthood in 2004.

It is in the interests of the Salesians not to alienate David Rapson unduly. The various child-abusers in the Salesians knew about each other's child-abuse offences. A former Australian head of the Salesian order, Father Ian Murdoch, has been quoted as saying that, while serving his 1992 jail sentence, Rapson made threats from the prison, saying that he has information about other Salesians who had committed crimes.

Jailed again in Victoria in 2015

  • For later developments (regarding Rapson getting a further jail sentence in Victoria in 2015), see another Broken Rites article HERE.