The Marist Brothers recycled an offender to a new position of trust

  • By a Broken Rites researcher

The Catholic order of Marist Brothers kept a Brother — John Desmond Dyson) — as a member after he was convicted of indecently assaulting boys in a Catholic school. The Marist Brothers continued to list Brother John Dyson as being involved in "the education and welfare of school-aged children".

Brother John Dyson was a teacher at Red Bend Catholic College (in Forbes, New South Wales) in 1974-8, at Assumption College (in Kilmore, Victoria) in 1979-83 and at Newman College (in Perth, Western Australia) in 1984-8, and was principal of the "Our Lady of the Sacred Heart" Catholic High School (in Alice Springs, Northern Territory) from 1988 until police interviewed him in August 1996.

In Seymour Magistrates Court in central Victoria on 15 May 1997, Marist Brother John Desmond Dyson (then aged 47) pleaded guilty to charges of having indecently assaulted three boys, aged 12 to 14, in the 1980s. In this case, the crime of "indecent assault of a child" refers to an adult invasively interfering with a child's genitals.

These victims were boarders at the Assumption College boarding school in Kilmore, central Victoria, where Dyson was a teacher. These three boys were not necessarily Dyson's only victims — they were merely the three who happened to be interviewed by the Victoria Police.

In their police statements, these three victims said they were abused by Dyson on numerous occasions, and not just at the school. And not just in Victoria — one of the three boys was abused when he later visited Dyson in Western Australia, and one of the others was abused when he visited Dyson in the Northern Territory. However, in connection with Dyson's guilty plea, the prosecution reduced the numerous incidents to only four charges in court (two assaults on one victim and one assault on each of the other two victims). These charged incidents occurred within the Victorian jurisdiction.

The court was told that Dyson was a dormitory master at Assumption College. He would prowl around the dormitory during the night. While boys were asleep, Dyson would invade his victim's bed in the middle of the night, pull down the boy's pyjamas and indecently assault the boy's penis by hand.

In written statements, tabled in court, the three victims made it clear that Dyson's assaults were for his own sexual gratification. The three victims said they did not welcome the assaults and did not regard Dyson as having done the boys a favour.

Dyson (born 21 March 1950) was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, to be served as an intensive-correction order in community work.

New role

The Marist provincial-superior said in a court document that the Marist administration intended to keep Dyson as a Marist Brother and he would be re-skilled for a new role. Dyson's lawyer told the court that, at the time of the court case, Dyson was already training in the clinical pastoral education program at Melbourne's Mercy Hospital and would become a pastoral worker in hospitals.

[Being a pastoral worker is a position of trust, which the church's 1996 "Towards Healing" document says offenders will NOT be appointed to. And judging by the Catholic Church's past performance, hospital patients would not be warned that Dyson is a convicted sex offender who has breached his duty of care.]

Six years later

In 2003, six years after his conviction for child-sex crimes, the Marist Brothers were still listing Dyson as "Brother John Dyson".

A Marist Brothers document, dated 9 January 2003 (entitled "Submission to National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from Marist Brothers' Province Centre"), was signed by "Brother John Dyson" and six other Marist Brothers. Paradoxically, the document says: "As an institution involved with the education and welfare of school-aged children, our many years of collective experience tell us that for children to thrive they need to be and feel safe, secure and loved."

A former victim of Marists Brothers (in Sydney), who found this 2003 document on the internet, commented to Broken Rites: "Isn't it somewhat late for 'Marist Brother' John Dyson to become concerned about the welfare of school-aged children and making children feel 'safe'? What does this do for the credibility of Marist Brothers?"

A 'celibate' offender

The court was told that Dyson refused at first to co-operate with police. When asked about his sexuality, he said he was "celibate religious".

On 25 May 1997, two months before the Dyson court hearing, a relative of one of the victims notified Broken Rites that the case was coming up and sought our help in preventing the customary church cover-up. A researcher from Broken Rites accompanied the victims to the court and took notes during the proceedings.

The three victims were not required to give evidence in court but their typed police statements were tabled. The court was told that the three boys were from difficult family backgrounds, without fathers. Dyson befriended the boys' relatives, and the relatives trusted Dyson because of his status as a Marist Brother.

