As a student at Brisbane Grammar I heard stories of abuse. Then, as now, the school put its prestige and influence above all else, writes Ben Eltham.
The email arrived, out of the blue, several months ago.
It was from the chairman of my old school, Brisbane Grammar School. The subject was “Statement from Brisbane Grammar School regarding the Royal Commission.”
The school has been caught up in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“As a valued Old Boy,” the email read, “I wish to inform you of the impending involvement of the School in one of the many Case Studies which are being conducted by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse around Australia.”
“The Royal Commission has now announced a public hearing in Brisbane from 3 November 2015, which will look at educational institutions in Queensland including our own, which relates to abuse by Kevin Lynch, our then student counsellor, in the 1970s and 1980s.”
I wasn’t surprised. When I attended the school in the early 90s, the reign of terror perpetrated by Lynch was still fresh in many memories. Though Lynch had left before I arrived, older boys who had been abused were still at the school. Rumours circulated. “Mr Lynch’s office” was a notorious phrase.
The stories were disturbing. Boys, the Commission has heard, were called to Lynch’s office and hypnotised. They would wake up with their pants around their ankles, having ejaculated. Lynch’s office was almost fortified with soundproofing.
It had happened a lot. For instance, to the best friend of my best friend’s older brother.
But, in the nature of these things, it was hushed up. “School spirit” was the watchword at Brisbane Grammar in my years there, a phrase of strange jingoism that encompassed everything from attendance at sporting events to a more diffuse belief in the ineffable privilege that a Grammar education bestowed.
At least to my knowledge, Lynch’s crimes were never spoken of officially in my time at the school – even though he’d been moved on from his job. Instead of informing the police, Brisbane Grammar let him apply for and get a job at another private school, St Paul’s School, where his abuse continued. More than 100 victims would eventually come forward.
But his abuses were widely known within the school community at the time. Boys talk, after all. On the other hand, in the prevailing atmosphere of vicious homophobia that pervaded the school, it wasn’t surprising that boys didn’t speak up. Admitting to a homosexual encounter with a schoolmaster was a terrifyingly risky proposition. It would almost certainly lead to severe bullying, perhaps a bashing in a school in which physical violence was both common and downplayed.
For the entire time that Lynch was teaching at Brisbane Grammar, the school did nothing to prevent his crimes. His chilling career only came to light after he was exposed, and committed suicide, in 1997. More trauma ensued. Unhinged by his abuse, one of Lynch’s victims, Nigel Parodi, shot three police officers in 1997.
The trail of human wreckage never seems to end. After a blogger detailed claims of his abuse at the hands of an older student at St Paul’s, Greg Masters, Masters committed suicide in October this year. He was a teacher at Brisbane Grammar.
Throughout it all, the two schools at the centre of the scandal have tried to maintain their reputations and their dignity, perhaps at the expense of justice. This week, at Royal Commission hearings in Brisbane, we discovered just how complicit senior figures at Brisbane Grammar were.
On the high-traffic Normanby intersection in central Brisbane, thousands of motorists pass the M.A. Howell Indoor Sports Centre every day. In keeping with the palatial facilities enjoyed by top private schools in this country, the centre boasts an indoor swimming pool and gymnasium. But the Commission has now heard evidence that Max Howell, beloved former headmaster at Brisbane Grammar, walked in on Lynch abusing a student, and did nothing.
According to ‘BQA’, a victim testifying at the Royal Commission yesterday, “Howell came into Lynch’s office during one of our sessions and he saw me with my pants off and launched into a tirade about me being a sick individual or words to that effect.”
“He asked me what was wrong with me. He got really angry and he told me to get out of here and go back to class. I left the room but Howell stayed behind and spoke to Lynch.”
There may be many astonished that a school leader could dismiss a student with his pants off in a teacher’s office, but the atmosphere of the school in the 1980s was very different to contemporary standards. Cover-ups were the norm, apparently.
