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By a Broken Rites researcher
The Catholic order of Christian Brothers harboured Brother Robert Charles Best for many years while he was openly committing sexual crimes (including buggery) against young boys in his schools, an Australian court has been told. Colleagues of Brother Best knew about his crimes, the court was told.
When some victims eventually consulted the police (many years after leaving school), the Christian Brothers spent mega-dollars defending Brother Best (and fighting the victims) during 15 years of criminal court proceedings lasting from 1996 to 2011.
In 2011, a Melbourne court convicted Best of 27 sexual crimes, committed against 11 young boys. The convictions included:
A Broken Rites researcher was present the Melbourne County Court on 8 August 2011, when Best was sentenced to 14 years and nine months jail (eligible for parole after serving 11 years and three months).
The schoolsThe convictions in 2011 related to when Best was working as a teacher — and in some cases was the principal — at three schools in the state of Victoria:
After being charged by police in a magistrates court, Robert Best appeared in the Melbourne County Court in 1996, when some of his former pupils were aged in their thirties. After he was convicted in this court, more former pupils contacted the police, and therefore Best was brought back to the same court on additional charges in March 1998 and yet again in 2010-2011.
An expensive defenceBetween 1996 and 2011, the Christian Brothers hired legal teams, including a Queens Counsel, to represent Best during these court cases. The church lawyers applied for (and, in most instances, were granted) the right to have a separate jury for each complainant. Beginning with the first case in 1996, Best pleaded "Not Guilty" in trial after trial. The church lawyers fought the victims at every trial until mid-2011.
Eventually, by early 2011, "Guilty" verdicts began piling up for Best, and therefore he was locked up in a remand prison during the subsequent trials. Finally, on 30 May 2011, Best suddenly changed his plea to "Guilty" regarding a final batch of victims.
During all these 15 years, the Christian Brothers Order continued to accept Robert Charles Best as a member of the Christian Brothers. After his sentencing on 8 August 2011, the Christian Brothers Order announced that it will continue to accept Brother Best as a member during and after his time in jail.
Brother Best's backgroundBroken Rites was present in court in 1996, when it was stated that Robert Charles Best was born on 1 January 1941. He was educated in Catholic schools at Warrnambool (western Victoria) and Bundoora (Melbourne) to Year 12, although he had difficulties with Year 12, the court was told. That is, Bob Best was himself a product of the Christian Brothers.
In 1960, aged 19, he entered a Christian Brothers novitiate (training college) to become a Brother. He began teaching (as "Brother" Best) in Fremantle (Western Australia) in 1963 and in Launceston (Tasmania) in 1967, teaching up to Grades 6 and 7. He was active in sport and in choir practice, the court was told. To his colleagues, he was known as Brother Bob Best or Brother Bobby Best.
Victorian courts have no jurisdiction over Brother Best's behaviour in Western Australia or Tasmania in the early 1960s. The Victorian charges against Best are confined to Victorian matters, which date from the late 1960s onwards.
From 1968 to 1973 (inclusive), Best taught at St Alipius parish primary school for boys in Ballarat East, where he also acted as the headmaster. (The name of the school is pronounced as "Saint Al-LEEP-ee-us".) While working at this school, he resided at St Patrick's College (a secondary boarding school in Ballarat), where he also supervised a dormitory.
The court was told that in 1974 the Christian Brothers removed Best from Ballarat (and from all teaching duties) and sent him to Melbourne for 12 months, where he attended a Catholic "national pastoral institute", while living with Melbourne Christian Brothers. Likewise, the Ballarat diocese sent the above-mentioned child-abuser Father Gerald Ridsdale to spend a year based at this "institute" after parents complained to the church (instead of to the police) about Ridsdale's crimes.
After a year away from schoolboys, Brother Robert Best was re-appointed to teaching but not in Ballarat. From 1975 to 1985 (inclusive), he taught at St Leo's College (Christian Brothers) in Box Hill (in Melbourne's East), teaching Grade 6 for three years and junior secondary classes after that, the court was told. He was the superior of the ten Christian Brothers living at Box Hill. He attended school camps at Shoreham on the Mornington Peninsula, south-east of Melbourne.