Two victims in the dormitory

Two of the victims ("Ron" and "Ernie") were siblings. They were born when their father was old, and their father had died when they were very young. In the early 1980s when they were in their early teens, their mother was dying of cancer. The brothers had a sister ("Mary") who was 20 years older than the two boys and she became the boys' guardian. During their mother's final days, Mary arranged for the boys to go to Assumption College as boarders. Mary presumed that a Catholic boarding school would be a safe environment for young boys.

The victims' statements gave a new slant to Brother Dyson's description of himself as "celibate religious". Ron and Ernie described how they were each indecently assaulted by Dyson in their bed during the night on as many as three occasions per week throughout 1983 — that is, countless times, but the prosecution charged Dyson with one representative incident per victim.

The prosecution said that in 1984, while Dyson was teaching in Perth, he visited the home of Ernie's sister "Mary" in Melbourne, where he again indecently assaulted Ernie's genitals during the night.

In 1987 or 1988, Mary arranged for Ernie to visit Dyson in Perth, Western Australia, for a week. Mary did not know that Dyson had been abusing her brother, and Ernie was unable to tell her and unable to refuse to make the trip. The prosecutor told the court that Dyson indecently assaulted Ernie's genitals in Perth on three occasions.

Third victim was abused at home

The third victim ("Matthew"), who was also a boarder at Assumption College, said Dyson had taught older members of Matthew's family and had known Matthew since the boy was three. When Matthew was about three, his father left the marriage. So, with the father gone, Dyson was a trusted father figure to Matthew, becoming a frequent visitor to the family's home in Melbourne. Dyson eventually broke this trust.

In 1987, when Matthew was 12, Dyson (on holidays from Perth) visited Matthew's family in Melbourne. The prosecution said Dyson would go to Matthew's bedroom at bedtime and manipulate Matthew's genitals.

Assaults in Northern Territory

Although the Victorian court case was confined to the Victorian offences, Matthew's police statement (submitted in court) told how in 1989 his family sent him to visit Dyson in Alice Springs. There, Matthew stayed with Dyson in a church house in which other Catholic Brothers or priests were also living.

Matthew stated that on two occasions in Alice Springs, Dyson entered Matthew's bedroom during the night and indecently assaulted the boy's penis by hand.

Matthew said in his police statement: "At no time did I give John any permission to touch me on the penis. I felt betrayed by John. I trusted him. He was like a father figure to me, yet he abused my trust."

Silence in the church

Because of Dyson's status in the church, the three victims were all intimidated into remaining silent about the abuse. Even the two brothers, Ron and Ernie, never discussed it with each other, although each suspected that the other had been abused.

Originally, Matthew did not tell his mother about Dyson because he thought his mother would blame herself for not protecting her son, and Matthew did not want to upset his mother. But about 1993, when he was 18, Matthew learned that Dyson was about to make an overnight visit to Matthew's Melbourne home. Angry by now, Matthew told his stepfather, and later his mother, about Dyson's abuse.

Matthew's mother reported Dyson to the vicar-general of the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese, Monsignor Gerald Cudmore, who was a friend of Matthew's family, but Gerry Cudmore discreetly covered up the crime. Thus, Dyson remained as a school principal in Alice Springs for three more years.

Early in 1996, Ernie was at a police station on a business matter and, while there, inquired about making sexual assault complaints. The police station referred him to the police Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (SOCA) Unit. Ernie then spoke to his brother about Dyson's abuse for the first time. The two brothers' wives were present during this conversation and heard about the abuse for the first time.

Ernie and Ron then made signed statements at the SOCA unit. Detectives began making inquiries among former Assumption College students and they soon located Matthew. These three victims believe that there were many more victims.

In August 1996, Victorian senior detective Peter Colliver went to Alice Springs to interview Dyson. At first, Dyson said "no comment". Dyson returned to Melbourne, where he lived at the Marist Brothers' monastery in Templestowe, awaiting his court appearance.