A retired doctor giving evidence yesterday recalled a meeting with Howell in which he alleged sexual abuse by Lynch against his son.
“I advised him that the master Lynch had been interfering with my son and I was not very happy about it,” the man said.
“Mr Howell immediately replied, to my surprise, not ‘that’s dreadful, whatever, whatever’… his first words were, ‘Are you going to go to the police?’”
Howell is now dead, but such conduct would not surprise many Grammar old boys. He was widely believed to be an alcoholic and certainly drank hard at formal school occasions. Much of the abuse by Lynch happened during his headmastership. Howell even gave Lynch a promotion and a pay rise, two years after witnessing the incident with BQA.
Another senior leader during Lynch’s time was deputy headmaster David Coote. Coote’s testimony yesterday left listeners is little doubt that he cared more for the welfare of Lynch than the boys in his charge. He also appeared to believe that Lynch’s “relaxation sessions were perfectly above board.
“If you’re going to have a system for checking up on who goes and how frequently they go, and so forth, then that’s going to discourage students from going at all,” Coote said.
But the senior leader at Brisbane Grammar that must surely come under the greatest scrutiny is Howard Stack, the chair of the school’s Board of Trustees. Stack has been the chair since 1991. Indeed, he was the chair when Lynch’s crimes were uncovered and Lynch’s victims first came forward.*
Unbelievably, despite everything we know about what happened under his trusteeship, Stack is still the chair of Brisbane Grammar today.
The email from the school that I received was from Howard Stack. It made a number of claims that testimony at the Royal Commission would call into question.
“Brisbane Grammar School has worked with the victims of Kevin Lynch with care and compassion for more than 15 years,” the email stated, “and we have unreservedly and publicly apologised to them for what they endured.”
Victims tell a different story: the more typical one of denial, neglect and finally hushed cash settlements. A lawsuit was settled out of court. Brisbane Grammar made an apology, but it appears never to have fully faced up to the enormity of what went on.
“Even though the hearing will focus on events that occurred many years ago, we understand and appreciate that this may be a difficult experience for our school community, including in particular Old Boys who were victims of Kevin Lynch’s abuse,” the email continued.
“Some of them will give evidence in this public hearing and we recognise their courage in coming forward and telling their stories. I want them to know that we will listen to them with respect.”
That’s not what happened yesterday. Precisely the opposite took place, as the school’s lawyer, top QC Walter Sofronoff, bluntly questioned victims. To one, he simply said, “I suggest to you that it didn’t happen.”
That didn’t sound like listening to victims “with respect.” It sounded like the very worst sort of institutional denial and legalistic combativeness, of which the Royal Commission’s hearings have detailed with numbing regularity.
Throughout the Royal Commission, the consistent thread linking many different institutional responses to child sexual abuse has been a failure of accountability. Consistently, across many different churches and schools, leaders have not been held to account for what happened during their leadership. Terrible crimes were covered up; abuses politely downplayed; uncomfortable truths ignored.
Rich private schools appear more susceptible than most. With their impeccable connections, vast endowments, and huge reserves of social and cultural capital, certain private schools have consistently shown themselves essentially unaccountable for the crimes committed to the children in their care.
It is time for some accountability. At the very least, Howard Stack must resign.
Last night, after the Royal Commission hearings ran as the top story on ABC local television news, I received another email from Brisbane Grammar School.
“BGS rowing and Tipperoo warmly invites you, along with other current and past members of the Brisbane Grammar School community, to join them on Saturday 7 November at 7.00pm for the annual BGS Rowing Cocktail Party to be held at Audi Centre Brisbane,” it began.
“The evening includes drinks and canapes. Tickets are $80.”
Even while victims are still telling their story to a Royal Commission, it’s business as usual at Brisbane Grammar.
* An earlier version of this article stated Mr Stack was chair at the time of the abuse. In fact he was chair when the abuse was uncovered.
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