Offending Institution: Private Schools in Sydney

WARNING: This article includes references to suicide which some readers may find upsetting. Reader discretion is advised.  

All Australian children are guaranteed a place in public schools, and there’s a near-universal enrolment rate across the country. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than four million children were enrolled in school in 2020 — a legal requirement for parents who do not want to receive a fine. 

Australian schools fall under government and non-government (private) schools. Almost two-thirds of children are enrolled in government schools. The remaining third are enrolled in private schools, and this is where the bulk of school sexual abuse occurs. 

From emotional abuse, harassment and bullying to full-on child sexual abuse, the frequency of child abuse in private schools is downright disturbing — especially in Sydney NSW. This article exposes the shocking abuse statistics and shares the stories of Sydney survivors who deserve to have their voices heard. 

The harrowing statistics of child sexual abuse in Australian schools

school abuse statistics

Source: The Royal Commission

During the Royal Commission, 8,013 private sessions were held, and 2,186 survivors (31.8%) claimed to have been sexually abused in a school setting as a child. Three-quarters of these survivors claimed to have been abused in non-government private schools. 

The Commission heard stories about 1,069 schools, 55.8% of which were non-government schools. In most cases, there were “clusters” of cases where a perpetrator (or perpetrators) would abuse multiple students over time. 

Multiple institutional factors were identified explaining the prevalence of sexual abuse and non-disclosure in private schools, including:

  • Concern for the school’s reputation and financial interests

  • A sense of being part of a superior/privileged institution

  • Masculine or hierarchical cultures

  • Selection of ex-students as staff members

  • Long-serving principals in governance structures with little to no accountability for student wellbeing

  • Non-government schools are more likely to be boarding schools or to employ people from religious organisations. 

Young students were groomed and abused in various locations, including the school grounds, at school activities in the community, and in other settings like a teacher’s home. The abuse wasn’t just sexual, either — students were subjected to emotional maltreatment and abuse, bullying, harassment, social isolation and ridicule from both children and adults. 

The statistics are damning, and the stories are even worse.

Knox Grammar SchoolThe Scots College
Sydney Grammar SchoolDe La Salle College Revesby Heights
Waverley College

Knox Grammar School

Located in Wahroonga on Sydney’s North Shore and founded in 1924, Knox Grammar School is the leading independent Uniting Church school in NSW. According to their website, the school aims to teach students “faith, wisdom, integrity, compassion and courage, with a sure knowledge of who they are and how they should live”. 

The tuition is $30,000+ per year.

Knox Grammar School was put under heavy scrutiny during the Royal Commission due to the sheer volume of child sexual abuse complaints lodged against them. A complete case study was dedicated to the school, whereas other schools were investigated in groups.

Former headmaster deliberately covered up child sexual abuse

student drawing lines

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In 2016, the Royal Commission determined that the former headmaster of Knox Grammar School, Dr Ian Paterson, deliberately covered up allegations of child sexual abuse because he valued the reputation of the school above student welfare. Dr Paterson was the headmaster from 1969 to 1998, although the allegations of abuse span well over 30 years.

The Royal Commission’s report found that Dr Paterson was aware of sexual abuse claims involving former teachers Adrian Nisbett, Craig Treloar, Barrie Stewart and another unnamed staff member. Dr Paterson claimed he only knew about one instance of sexual abuse involving another teacher, Damien Vance. 

The report also noted that Dr Paterson was aware of an incident where a balaclava-clad man sexually assaulted a 14-year-old student in one of the school’s dormitories. It is suspected the offender was the resident dorm master, Chris Fotis. However, this has never been proven. 

Dr Paterson’s attitude towards sexual abuse allegations was described as “dismissive”. He failed to notify the parents of boys who made allegations of abuse and did not inform the school council of sexual abuse claims.

He also “deliberately withheld information” from a police officer who was investigating sexual abuse claims at the school.  

A police task force formed in 2009 led to the conviction of five former Knox Grammar School teachers for sexually assaulting students between 1970 and 2009. Since then, dozens of abuse cases have been lodged against the school, most of which have been settled in court. 

The Scots College

The Scots College is one of Australia’s oldest and most respected Presbyterian boys’ schools. They believe that “young men discover true wisdom through reverence for God and faith in Jesus Christ”, and their goal is to help each student “discover his strength, develop his character, and pursue his God-given calling in the world”.

The tuition ranges from $10,000 to $40,000+ per year, depending on the type of enrollment (e.g. boarding, non-boarding, sibling discounts, etc.). 

Scots College pressed with questions about allegations of child sexual abuse

boy in the outback

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In 2015, a former math teacher from Scots College, John Joseph Beckett, was given a two-year suspended jail sentence for indecently assaulting three boys on a three-week interstate excursion to Oodnadatta in the South Australian outback in 1989. 

Beckett led 13 of these trips during the 25 years he worked at Scots, from 1979 until 1999.

It is alleged that Beckett would sneak into the boys’ beds at night and sexually assault them.

“While we were preparing to sleep, he approached to ask if I wanted help cooling down and started stroking me on the chest with the back of his hand,” one of the survivors said. 

“Then he came back in the middle of the night and, without asking or anything, started stroking my chest again. Then he went down with his hand and did what he needed to do … fondling. He went away after I rolled over.”

The next morning, the boy asked to speak to Beckett privately and said, “you shouldn’t have done that, that was wrong”. Beckett lied to the boy’s face and denied that anything had ever happened. 

