In 2018, the Royal Commission found the Christian Brothers were among the worst perpetrators of child sexual abuse in Australia. A shocking 22% of their members have been identified as alleged abusers — and one of the worst offenders on their payroll was Brother Robert “Bobby” Best.
Over a 20 year period, Best abused 11 boys across multiple Victorian schools including St Alipius at Ballarat, St Leo’s at Box Hill, St Joseph’s at Geelong and St Bernard’s at Essendon.
The first incident of child sexual abuse is alleged to have occurred when Best was 22-years-old — just two years after Best took his vows.
He abused the boys at school camps, swimming lessons, during sports days, in classrooms and in his office. He also molested boys during “religious instruction” lessons while educating them about the Catholic faith.
He did not hide what he was doing.
He abused students in front of their peers. He was caught by colleagues on multiple occasions and what’s worse, the Christian Brothers paid a large sum for his legal fees over the past decades.
Without any proper punishment or consequences for many years, Best was free to abuse scores of boys across Victoria. In this article, we shine a light on Best’s dark, disturbing past and share how he finally came to justice.
Best would “check on the boys” in the sickbay and fondle their genitals
Best was no stranger to abusing vulnerable boys. According to notes taken by Broken Rites during court proceedings, Best would handpick his victims based on who he thought were the most vulnerable and single them out for attention.
Best was ruthless and brazen with the abuse he inflicted on the boys. On one occasion, Best was caught abusing a boy by his colleague Brother Gerald Leo Fitzgerald who simply “chuckled” at the scene.
There are some reports saying that Fitzgerald restrained the boy for Best during the assault.
He also took it upon himself to visit the sickbay on several occasions to “check on the boys” who were feeling unwell.
He would feel the boys’ foreheads for temperatures and then slide his hand down their school shorts to fondle their genitals. One of the boys was in year six at the time — just 12-years-old when his innocence was destroyed.
The boys didn’t tell anyone about the abuse. In a 1996 court hearing, victims said if they had told their parents what happened in the 1970s, they would not have been believed. Best also told the boys not to tell anyone about what had happened.
The boys’ teacher would “pretend” to take interest in their work and molest them in the classroom
In 1998, Judge James Duggan of the Melbourne County Court sentenced Best to 24 months in prison for sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy on four different occasions. Best sat next to the boy in class and pretended to take an interest in his work before fondling him in front of his peers.
According to Judge Duggan, the victim was too scared to report Best because he was a Christian Brother and the school principal.
Another boy was asked to stay behind after class where he was almost instantly assaulted. Court proceedings revealed the boy cried the entire time but Best reassured the child everything would be alright.
Best was not interested in any of his student’s grades.
He simply wanted to use the boys for his own sick sexual gratification.
He had no shame and no remorse — not even in his seventies when he was charged and jailed.
How Best was brought to justice
The Christian Brothers knew what Best did throughout the 1960s and 1970s. They moved him from school to school, giving him access to new victims in each location.
However, Best’s reign of terror couldn’t last forever.
Long after leaving school, Best’s victims came forward and reported Best to the police in 1996. This kicked off 20 years of criminal proceedings in Melbourne County Court.
During the 1996 court proceedings, Best’s lawyers requested a new jury for each complainant which was granted by the judge. A media suppression order was also put in place to ensure a fair trial and ensure each of the juries didn’t know about the other trials.
During sentencing, Judge Michael McInerney noted Best’s crimes were aggravated for a number of reasons including his trust as a teacher, his high rank as the school’s principal, his knowledge of “right and wrong”, and the vulnerability of his victims.
He also noted that Best had so far shown no remorse. Judge McInerney sentenced Best to nine months in prison but this was suspended. Best avoided jail altogether. This was a typical soft sentence handed down to clergy before the enlightened times that arrived later.
Around this time, Broken Rites alerted the media about this incredibly disturbing and newsworthy story, triggering a landslide of news articles and coverage of Best’s trials. This also encouraged more victims to come forward and tell their stories.
Best returned to court in 1998 with the Christian Brothers’ lawyers behind him, including a Queen’s Counsel. He pleaded not guilty in every trial but was found guilty of six counts involving two boys (one nine and one 11-years-old).
Judge James Duggan sentenced Best to 24 months in prison but again, this was soon suspended. The church’s lawyers had lodged an appeal against the 1998 convictions and it was accepted.
After three months in prison, Best was released and he did not go to retrial.
Best continued to dodge jail time and requests for comments from the media. It wasn’t until 2011 that Best was finally sentenced to 14 years and nine months in prison.
In 2017, Best was given an additional 10 years and five months in jail after admitting to the sexual abuse of another 20 boys. He was 76-years-old when he admitted to the crimes.
Brother Best an “obvious disgrace” to the Christian Brothers
After Best was sentenced in 2017, the Christian Brothers Oceania Province apologised for Best’s crimes.
“Robert Best has committed offences that represent the most grievous betrayal of the trust of innocent children and their families,” their statement said.
“To those who have suffered abuse, we apologise to you and your loved ones without reservation. The independent judicial process has now delivered justice for those crimes.”
This is rich considering the Catholic Church funded Best’s legal fees. In 2015, the Royal Commission heard the Church had already covered $1.5 million in legal fees for their own paedophile.
Following Best’s sentencing in 2011, the Christian Brothers also stated they would continue to accept Best as a Brother during and after his jail time.
Now, it looks like Brother Robert Best will die in prison. At the time of his sentencing in 2017, he was already incontinent and in ill-health. He cannot be released until 2027 at the earliest.
It’s horrific to think how Best’s former students have suffered over the last few decades. Many have suffered from alcoholism, depression and the inability to maintain relationships with their loved ones. All the while, Best has been supported by the religious organisation his young victims were supposed to have faith in.
At Kelso Lawyers, we stand with survivors of institutional child abuse.
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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