The 1996 caseWhen Robert Charles Best was principal of the St Alipius school in Ballarat East in 1968-73, he was aged from 27 to 32.
Broken Rites was present in the Melbourne County Court in 1996, when Best was charged with eight counts of indecent assault (that is, indecent touching) involving five boys, aged 11 or 12, while they were at St Alipius. The court was told that Best would put his hand into the trousers of the boys and would interfere with their private parts. Brother Best's status as a Christian Brother, in a Catholic school, helped to protect Best. Victims later testified that, if they had told their parents about Best in the 1970s, the parents would not believe that such offences could occur in a Catholic parish.
Church lawyers applied for the right to have a separate jury for each complainant. Judge Michael Mclnerney granted this application.
To ensure a fair trial, the court granted Best a media-suppression order, forbidding media outlets from mentioning any of Best's trials until after the final jury was finished. Therefore, each jury believed that there was only one complainant and that the offence was an isolated occurrence.
One of the juries returned a verdict of Guilty relating to Best's assaults on a boy who was aged 11 in Grade 6. This victim said that one of the assaults occurred during a "religious instruction" lesson. A student would be called up to the front of the class and would be instructed to read aloud out of the catechism, while standing next to Best, who was seating and wearing his "religious" robes. The victim said that while he recited from the catechism, Best put a hand inside the boy's clothes and "massaged" him indecently. The victim said that the other incident occurred at lunch-time when Best took him to a storeroom.
Sentencing Best regarding this victim, Judge McInerney gave Best a nine-months jail sentence, which was suspended.
In his sentencing remarks, Judge McInerney said that Best's offences against this boy were aggravated by several factors: Best's breach of trust as a teacher; his high rank as the school's principal; Best's knowledge "of right and wrong"; and the vulnerability of the victim who had been placed in Best's care. The judge noted that Best had not expressed remorse about his offences.
The 1998 caseAfter the 1996 case, five more complainants from the St Alipius school contacted the police.
After a County Court trial in 1998, Best was found guilty on six counts involving two of these boys (one aged 9 and one aged 11). The charges again involved indecent touching of the genital region.
Broken Rites was present in the Melbourne County Court on 27 March 1998 when Judge James Duggan sentenced Best to 24 months' jail (with a minimum of 12 months before becoming eligible for parole). In his sentencing remarks, the judge said Best had indecently abused a Grade 4 boy four times as he sat next to the pupil in class pretending to take an interest in his work. He also twice abused a Grade 6 boy in the school's sick bay, the judge said.
The judge said that Best's position of trust, in a religious order, made his offences worse. The judge said the victims had been unable, at the time, to lodge a complaint because Best was not only a Christian Brother but was also the school principal. He said the publicity surrounding the 1996 trial had finally given the victims the opportunity to come forward.
The 1998 cases were reported in the Melbourne Herald Sun and the Melbourne Age on 28 March 1998.
Church lawyers lodged an appeal against the 1998 convictions. On 23 July 1998, after three months in jail, Best won his appeal and the Appeal Court granted him the right to be given a new trial. The retrial did not go ahead.
In court again, 2009-2011After the 1998 court case, more of Best's ex-pupils contacted the Victoria Police child-abuse unit. Between 2002 and 2008, Ballarat detectives interviewed these ex-pupils and collected statements from them. This time, there were victims from St Leo's College in Box Hill (Melbourne) and St Joseph's College in Geelong, as well as from St Alipius in Ballarat
In each of these police interviews, Best replied "No comment".
When the new charges were first filed in court, church lawyers indicated that Best would plead "Not Guilty" to all charges. A preliminary ("committal") hearing into the new charges began in a magistrate's court in 2009, with the court closed to the public. Again, no media coverage was allowed for the committal hearing.
After hearing all the evidence, the magistrate ruled that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to convict Best. The case was then sent on to the Melbourne County Court, where it joined a queue of cases waiting for trials.
