A Catholic order made the “unthinkable” decision to appoint a known child abuser as the principal of one of its Melbourne schools, allowing him to molest boys in his office unchecked on a “regular basis”, a court has heard.
The Marist Brothers are being sued over the abuse of a series of boys at the Immaculate Heart College in Preston in the 1980s by Gregory Vincent Coffey, the school’s first lay principal and a former Catholic brother.
The Marist Brothers are defending the case, disputing the extent of the order’s knowledge about Coffey prior to his appointment.
On Friday the Victorian supreme court heard shocking allegations about the extent of the order’s knowledge of Coffey’s abuse of children before employing him, first as a teacher in the early 1970s and then as principal in 1980.
Coffey, now dead, began working as a lay teacher at Immaculate Heart in 1972, arriving just weeks after pleading guilty to abusing a boy as a Catholic brother with the Salesians at a school in Port Pirie, South Australia, which resulted in a conviction and a two-year suspended prison sentence.
The highest ranks of the Salesians knew of his conviction, the court heard, with the acting head of the order giving evidence in criminal proceedings on Coffey’s behalf, while the order also knew of other complaints about his abuse of boys at Rupertswood, another Salesian school in Sunbury, Victoria.
The Marist Brothers also knew “enough about him to know he was a risk around young children” when they first employed Coffey as a teacher in 1972, the court heard. Before being sentenced in 1972, Coffey himself told a psychiatrist that the Marist order “knew about” the Port Pirie abuse when it employed him.
“There is no evidence about [the Marist Brothers] doing anything whatsoever in relation to that,” David Campbell SC, acting on behalf of two abused boys, told the court.
Eight years later, the Marist Brothers promoted Coffey to principal.
“To elevate him [to] status of principal later on … was just something that was unthinkable,” Campbell said. “Because then he was the supervisor, not the supervised.”
One of the Catholic brothers who provided a “glowing reference” supporting Coffey’s application for school principal had directly received complaints from boys abused by him, the court heard. The reference was “no doubt instrumental” in him getting the job, the court heard.
Once in the office, Coffey used his authority to facilitate his abuse of children without scrutiny, the court was told.
He constructed an extra door to his office, allowing the children he brought in to leave unseen without having to pass an administrative office.
“Many of them have given accounts of being distressed, crying, when they left that office, so that this device meant no-one was able to assess the fact that there were distressed children leaving his office on a regular basis.”
“Of course, that is a circumstance that could have come about by someone who was put in a position of absolute authority.”
The trial involves two plaintiffs, both represented by Ken Cush and Associates, who were abused by Coffey as boys.
The court on Friday heard harrowing evidence about the abuse of one of the plaintiffs who was repeatedly called into the principal’s office as a prepubescent boy.
On the first occasion, he was asked explicit questions and beaten with a metal ruler when he could not provide answers. On the second, he was made to expose himself to Coffey while crying in distress.
Coffey allegedly said to him: “Wipe your eyes and go back to class.”
The abuse continued over multiple years until the boy, unable to bear any more, refused.
“He said, ‘No, I’m not dropping my pants’,” Campbell told the court. “Coffey then says, ‘Well, if you don’t do what I tell you, you’re going to be expelled and you’ll get in big trouble from your parents’.”
“So the plaintiff reacted … it’s a shame he missed, but he threw a tape dispenser at him and told him in no uncertain terms – his words not mine – ‘fuck off’.”
The court heard the abuse devastated the boy’s life. He “went off the rails” and began using drugs and alcohol, getting into fights and struggling at school. The abuse fractured his life with his family, the court heard, and he soon moved away and took up long-haul truck driving so he could be alone.
The court heard his mother often asked: “What did I ever do so wrong as to lose my happy boy?”
The trial continues before justice Jacinta Forbes.