The defence

The Marist Brothers engaged a Queen's Counsel (senior barrister) to represent Dyson in court. The barrister told the court that the defence accepted the facts of the prosecution's case.

The barrister then outlined Dyson's background. He said Dyson came from a strict Catholic family, the eldest of eleven children. He was an altar boy to the age of 17.

His schooling included four years (Year 7 to Year 10) at a Marist Brothers school (then called St John's Marist Brothers School) at 571 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, Melbourne [the Marist Brothers later left this school and the premises became St Joseph's parish primary school].

At school, the barrister said, Dyson did not have close friendships with fellow students and preferred to mix with the Brothers.

The barrister said Dyson then went to St Leo's College (Christian Brothers) in Box Hill, Melbourne, but failed Year 11. He repeated Year 11 and then left school without doing Year 12. He became apprenticed in a trade. He was in the Scout movement and became employed in the Scout shop in Melbourne until late 1968. He then inquired about becoming a Marist Brother and entered a Marist Brothers juniorate (a senior secondary class for boys "aspiring" to become Brothers) to do Year 12 studies, then went to a Marist novitiate (a religious training college) at Macedon (Victoria) before beginning teaching at a Catholic school in Warragul in Victoria in 1972 (now called Marist-Sion College).

After completing a teacher's certificate in 1973, he taught at Red Bend Catholic College (a Marist Brothers boarding school) in Forbes, western New South Wales from 1974 to 1978.

In 1979, he joined Assumption College in Kilmore, Victoria, where he became the co-ordinator of Years 7 and 8.

The barrister said Dyson was "sexually ignorant". He said that, at Assumption College, Dyson worked long hours, including being in charge of a dormitory at night. Dyson resorted to alcohol and became a heavy drinker.

In 1984 he was transferred to the Marist Brothers' Newman College, Perth, Western Australia, where he taught Years 8 and 9 and was the religious education co-ordinator. In 1987-88 he studied in Western Australia for a postgraduate qualification in education.

In 1988 he was appointed as principal of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School (OLSH) in Alice Springs (Northern Territory), where he remained until the Victoria Police contacted him on 15 August 1996. After the police interview (the barrister said) Dyson returned to Melbourne and began living at the Marist Brothers community house in Templestowe, Melbourne.

Character references

The Marist Brothers arranged for a group of Northern Territory church people to fly to Victoria to support Dyson at the court hearing. [At the time of the court case, the Marists had spent nothing to support the victims.]

The Marist Brothers also engaged a Melbourne legal firm to prepare a thick volume of character references and other documentary material for the court, seeking leniency for Dyson.

The Marist Brothers' barrister told the court that this volume included character references from:

  • Bishop Edward Collins (Ted Collins), of Darwin (Collins's diocese includes Alice Springs).
  • The vicar-general of the Perth archdiocese (relating to Dyson's time at Perth's Newman College).
  • Marist Brother Paul Gilchrist, who succeeded Dyson as the principal of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School. Brother Paul Gilchrist later became the head of the Marist Brothers' southern province in Australia. The Alice Springs school is within the southern province.
  • Several Catholic education administrators.

The defence lawyer handed up this volume to the magistrate. Magistrate John Murphy remarked that the defence should also have given a copy of this volume to the victims.

The Marist Brothers in Australia are divided into two provinces — a northern one (with headquarters in Sydney, operating schools in New South Wales and Queensland) and a southern (one with heaquarters in Melbourne, operating schools in Victoria, plus the school in Forbes in New South Wales and the Alice Springs school in the Northern Territory). Dyson belongs to the southern province.

Statements about the assaults

Some months before the court case, the three victims had made written, sworn police statements, describing Dyson's assaults in detail. The prosecution tabled these statements in court as evidence of the crime.

One victim, "Ron", ended his police statement with this comment: "I resent Brother John for doing what he did. The position that he held, being our dorm master, meant that I had to ask his permission for everything. I felt that I was in a position that I could not risk upsetting him, due to the role that he had in our lives as boarders. I felt that, because [my brother] and I had no parents, we both had to be disciplined and could not cause trouble, because we may have got kicked out of school..."