The trials were to involve 14 victims from the three schools. These 14 were not Brother Best's only victims at these schools — they are merely those who gave statements to the detectives. As usual in church-abuse cases, other boys would have remained silent.
A victim's suicideDuring the church's lengthy delaying tactics (and after church lawyers had been fighting victims in the committal hearings), one of the 14 victims took his own life. This victim (Damien, aged 48 in 2009) had encountered Best as a schoolboy in Ballarat in the 1970s. According to Damien's family, he had been damaged not only by Best's crimes but also by the church's long record of harbouring and protecting Best.
Damien was survived by a teenage daughter in her early teens. It remains to be seen whether the Catholic Church will recognise its responsibilities to this child (and, if so, to what extent).
40 chargesBroken Rites was present at Best's arraignment in the Melbourne County Court on 26 July 2009, when he was formally charged with forty incidents involving 13 boys at the three schools. The charges at this arraignment included:
At this arraignment, the defence indicated that it was seeking a separate jury for each of the 13 victims. Furthermore, the defence requested a delay in starting the trials because Best was booked for a medical operation later in 2009.
Separate juriesIn 2010 Best began appearing in the Melbourne County Court, for pre-trial proceedings with Judge Roy Punshon.
After Best's lawyers applied to have 13 separate juries, Judge Punshon decided that there should be eleven juries.
The trials were held, one after the other, in a closed court, beginning in late 2010. Again, the court placed a media-suppression order on reporting the trials. None of the juries could be told that there had been a previous trial regarding a different victim or that further juries were to follow this one.
During these proceedings, another former student was added to the case, increasing the total charges from 40 to 43.
First jury says "guilty" of buggeryThe first trial began in December 2010 and this jury found Best guilty of having committed buggery against nine-year-old Paul in Ballarat in 1989.
Brother Best was then locked up in a remand prison pending the completion of all the remaining trials, with all sentencing to be done after the final trial.
In the early months of 2011, while Best was still in the remand prison, five more jury trials were held, all conducted by Judge Punshon. Best was brought to the court from the prison on the days that the court was sitting. Two juries returned a verdict of Not Guilty regarding two victims, while the other juries returned a verdict of Guilty regarding their victims
In late May 2011, the court was about to begin hearing the final batch of charges, involving three boys. As well as indecent assault (indecent touching), these final charges included two serious charges:
He finally pleads guiltyOn 30 May 2011, as the seventh jury was about to begin, Best's legal team indicated that, instead of his existing plea of Not Guilty for the "Jamie" penetration charges, Best would change his plea to Guilty regarding Jamie if the penetration charges were reduced to "indecent assault".
This Guilty plea — the first Guilty plea ever made by Best in court proceedings spanning 15 years — averted the need for any further trials. The Director of Public Prosecutions then cancelled the remaining trials.
This meant that the media-suppression order was immediately lifted on the whole Best case, allowing the media to mention the 2010-2011 proceedings for the first time.
After Best's guilty plea, Judge Punshon adjourned the proceedings, pending a pre-sentence hearing to be held in on 25 July 2011.
In all, in 2010-2011, Best was found guilty (or pleaded guilty) to 27 charges involving 11 victims. These charges included one of buggery of nine-year-old Paul, two of aggravated indecent assault and 24 of indecent assault (that is, indecent touching).
Buggery of a child carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Best's pleas of "Not Guilty" indicate that he had not expressed remorse about any of his offences, not even for the final batch for which he changed his plea to "Guilty".
Public relations managementWhen Best's lawyers suddenly lodged Best's guilty plea in court on 30 May 2011, the Christian Brothers Order was ready with a public statement which it immediately sent to media outlets. The Order issued the statement through a public relations firm that handles publicity for the Catholic Church in Melbourne. The statement said that it was being issued on behalf of the Christian Brothers Oceania (that is, Australia and the Pacific). It said:
The statement gave the phone numbers of the church's public relations firm, where the media could make any further inquiries.
The apology was specifically limited to those complainants who managed to convict Best in the 2010-2011 trials. The apology did not mention the victim in the 1996 conviction and it did not extend to any other boys who had been harmed by Best.
