The church concealed Christian Brother Neil Richards' crimes from the police but more victims now are speaking to police

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated on17 April 2020

Catholic Church authorities knew for years about Christian Brother Desmond Eric ("Neil") Richards' sexual crimes against schoolboys in New South Wales but the crimes were concealed from the police (and from the public). Eventually, Richards was transferred to Rome (away from the NSW police) but NSW detectives arrested him when he returned to Australia in 2013. Richards was jailed in Sydney in 2014 for some of his crimes. In December 2016 (aged in his mid-seventies), he was sentenced to additional time in jail after more of his victims contacted the NSW detectives. Richards pleaded guilty regarding all these victims. In October 2018, he was sentenced again to more jail time for more of his crimes. In 2020, he is facing further charges in court regarding yet another boy. Other victims of Richards have remained silent but it is still possible for them to speak to the detectives; therefore, the investigation will continue.

Brother "Neil" Richards has spent more than half a century as a Christian Brother, including as a headmaster, in Catholic schools in Sydney and regional New South Wales. According to statements made in court, Richards began teaching as a Christian Brother in 1961 and (it was stated) one of his first sex crimes was committed against a boy in 1962.

In those years, a new Christian Brother would normally adopt a new forename. Hence, Desmond Eric Richards became Brother "Neil" Richards.

Richards' offending continued, in several schools, during his teaching career, and eventually (after he retired from teaching duties) the Christian Brothers organisation transferred him to Rome to be in charge of their website for their Oceania province (that is, for Australia and the Pacific). Thus, a Catholic international website was administered by a child-abuser.

How the police investigation began in 2013

Some years ago, one of Richards' victims contacted Broken Rites, which advised him to have a private interview with a Detectives Office of the NSW Police. Later, another victim from a different school came forward. Detectives then investigated and found two more of Brother Richards' victims.

These four victims were abused between 1972 and 1982.

In 2013 the detectives learned that Richards was working at the Catholic Church headquarters in Rome. When he re-visited Australia, police arrested him in November 2013.

During early and mid-2014, Richards appeared before a magistrate in a Local Court, charged (under his birth name, Desmond Eric Richards), regarding the four victims who had spoken (separately) to the police. The court was told that, after the boys had been sexually assaulted by Brother Richards, they were regularly beaten with a strap.

The court was told that one 12-year-old boy, who had never been the subject of any punishment before the indecent assault, was later strapped on more than 60 occasions at St Patrick’s Christian Brothers College in Albury, while Richards was headmaster there in the early 1970s.

Another boy was regularly singled out for punishment and ordered to stand in the corner of the classroom, while a third was strapped once a fortnight and made to stand outside class, the court was told.

One boy, then aged 11, was assaulted while on a school camp (at Arcadia in north-west Sydney) when Richards got into bed with him.

Richards pleaded guilty to the abuse of four boys aged 11, 12 and 13 at St Patrick’s Albury and Bishop Henschke school in Wagga Wagga (both of these schools are in southern New South Wales) and at St Patrick’s Strathfield (in Sydney). In mid-2014, Richards was placed on bail pending the sentence proceedings to be held later in the year.

On 7 November 2014, Judge Peter Zahra conducted a pre-sentence procedure for Richards in the Sydney District Court. The judge was hearing submissions from the prosecutor and the defence lawyer about what kind of sentence should be imposed on Richards.

During these submissions, the court was told that the Catholic Church authorities had known for many years about Richards being an offender.The church authorities kept the matter "in-house" and it was not reported to the police. Later, the police evidently did learn about one of Richards' victims, and, as a result, in 2006 Richards pleaded guilty to a criminal charge about a previous indecent-assault offence at Gosford on the New South Wales Central Coast, but he was not sent to jail.

In his submission to Judge Zahra on 7 November 2014, Richards' defence lawyer recommended that, because of Richards' guilty plea to the 2014 charges and his remorse, he should be given a non-custodial sentence.

But Judge Zahra disagreed, stating that the need to deter others from committing such serious offences demanded a jail sentence.

