The church covered up the crimes of Brother John Laidlaw, transferring him to schools around Australia

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 1 April 2020

The leaders of the Catholic order of Christian Brothers knew that Brother John Laidlaw was committing sex crimes against boys in Catholic schools but he was allowed to continue his life-long career, teaching at various schools in four Australian states (including at Melbourne's elite St Kevin's College Toorak). In 2019, a judge jailed Brother Laidlaw for crimes committed at a number of Catholic schools in Melbourne and regional Victoria.

Victoria Police obtained statements from six of Laidlaw's victims at several Victorian schools. These six boys were not Laidlaw's only victims; these are merely the six Victorians who exercised their right to speak to police detectives. Other victims of Laidlaw (in Victoria and elsewhere) have not yet spoken to police.

In court in 2019, Brother Laidlaw (aged 80) pleaded guilty to sex-crimes against these six Victorians, and the court sentenced him only regarding these six.

Broken Rites research (see later in this article) has ascertained that Christian Brother John Laidlaw began teaching in 1958 in Western Australia, where he immediately began targeting boys sexually. Despite this, the Christian Brothers then transferred him to other states, thus putting more boys in danger.

During the 2019 court proceedings, the Melbourne County Court was told that, in 1973 when he was teaching in Ballarat (in western Victoria), the Christian Brothers acknowledged that Laidlaw was involved in "improper conduct" and "serious acts of indiscretion." However, the Christian Brothers allowed Laidlaw to teach at eight more of their schools (in Melbourne, regional Victoria and elsewhere) until he retired from teaching in 1993.

John Sutherland Laidlaw pleaded guilty to five charges of indecent assault and two of sexually penetrating a child over incidents in Melbourne and southwestern Victoria between 1963 and 1984.

The charges against Laidlaw were regarding schools in three Melbourne suburbs (Toorak, Bundoora and St Kilda) and at a Christian Brothers College in Warrnambool, south-western Victoria.

The boys were aged between 12 and 17 and one was sexually assaulted on his birthday.

Laidlaw targeted boys he coached for sport. He molested them after offering sports massages for injuries they received in matches and at training.

One boy was cornered in a change room, caught taking money from another student's belongings. If he was "good" and kept quiet about the touching no-one would find out about the money, Laidlaw told him.

The most serious offending (in 1984) was against a then 16-year-old who was home sick from school. Laidlaw went to check up on him, took the boy to his bedroom and forced his penis into the boy's mouth. Laidlaw warned the boy that he wouldn't be believed if he reported the abuse.

Jailed

On 18 July 2019, Judge Peter Berman jailed Laidlaw for four-and-a-half years regarding these six victims, noting that Laidlaw could die in prison.

"You are going to jail for a finite number of years. Your victims will never be free from the effects of your exploitation of them," the judge said. "Had you done recently what you did so long ago, much longer sentences would have been imposed."

Laidlaw must spend at least three years and two months behind bars before being eligible for release on parole.

The Laidlaw matter was investigated by Victoria Police detectives from the Sano Taskforce (in Spencer Street, Docklands, Melbourne).

Broken Rites research

According to Broken Rites research, Brother John Laidlaw was originally from Adelaide. He has taught at more than a dozen Christian Brothers secondary schools in Perth, Devonport (Tasmania), Adelaide, Warrnambool (Victoria) and Melbourne. His Melbourne schools included: Parade College; St Kevin's College Toorak; and CBC St Kilda. This court case was confined to some of his Victorian victims. Any complainants from other States would be investigated by the interstate police.

Broken Rites has discovered that Br John Laidlaw's sexual abuse was mentioned in 2016 in the reports of Australia's national Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. Laidlaw appears in Case Study #23 (pages 15-29 and 123-135), where he is referred to as Brother "BWX". A senior Christian Brother has confirmed to Broken Rites that "BWX" is Brother John Laidlaw. The Case Study (regarding complaints about Laidlaw's offences at St Joseph's Christian Brothers College in Warrnambool, Victoria) indicates that Laidlaw (born in 1939) began teaching for the Christian Brothers in Perth in February 1958 but there were complaints there about his sexual abuse, so he was moved to Victoria in 1960 to teach at a Catholic school in Brunswick (a Melbourne suburb). The report says that, after six months at Brunswick, Laidlaw was transferred to Devonport (Tasmania). He was at Warrnambool (Victoria) from 1964 to 1968. Later he was in other Melbourne schools.