How the victims were damagedBroken Rites was present in the Melbourne County Court on 25 July 2011, when Judge Punshon held a pre-sentence hearing to receive final addresses from the prosecutor and the defence, concerning the kind of sentence that should be imposed. At this hearing, the judge also heard impact statements from several victims, describing how Best's crimes have affected the victim's later life. The judge would take all these submissions into account when determining Best's total jail sentence.
In their impact statements, eight victims put their horrors into words, telling the court how their lives had been damaged by Best's crimes and by the church's protection of him. This robbed them of their innocence, destroyed their childhood and dogged their adulthood.
The church victims said the long-term effects included one or more of the following:
Two of the impact statements were read aloud to the court by a prosecutor. The other victims recited their impact statements personally to the crowded courtroom, which was filled with victims and their support persons.
Brother Fitzgerald 'knew about Brother Best'The first impact statement presented to the pre-sentence hearing was from the victim Paul who was a nine-year-old boy in Grade 3 at the Ballarat school in 1969. At the trial in late 2010 concerning the Paul matters, a jury found Best guilty of committing buggery against this boy.
[This 1969 crime was not necessarily the first child-sex crime ever committed by Best — Paul was merely the earliest victim who was selected by the prosecutors to participate in the 2010-2011 court proceedings. Most of Best's ex-students have remained silent about his treatment of them. Some of Best's victims have merely tipped off the church authorities, through the the church's in-house Towards Healing process, instead of consulting the police.]
Paul, who had a disability (he was born profoundly deaf), said in his impact statement (which was read out by the prosecutor), that other clergy knew what Best was doing — and this knowledge has worsened Paul's life-long feeling of hurt.
Paul was in Brother Fitzgerald's Grade 3 class. Brother Best (the school principal, who was teaching Grade 6) called Paul to his office. Aware of Best's fondness for belting the boys, the nervous child entered and was told by Best: "It's all right. Just want to talk to you."
Best then sexually penetrated the boy (defined in court as "penis into anus"), the court was told.
Soon afterwards, Paul told his own class teacher, Brother Fitzgerald, what Best had done. Fitzgerald responded by hitting him, the court heard. Fitzgerald then asked the boy again what happened and when the boy repeated the claim he was struck again. After being asked a third time, the boy replied: "Nothing happened."
The court was told that Paul could not bring himself to tell his parents, so he approached a Catholic priest. The priest responded with a "backhander" and threatened his life, saying: 'If you tell anyone what happened I will f***ing kill you'.
The court was also told that, on one occasion, Brother Fitzgerald walked into a room where Best molesting a boy and forcing one of his schoolmates to join in the abuse. Brother Fitzgerald merely chuckled and closed the door, the court heard.
The court hears about Brother "W"Another victim ("Jamie" — not his real name), who was born in 1974, told the court in his impact statement that he was in grade 6 at St Joseph's College in Geelong when Best repeatedly assaulted him. Jamie alleged that on one occasion in 1986 Best assaulted him in the presence of another Christian Brother, referred to in court as Brother "W".
The court heard that the boy asked Brother "W" if he should tell his father what happened. He was told: "No you can't do that, this is our secret."
In his impact statement, Jamie told how Best's crimes caused him to develop suicidal tendencies and how he became isolated and unable to form relationships with females.
Jamie's statement condemned the church's vigorous support of Best through the latest and previous trials. Jamie said that, in choosing to fight the victims, the church authorities "have worked to rub salt into the wounds they inflicted"
Jamie stated: "The church's support of this monster during his crimes and later during his defence demonstrates complicity in the assaults."
[The charges to which Best pleaded guilty on 30 May 2011 included some of the offences against "Jamie". After the guilty plea, the prosecutors dropped some other charges concerning Jamie. The guilty plea made a jury trial unnecessary in Jamie's case — and this therefore could have prevented the public from learning the full details of Jamie's allegations relating to Brother "W". When Jamie recited his victim impact statement from the witness box at the pre-sentence hearing, this was his only opportunity to tell his story in court, including his mention of Brother "W".]