"The need for deterrence and community retribution weighs very heavily in favour of full-time custody," he said.

The judge revoked bail and ordered that Richards be taken into custody.

On 27 November 2014, Judge Zahra gave Richards a jail sentence of 3 years and 3 months, with a minimum of two years behind bars before he becomes eligible to apply for parole.

Jailed again in 2016

After Richards' 2014 sentencing, Broken Rites was contacted by a former student who encountered Richards at St Edward's Christian Brothers school in Gosford, on the NSW central coast, in the late 1970s. Broken Rites told this ex-student where he could contact the appropriate unit of NSW Police detectives.

In 2015, another former student of the Gosford school contacted Broken Rites, who again explained where to contact the detectives.

Later, police charged Brother Richards regarding the Gosford offences. The case went through a Local Court, where Richards pleaded guilty on 7 April 2016 regarding two Gosford victims. A week later, the case had a brief procedure with a judge in the Sydney District Court.

Meanwhile, during 2016, police found several more Richards victims. Therefore, he appeared in court during 2016 regarding six victims.

In the Sydney District Court on 16 December 2016, Richards was sentenced to more jail time for these six additional victims. These assaults happened in various years (from the 1960s to the 1980s) and, according to the NSW criminal statutes, the offences were in various categories of seriousness. Therefore, the judge had to impose a different amount of jail time for each incident (according to the penalty that was prescribed in the NSW criminal statutes in the year when a particular incident occurred). And the judge was obliged to give a reduction to the total jail time because of the Guilty plea.

Richards was given a maximum jail sentence of six years.

It is still possible for any more of Brother Richards' victims to speak to the detectives (the investigation is continuing).

More jail time in 2018

On 17 October 2018 in Parramatta District Court, Desmond Eric Richards was sentenced to additional jail time for certain offences at St Patrick’s College Strathfield in 1986 and 1987. This abuse occurred in primary years 5 and 6. Richards would be eligible to apply for release on parole after 15 December 2021.

Further charges in court in 2020

In January 2020, while Richards was still in jail, further charges against him were filed in court, regarding offences that were allegedly committed against an eight-year-old boy in 1980 at St Edward's primary school (now called St Patrick's) in East Gosford. These new charges will be the subject of subsequent hearings.

Broken Rites research

Brother "Neil" Richards has spent more than half a century as a member of the Christian Brothers, where he was sometimes listed (in Christian Brothers documents) as "Brother D.N. Richards".

He has been located in many parts of New South Wales. For example, in the early 1980s he was the headmaster of a Christian Brothers primary school at Concord (in Sydney's inner-west).

Evidently Richards was living at Gosford in 1990, because a list of Australian Christian Brothers in 1990 mentioned "Brother D.N. Richards, Gosford" in that year.

In the 1990s, Brother Richards was associated somehow with the Broken Bay Diocese, which covers parishes in Sydney's northern suburbs and the NSW central coast. In 1997 a church website, reported the minutes of a Broken Bay Diocese committee (held at Waitara) and it said: "A folder, on internet and access, is being put together by Brother Neil Richards from the Diocesan Office."

After retiring from teaching in schools, Brother Neil Richards worked on the Christian Brothers website for their Oceania province (that is, for Australia and the Pacific). On 11 November 2014, well after Richards had been arrested, Broken Rites was still able to access a Christian Brothers worldwide website, which gave the contacts for Christian Brothers webmasters in various parts of the world. One item said: "Christian Brothers Oceania Province Centre ...Webmaster: Neil Richards cfc."

In December 2009, an announcement by the Christian Brothers stated: "A large gathering of Brothers came together today to say farewell to Neil Richards and to congratulate him on his new position on the [Christian Brothers] Congregation website in Rome."

Presumably, even though he was now located in Rome, Richards would still have been able to work on the Christian Brothers' Australian website from Rome, amongst any other duties in Rome.

Brother Desmond Eric ("Neil") Richards' new location in Rome meant that he was out of the reach of the Australian police. But the police were waiting for Desmond Eric Richards when he returned to Australia in late 2013.