Broken Rites has found a report on the website of the Melbourne Age newspaper (1 March 2016) which says (referring to Laidlaw):

"Within two years of his first appointment in Perth in 1958, BWX admitted ordering at least seven boys to undress in his house, where he spoke of the function of genital organs and indecently assaulted them.

"BWX worked [in Victoria] in Brunswick, St Joseph's Christian Brothers College Warrnambool (in the Diocese of Ballarat), and St Kevin's College in Toorak.

"In 1994, Brother BWX was sent to the US for treatment for child abuse incidents.

"In 2003, during an interview with Towards Healing, BWX said he was warned seven years earlier by the then principal of St Joseph's not to "go one to one with boys or touch their genitals".

"Data produced to the royal commission reveals two people have made claims of child sex abuse against Brother BWX, which occurred between 1961 and 1976.

"The first allegation refers to a claim against him when he was 22 years old, four years after professing his vows."

A school's reaction

On 4 July 2019, the lay administration of Parade College in Bundoora (a suburb in Melbourne's north-east) sent a confidential message to parents regarding the Laidlaw court case, saying that anybody with a concern about child abuse should contact the Christian Brothers administration (with two Melbourne addresses given). The Parade College message did not give the contact details of the Victoria Police child-protection detectives but Broken Rites would tell victims that these detectives in Victoria are in the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams (S.O.C.I.T.) which may be contacted via the Victoria Police headquarters.

On 17 July 2019, Parade College sent a confidential message to members of the Parade College teaching staff, urging them to keep quiet about the Laidlaw court case.

Offending in Perth in 1958

A former pupil ("Gilbert") told Broken Rites in March 2020:

"I was born in 1949. I was a pupil at Christian Brothers College in Perth in 1958 (before this school was re-named as Trinity College) and was taught by Brother Laidlaw that year in grade 5. At that time, this school was located in a three-storey building in Perth's St George's Terrace. The various Brothers had bedrooms upstairs in the same building as the classrooms. (If a school has bedrooms for Christian Brothers, near the classrooms, this is inviting disaster; no government school would have teachers sleeping in beds near the classrooms.).

"I encountered Laidlaw in his bedroom and, on another occasion, in the sacristy of the school's chapel. He committed an offence on me which, according to the state criminal laws, is labelled as "indecent touching" or "indecent assault". But, in those years, the authority of the Catholic Church was so strong, that no victim would be able to report this crime to the civil authorities.

"When Australia's national Royal Commission visited Perth (about 2016), I was going to pursue my complaint about how I was treated by Brother Laidlaw but I decided first to contact a lay official who was acting as the public relations officer or spokesperson for the Christian Brothers at that time. He got back to me quite quickly, advising me that there had been no complaints about Brother Laidlaw. Therefore I did not pursue the matter, although I was sure that there were other boys (apart from me) in Perth who had probably also had bad experiences with Laidlaw.

"Just last week [March 2020] I discovered the Broken Rites article about Brother Laidlaw who commenced teaching in Perth in 1958 but he was moved to Victoria in 1960 to become a danger to Victorian boys.

"This cover-up has been a long-time burden for me."

St Kevin's College Toorak

A former student ("Basil") from St Kevin's College Toorak has told Broken Rites:

"I was at St Kevin’s Toorak when Laidlaw was there. We all knew what he was. He was always loitering in change rooms, offering lifts. A popular boy from our year committed suicide in the mid-1990s, for no reason known to any of his peers. He was a school and representative cricketer and others from our year level have mentioned recently that Laidlaw was involved in the representative cricket program. Subsequent to the charges against Laidlaw in court, many of us are now wondering if there is a connection. We have no evidence, no rumours - just joining some dots."

Footnote

Broken Rites is continuing its research about Brother John Laidlaw and the cover-up.