Judge Punshon then adjourned the proceedings for two weeks while he attended to other commitments. During this time, the judge would also carry out the complicated task of calculating Best's total term of imprisonment, plus the legal reasons for fixing such a prison sentence.
JailedBroken Rites was present in court on 8 August 2011 when Best (aged 70) was brought from the remand prison to hear the sentence details.
In his sentencing remarks, Judge Punshon told Best that his crimes had caused enormous misery and harm. The crimes were grave breach of trust from someone who was a teacher and a spiritual guide. Best, along with some of his Christian Brother colleagues, had preyed on vulnerable boys who were powerless to complain, the judge said. He also noted that Best had not resigned from the Christian Brothers, nor had he been asked to.
Judge Punshon imposed a separate jail sentence for each of the 27 offences. Added together, end-to-end, the sentences would amount to a total of nearly 50 years. The longest of these sentences was six years for raping the nine-year-old Grade 3 student (Paul) at Ballarat in 1969.
Some of the sentences were to be served cumulatively but most concurrently.
In the final calculation, Best was to serve a maximum of 14 years and nine months. He will be eligible for parole after serving 11 years and three months. The term of imprisonment was dated to begin from 10 December 2010, when he was locked up in remand prison after the first jury returned its Guilty verdict.
On this basis, he could be 81 years old when he qualifies for parole.
The detective who nabbed Brother Best
The police investigations of Brother Robert Charles Best were conducted by the Ballarat Criminal Investigation Unit of the Victoria Police, under the supervision of Detective Sergeant Kevin Carson.
Sgt Carson told an Australian Associated Press journalist on 5 August 2011 that many more people were damaged other than those whose names have appeared on the court charge sheets. The additional victims, he said, would include 26 suicides, victims who were assaulted as boys by Best, Dowlan and Ridsdale.
Sergeant Carson believes there are many more victims who have not yet come forward.
"A lot of these boys — men now — waited until their parents died before they said anything," he said. "They were too ashamed, or too concerned their parents would blame themselves."
He is also certain that other victims will find it too difficult to cope with what Best and other clergy did to them.
Sgt Carson is particularly distressed about the victim named Damien (who was to have been Victim Number 14 in the 2009-2011 court process) who suicided while the church lawyers were delaying and prolonging the court procedures.
Sgt Carson said the victims' parents, also, were victims. Those parents who are still alive are elderly and have tremendous difficulty coming to terms with revelations their sons were too scared to make at the time of the crimes.
"Many of the parents I've spoken to just cry in front of me, mothers who couldn't believe something like this could happen," Sergeant Carson said. "It breaks their hearts."
Sgt Carson is from an age-group that is similar to some of victims in the Ballarat diocese.
Kevin Carson himself grew up in the city of Ballarat — in a Catholic family of nine children. But fortunately, he and his siblings all went to St Columba's primary school in a different part of the city — not St Alipius primary, where Brother Best, Bother Dowlan and Father Ridsdale were operating.
Sergeant Carson feels relieved that he escaped the fate of the victims whom he met during his investigation.
FootnoteBrother Robert Best's religious order — the "Congregation of Christian Brothers" — was founded by Edmund Rice in Ireland in 1802 and was introduced to Australia in 1868. In some countries, this order is known as the "Irish Christian Brothers" but in Australia the word "Irish" is dropped.
For more about Brother Edward Dowlan, who was also convicted in 1996 (at the same time as Brother Robert Charles Best's first conviction), see a Broken Rites article entitled Catholic religious Brothers accept sex-offenders as members. The Dowlan article includes some material about Brother Robert Charles Best, including the tactics of the church lawyers in trying to defeat the victims of both Best and Dowlan.
For more about Father Gerald Ridsdale, see a Broken Rites article entitled How the church harboured this criminal, Father Gerald Ridsdale, for thirty years. Ridsdale is nearing the final stages of his jail sentence but Brother Robert Charles Best's jail sentence is just beginning.