It is also alleged that Beckett ordered the boys not to wear underwear at night as it “cuts off the circulation”. 

The student didn’t report the abuse at the time but reported it to the school in 1998 — a year before Beckett retired. It is believed this was the second report lodged against Beckett, but the school failed to report the allegations to the police, leading to an onslaught of serious questions about the school’s commitment to the protection of its students. 

As of 2022, 83-year-old Beckett lives close to Scots College and a popular children’s playground near Coogee Beach. 

Sydney Grammar School

Sydney Grammar School is one of the oldest schools in Australia. Its predecessor, Sydney Public Free Grammar school, opened in 1825. It is now considered one of the top independent secular schools in Sydney and has a tuition of $30,000+ per year. 

A female teacher sexually abused a 17-year-old student over three months in 2016

teacher writing on a whiteboard

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In 2019, Sydney Grammar School issued a public apology to a 17-year-old student who was sexually abused by his English and performing arts teacher, a 36-year-old married woman named Bronwen Williams. 

Williams had sex with the student in spare classrooms, storage rooms and at her apartment over three months in 2016. The student reported the abuse at the end of the year, and later in court, he said he was “harassed, stalked and dominated” by Williams. 

She had been warned about inappropriate behaviour with students at the school four times before and had been reminded of the school’s child protection policy. This was before she met the student involved in this case — she had even been reprimanded for developing an “overly close pastoral role” with a male student suffering from mental health problems. 

In 2018, Williams pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual intercourse with a person in her care and was sentenced to at least seven months in jail. 

De La Salle College Revesby Heights

De La Salle College Revesby Heights is a Catholic systemic college for boys, which was founded in 1960 with support from two local parishes. It was the first Catholic school in Sydney to open with more lay teachers than religious, and the De La Salle Brothers were responsible for the administration of the school until a principal was appointed in 1992. 

The Gospel in the spirit of St John Baptist De La Salle is central to the lives of students, parents and staff members. The tuition ranges from $1,500 to $2,000 per year. 

A student was repeatedly sexually abused by a religion teacher who lived on the school grounds

student waiting outside

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A former De La Salle College student claims he was repeatedly sexually abused when he was in Year 5 and 6 by his religion teacher, Errol Swayne, who lived in a caravan on school grounds. 

Swayne required the boy to visit the school on weekends to do chores. While they were alone, Swayne would show the child pornographic films and sexually assault him. During school hours, Swayne would also call the child into his office for punishment, where he would indecently and sexually assault the boy. 

“He would explode in the classroom when sending me out. I bet every student in that class felt that I’m a goner, I’m going to go up there, and I’m going to be punished, so it was a role play on his behalf,” the survivor said.

“So to get up there and then be relieved of any punishment and walk out, you feel protected and powerful and, like, wow. Nothing happened. So I think that was the way that he started the whole process.”

A few years after abusing the child, Swayne committed suicide. 

Despite struggling with depression for many years, the survivor showed bravery in sharing his story with the Royal Commission. It was then that he found out Swayne had abused other boys. 

“After I had given my statement to (Commissioner) McClellan, he let me know that ‘the teacher you’re here about has been made known to us on a number of occasions before’.”

“Even though it was quite naive, sometimes you can think you’re the only person something has happened to, but that’s not the case, and that’s where that was confirmed. That other people had already been there and spoken to the Royal Commission about the same person, so that was a bit of an eye-opener too.”

The survivor is now part of a large class action against various other private schools in Sydney and has said that De La Salle Revesby Heights failed to maintain proper protocols for student-staff interactions. 

Waverley College

Waverley College is a Catholic school for boys in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. Founded in 1903, their mission is to empower boys to realise their academic and personal potential to contribute to society actively. Their annual tuition ranges from $15,000 to $16,000 per year.

A boy reported his abuse to the school but was told he was “false and dishonest”

boy doing a test

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A former student of Waverly College claims he was sexually abused by a volunteer cadet officer when he was 16 years old while on a camp at Yarramundi NSW. He reported the abuse to the school, but his claims were rejected and labelled “false and dishonest”. However, the officer was dismissed soon after.

Years later, the survivor had a breakdown when his wife came to him with enrolment papers for their son to attend Waverley College. It was then that he decided to seek legal advice on the matter and is now part of a large class action against the school.

He claims Waverley College was negligent because it failed to conduct background checks and supervise volunteer cadet officers. 

The horrible impact of school-related sexual abuse

man in therapy

Image: Unsplash

Survivors suffered, and continue to suffer, significant trauma and side effects from their experiences with school abuse. Most reported poor academic performance and learning difficulties following the abuse — even the high achievers. 

Others experienced unhappiness, distress and anxiety at school. They ended up leaving school early or refusing to engage with educational institutions later in life due to the abuse. In turn, their future job prospects, income and self-esteem were significantly impacted. 

It’s never too late to seek justice 

If you believe you were sexually abused in a private school in Sydney or anywhere else in Australia, we want to hear your story. At Kelso Lawyers, we’ve helped hundreds of institutional abuse survivors seek justice and receive compensation for the trauma they experienced in childhood — and we can do the same for you.

We have the compassion, drive and expertise to achieve the best possible outcome for your case. Get in touch now — we’re here to listen. 

Get the justice you deserve with Kelso Lawyers. We want to hear your story. Call (02) 4907 4200 or complete the online form before you accept payment from the National Redress Scheme.

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