De La Salle Brothers provided a job-reference for a child-abuser

The Catholic religious order of De La Salle Brothers knew that Brother Robert John N***** was a danger to children but they gave him a job-reference, enabling him to continue working in Catholic schools as a lay teacher, the Sydney District Court was told

Robert John N***** was sentenced in Sydney District Court on 18 February 2002 to ten years' jail (eligible for parole on 17 February 2008) for a series of offences in Bathurst and Orange -- two cities in central-west New South Wales. To protect the privacy of his victims, the court made an order suppressing publication of his full name (which is why we are referring to him as Robert John N*****).

Robert John N***** pleaded guilty to sexually abusing eight boys and five girls, aged from two years to 11. The charged offences extended for 24 years — from 1975 through to 1999.

Robert John N***** was born 18 April 1946, the court was told. Originally from Adelaide, he became a trainee Brother in the De La Salle religious order when he was 16. Thereafter, "Brother Bob" spent much of his life in New South Wales. He taught primary classes as a De La Salle Brother at several Catholic schools including the following: at Caringbah in Sydney, where the De La Salle Brothers conducted Our Lady of Fatima School (primary) and the nearby De La Salle College Caringbah (secondary); in Queensland at De La Salle College Scarborough (now called Southern Cross Catholic College Scarborough); and at De La Salle in Orange NSW.

Of the victims mentioned in the court case, the earliest assault listed was in 1975-6 when a three-year-old wandered into a classroom while Brother Robert was a De La Salle Brother at Orange. The victim has never been identified.

By 1976, Brother Bob's child-abuse propensity had become a liability for De La Salle Brothers, and he and De La Salle parted company. Despite Brother Bob's past (and to help him to move on), De La Salle gave him a reference, which enabled him to get a job as a lay primary teacher in the Catholic school system — the Assumption School (Bathurst, a primary school) in 1978-80 and the Cathedral Primary School (Bathurst) in the early 1980s.

As a lay teacher, he was now "Mister N*****", instead of "Brother Bob". But his De La Salle backgound, together with his pious church-going, gave him status among this diocese's Catholic families.

In 1980, Mr N***** married a parishioner, "Hannah" (not her real name), whose devout Catholic mother was delighted to gain such a holy son-in-law.

As a "respectable" Catholic married man, Mr N now had easy access to children in his new social circle and he often acted as a child-minder for these families. He sexually abused these children, including digitally penetrating little girls and performing oral sex on boys.

Mr N benefited from the fact that, because of his "churchy" status, such children were reluctant to report his crimes to their Catholic parents.

Because of this secrecy and hypocrisy, Mr N's victims eventually developed behaviour problems. According to victim impact statements tabled in court, the victims tended to have one, or several, of the following problems in later childhood or as adolescents or young adults: lack of trust; a child fearing to have an overnight stay at the home of friends; low self-esteem; difficulty in forming friendships; rebelling against adult authority; alcohol abuse; depression; suicidal tendencies.

Mr N gambled that none of the victims would complain but his gamble came unstuck years later when one of the most severely damaged victims ("Angela", born 1976) finally explained to her parents in 2000 why she had gone through such an extraordinarily disastrous adolescence. Angela revealed how Mr N had sexually assaulted her in 1981-2 at the age of five or six. Angela's parents then alerted other parents who questioned their own children, resulting in more victims coming forward from this one cluster of families.

The police investigation was carried by Senior Detective Tony Adams of the NSW Child Protection Unit.

Of the 13 children in the charged offences, one was abused at a school camp. The other 12 were not Mr N's pupils but children from several families in Mr N's social circle.

Of the 13 children, four were siblings from one family. Mr N***** abused these four at the ages of 7, 6, 5 and 2 respectively. According to the victim impact statements, these siblings suffered particularly bad effects into their adolescence and early adulthood. Their mother wrote an impact statement, showing how the adverse effects had devastated the life of her family.

In November 2001, Mr N***** pleaded guilty to certain selected charges.

Under cross-examination, Mr N***** admitted that he had also abused a 10-month-old baby but this incident was not the subject of charges.

Asked about his prospects of re-offending, Mr N***** said it was "quite possible" but he hoped not to. He admitted that he "became delighted" at the sight of babies and small children.

In court, before the sentencing, Mr N***** submitted a "reference" from a very senior priest in Adelaide (where Mr N had gone back to live before the court proceedings.)

Sentencing Mr N*****, Justice Reg Blanch noted that the ongoing teaching career had provided Mr N***** with continued access to children, "which proved to be his undoing".

Parents of victims told police that, when they discovered that Mr N***** had been abusing their children, they asked the headquarters of the De La Salle order in Sydney to tell the police of any complaints that the order had received about Robert John N***** while he was a De La Salle Brother. However, the DLS administration refused to do this voluntarily, the parents alleged. The attitude of De La Salle was that they would provide this information only if forced to do so by a police search warrant, the parents alleged.

According to these parents, the DLS administration was alarmed that the truth about Mr N***** had come out and the administration was angry that the parents were demanding action. DLS was also alarmed that the story might eventually reach the media, because this would alert more victims to come forward, thereby exposing De La Salle to further legal liability.

These parents were concerned that the De La Salle order had known that Brother N***** was a danger to children, yet it still gave him a good character reference to get him a job as a lay teacher in Catholic schools.

The same parents also went to see Father Joseph Matthew Keady, who was the Director of Schools for the Bathurst Catholic Diocese (covering the central-west region of New South Wales) from 1979 to 2002, but (the parents said) Keady was mainly worried that the story might get into the media, thereby damaging the respectable image of the Catholic Church.

These parents phoned Broken Rites during the court proceedings because they were concerned that the case might be "hushed up". The parents wanted the case to be reported in the media as a warning to other parents. Broken Rites explained how to arrange media coverage.

The parents were pleased with the eventual media coverage. The sentencing was reported in the Western Advocate (Bathurst) and the Central Western Daily (Orange) on 19 February 2002 and also in the Sydney Morning Herald on the same date.

These reports, of course, did not identify the victims because (quite properly) there is always a court suppression-order on the names of sexual-assault victims. One parent told Broken Rites: "The victims' families were disappointed that, in this case, the court extended the name-suppression order to cover the offender as well. It was not we parents who requested a suppression order for the offender's name. We would have preferred to see this man [Mr N*****] publicly named — as offenders normally are.

"De La Salle and the church hierarchy, however, were pleased to see the suppression order extended to include the offender's name because this might limit the number of new victims who come forward and because it might also limit the legal liability of the De La Salle Brothers and the diocese in civil actions."

The 13 children mentioned above were not necessarily Mr N's only victims — merely the ones that the New South Wales police happened to locate in time for this prosecution. Most of the victims came from one cluster of families in one town.

It is not known how many other victims Mr N***** had before leaving the De La Salle Brothers or while working as a lay teacher.

A parent in the 2002 court case told Broken Rites: "We believe that De La Salle moved him [Brother Bob N*****] from Caringbah and Scarborough for indiscretions."

Any victims in Scarborough, Queensland, would have to be the subject of a separate prosecution in Queensland.

Co-operation from the De La Salle order would be helpful in seeing that justice is fully done. It is unfortunate if a religious order is more concerned about covering up crimes (and about preserving its trading name) than about protecting children.

One of the parents in this case told Broken Rites: "We contacted the Catholic Church's professional standards office in Sydney ("Towards Healing"), asking the church to arrange for counselling for families at the schools where Robert John N***** had taught. But we were given the brush-off."