Impact statement by Ron

Before an Australian court passes sentence on an offender, the victims are entitled to submit an additional written statement — called an impact statement — showing the court how the crime affected the victims' lives.

The three Dyson victims each wrote about how Dyson's breach of trust had caused hurt and suffering.

"Ron" told the magistrate in his impact statement: "Being a young teenager, having lost my father and unable to be looked after by my dying, frail mother, it was devastating for me to understand and accept the fact that my brother and I had to go to boarding school at Assumption College, away from our mother.

"Leading up to starting at Assumption, my brother and I were extremely emotional, often crying and pleading to our mother to let us stay at home with her. Little did we understand that she only had months to live.

"Upon our first visit to inspect the facilities available at Assumption, we were shown around the school grounds and we were told how great the facilities and care would be.

"Mum and my guardian sister ["Mary"] only wanted the best education and upbringing for my brother and I.

"I am still deeply upset at the abuse and the feeling of helplessness we endured by the actions of Brother John Dyson.

"The abuse started early in the year and it continued until we left at the end of that year. It was living hell waiting in fear every night for the monster to attack his prey. After he had been, I would pray, crying to my parents in heaven to please come back and take us home, away from this play of hell.

"I know my schooling suffered severely as a result of poor concentration and tiredness cause by the abuse and constantly lying awake in fear of the monster.

"I knew at the time of my abuse that my brother was also being abused by Brother John Dyson. It may seem strange to you that I never discussed what was happening with my brother or anybody else at the time but I felt, and still do, disgusted and ashamed.

"Because of these feelings, I have kept the secret to myself, not even being able to tell the person closest to my heart, my wife. Unfortunately, she found out from my brother and not myself. Fortunately, she has been very understanding and supportive.

"On the surface, I tried to believe that it hadn't affected me to date but deep down I now realise it has. Not just the physical abuse but more importantly the emotional damage that it caused me.

"My wish today is to convince the appropriate authorities that Brother John Dyson is a sick and dangerous man and should not be placed in a position ever again to repeat this abuse on any more vulnerable youths, destroying more lives."

Impact statement by Ernie

Ron's brother "Ernie", in his impact statement, told the magistrate:

"My life has certainly suffered through the crimes committed on me at such an important and vulnerable stage of my life, especially when I was trying to overcome the trauma of losing my parents at an early age and having to grow up at Assumption College boarding school.

"I hold no respect for the religious order and it still haunts me to hear how the religious sector can hide and transfer these pedophiles to another school and cover up all that has happened without any justice taking place.

"My wish is that, with the authority you (the magistrate) hold, these pediophiles (particularly within the religious order) be brought to justice and removed completely from a system that involves minors. These crimes should not be allowed to be covered up and the sexual offenders moved to other schools within their organisation."

Media coverage

Until the Seymour Court case on 15 May 1997, the police charges against Dyson were not known to the public or to parents in the various schools where he worked. In the past, in cases such as this, the church had too often managed to cover up the case and therefore parents (in the various schools or parishes where the offender had worked) were not informed that their children might have been at risk.

However, the Dyson victims were determined that, this time, they would prevent any cover-up. Media newspaper newsrooms were notified that the Dyson case was coming up in the Seymour Magisrates Court.

Outside the court, when the court opened on the morning of 15 May 1997, was an ABC Television camera crew.

Inside the courtroom, there was a reporter from the Melbourne Herald Sun.

When the Marist Brothers and their barrister arrived at the court to support Dyson, it was clear that the public was going to learn about the case.

During the hearing, the Marist Brothers' barrister commented on the presence of media representatives at the court. Requesting a lenient sentence for Dyson, the barrister told the court that the media's reporting of the case would be a hardship for Dyson.

The court hearing was relatively brief, because of Dyson's guilty plea.

The television camera crew was from the ABC's "Seven-Thirty Report". Inside the nearby police station, the ABC crew (with reporter Alison Caldwell) recorded interviews with the victims and with Matthew's mother. The interviews (with faces obscured and no names given) were shown nationally (including in Alice Springs) on that evening's "Seven-Thirty Report". Thus, the parents of Dyson's previous schools around Australia (including in the Northern Territory) learned about Dyson's conviction.

A report appeared next day in the Melbourne Herald Sun and also in the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

Reports were also published in local media in areas where Dyson had taught — newspapers in the Kilmore-Seymour area, Forbes NSW and the Northern Territory; plus ABC radio news around Forbes NSW. The story made front page news in the Forbes Advocate on 17 May 1997, in the Northern Territory News (daily) on 17 1997, the Darwin Sunday Territorian on May 18, the Alice Springs Advocate on May 20 and the Alice Springs News on May 21.

The Northern Territory media

A Marist Brothers representative, Brother Des Howard, claimed in a public statement (after the conviction) that Dyson had stopped offending against children before going to Alice Springs and that none of his offences occurred in the Northern Territory. However, the Sunday Territorian on 18 May 1997 pointed out (in a page-one article) that one of Dyson's Victorian victims (meaning "Matthew") was abused in Alice Springs while visiting Dyson there.

The Northern Territory News raised the question of the Marist Brother's duty of care towards their Northern Territory pupils. The newspaper reported on Saturday 18 May 1997:

  • "The Northern Territory school where Dyson worked after he molested the three boys said yesterday it would not be looking for Territory victims.

    "Principal Brother Paul Gilchrist said he did not expect more victims to come forward.

    "He said: 'My understanding is that there were no offences committed in the Northern Territory. If there were, I have no doubt they would have surfaced by now. It's not fair for us to be actively seeking out whether others from the Territory were involved'."

The Northern Territory News referred to a "veil of secrecy" surrounding the Dyson case. The newspaper said:

  • "Brother Gilchrist also told how the veil of secrecy surrounding the charges was lifted only on Thursday [15 May 1997] when Dyson entered Seymour Magistrates Court in Victoria.

    "Before leaving Alice Springs for the court hearing this week, Brother Gilchrist had drafted a letter telling parents of the charges... It was kept sealed by school staff until a phone call from the new principal [Brother Gilchrist] just after noon on Thursday."

Brother Gilchrist's comments were recalled a day later in the Sunday Territorian. Quoting Bishop Ted Collins, this newspaper said:

  • "Bishop Collins sought to clarify Brother Gilchrist's comments yesterday and said the church was not trying to hide anything... He [Bishop Collins] said: "...But I don't think it is in anyone's interest to try to dig up material and muddy what is already a very emotional issue for a lot of people."

In an editorial, the Sunday Territorian criticised Bishop Ted Collins for giving a character reference to the court seeking a lenient sentence for Dyson. The editorial said: "History has shown that the Catholic Church has stuck together when one of its own has been accused of molesting children. And that has often led to more children being molested."

More comment from Alice Springs

On 21 May 1997 another newspaper, the Alice Springs News, reported that "the large Catholic community of Alice Springs is in deep shock" over Dyson's conviction. The paper said:

  • "Several parishioners, all of whom asked the Alice News to refrain from publishing their names, and some of whom say the church had lied to them by withholding available facts for several months, were outraged that the present principal of the school, and its campus head, travelled interstate last week to support Br Dyson.

    "Several in the Catholic community suggested instead that the two should have been offering counselling to the student victims...

    "Many in the Catholic community here were surprised at the sudden departure of the high school principal, but were told that Br Dyson had gone on 'stress leave'. It was only on Thursday last week when Br Dyson pleaded guilty in Seymour Magistrates Court to four charges of indecently assaulting three boys, that parents and others in Alice Springs learned the news from television reports that evening...

    "Br Paul Gilchrist, present principal of OLSH, Alice Springs flew to Victoria ... and a written reference was also presented from Bishop Ted Collins, in Darwin...

    "To say the Alice Catholic community is in shock over these revelations and the way in which they've been handled would be an understatement. The Alice News has spoken to a number of prominent Catholics in town and their reactions have all been very similar. An Alice businessman whose son attended OLSH said he was 'shocked and appalled. I would not like to think that the church hides such things.
    'It's rotten stuff, and as Catholics we all feel very embarrassed about it.
    'None of us knew anything about it beforehand, but it did seem strange to me at the time when he (Dyson) left town so quickly'."