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The hell house

The hell house

January 13, 2013

Mark Russell and Jared Lynch

This country mansion seemingly offered an idyllic setting to educate Catholic boys, but behind closed doors, Rupertswood was anything but peaceful.

Rupertswood Mansion. Photo: Michelle Ferguson

Rupertswood Mansion. Photo: Michelle Ferguson


AT THE end of a winding road overlooking Sunbury is Rupertswood, an ornate 1874 mansion that today serves as a boutique hotel. But the grand residence, where butlers and doormen wait on guests paying up to $500 a night, was for decades a house of horror.

It is alleged that from 1960 to 1990, when Rupertswood was a Catholic boarding and day school, Salesian brothers, including two former school principals and a boarding master, routinely abused boys in their care.

Over the past decade, four brothers have been convicted separately of multiple counts of indecent assault, while another will face trial in August. Two other alleged offenders have left the country.

The story of Rupertswood is one of the most disturbing to emerge ahead of the royal commission on institutional child sexual abuse. Yet alleged victims and former students say the truth about what happened is yet to be fully revealed. They paint a picture of repeated assaults, both sexual and physical; of brothers habitually haunting dormitories and infirmaries for victims; and of beatings and acts of perversion that persisted for decades.

In one alleged episode aired in court recently, boys sleeping in the school’s infirmary had their drinks of Milo drugged before waking to hear the cries of a boy being abused. Another student told the court of a separate incident in which he was given a glass of lemonade before waking to find a priest raping him.

One student, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of confidentiality, reflected on how the college’s good reputation belied its moral anarchy. ”It was like Lord of the Flies,” he said. ”There was a hierarchy of priests who had their favourites.”

FROM the outside, Rupertswood was idyllic. Built by Sir William Clarke in 1874, the beautifully situated 50-room stately home hosted many distinguished guests in its heyday, including royalty.

The Roman Catholic Salesian Order bought the mansion in 1927, and from 1929 to the early ’90s it was a school for boys. (Present-day Salesian College in Sunbury, a coeducational school located on the surrounding former Rupertswood estate, is not under suspicion or investigation.)

At its peak, Rupertswood took up to 100 student boarders, as well as day students. Parents, according to victims, were reluctant to believe their claims of abuse, not least because of the school’s good reputation. Priests were, after all, devout men of God who were beyond reproach and often invited to dinner by parents.

Yet while an atmosphere of fear pervaded many corners of the school, it was not a living hell for every boy. Nor is it alleged that every brother who worked at the school was involved in the abuse or its cover-up.

For some students, the strange behaviour of some of the brothers coexisted with happy school experiences. Former boarders reflect fondly how their day-student mates would leave them bottles of beer in a creek that ran through the property – a gesture of solidarity that was much appreciated.

Former student Michael Derrick, a border from 1971 to 1975, says he was not abused; although a brother once tried to grope him – an incident, he soon learnt, that was not unusual.

”He received a short, sharp jab via my elbow to his nether regions and this seemed to dissuade him,” Derrick says. ”He continued to try to groom me for further attempts but I was wary … I was certainly not the only one of my peers that experienced his wandering hands, nor his manipulative attempts to get us alone.

”We were all aware of him and backed each other up via a ‘safety in numbers’ policy. We knew those things were going on and we looked out for each other and kept each other worded up … It was just [one of] the strategies we put in place to survive.”

Derrick says his parents sent him to the school under the impression it was strong on ”the basics” – English, maths and science. But some of the teachers, particularly the young brothers, weren’t qualified teachers. ”I think there were some that were still studying for their teaching degrees, if they were studying at all,” he says.

Still, he says he has many fond memories of experiences shared with classmates and staff, including singing at the school’s chapel. ”If you went to Mass, it was just an expression of joy; that’s what we had and we had it on a regular basis.”

Yet just as natural as going to Mass was a wariness of certain priests and brothers.

In a statement tendered to the Melbourne Magistrates Court during a committal hearing in November for one of the school’s former priests, David Rapson, who has been charged with sexually abusing seven boys at Rupertswood, a former student described his experience as a year 7 boarder in 1976, staying with about 20 other boys in a dormitory.

The boys would be asleep in a line of single beds as one of the Catholic brothers patrolled the dorms at night. ”If we dared move or whisper, we would be whacked over the ankles with the broom handle,” the former student, now 49, said.

A violent culture was also detailed in the 2004 biography of prominent Salesian priest Father Chris Riley, Mean Streets, Kind Heart, by Sue Williams. Riley said that some of the priests at Rupertswood were ”absolute maniacs” and their violent behaviour made him question his decision to become a priest.

He remembered seeing about two dozen of the youngest students lined up outside a washroom as a group of brothers took turns to belt them on the backside with a stick.

”He was incensed,” Williams wrote. ”Chris faced up to the tormenters and shouted: ‘You can’t hit people, you’re a Salesian. This isn’t the Salesian way.”’

Riley declined to be interviewed for this story.

The recent committal hearing, however, has provided more graphic accounts. One student, who had been a boarder from 1977-78, described a night in the infirmary when he claimed up to 10 boys filed into the room before Rapson followed them in and said, ”There’s no noise, no talking, no shouting.”

”He [Rapson] then said that everyone was going to have a Milo,” the former student said. ”I remember the Milo tasted really strong and a bit acrid. I fell asleep and I remember waking up and feeling a bit groggy. Out of the blue I heard one of the kids yell out, ‘What are you doing?’ Rapson told him to shut up and be quiet or he would wake everyone up.”

The former student said Rapson began going around to each bed before another priest, Father Frank Klep, came into the room. ”Klep said: ‘What are you doing?’

”Rapson said: ‘You know what we do here.’

”Klep said: ‘You’ve really got to resist.’

”Rapson blamed God and said: ‘God made us this way and it’s his fault. You’re one to talk, you’re the same as me.”’

Another former student told the court that in a separate incident, Rapson gave him a glass of lemonade which made him feel dizzy and pass out before he woke to find the priest raping him. ”Once back at my dormitory I got back into my bed and laid there crying. At the time all I wanted was my mum.”

At the end of the hearing, Rapson, the former deputy principal, was ordered to stand trial in the County Court later this year charged with one count of rape, five counts of indecent assault, four counts of indecently assaulting a child under 16, and one count of gross indecency between 1973 and 1990.

Rapson denies all allegations made against him. He is one of seven former priests or brothers at Rupertswood to have been publicly accused of abusing boys during their time at the school.

Also accused is former college principal Frank Klep, who was moved by the Salesians to Samoa in 1998 just before he was to face court on five charges of indecent assault, having served nine months (doing community work) in 1994. He returned to Australia in 2004 and was jailed in 2006 for five years and 10 months.

Another former principal, Julian Fox, is accused of abusing students during the 1970s and ’80s. He has been banned by the Salesians from contact with children and now works for the order’s head office in Rome.

Michael Aulsebrook, who was boarding master at Rupertswood in the early 1990s, was sentenced in 2011 to two years in jail, with 15 months wholly suspended, after pleading guilty to indecently assaulting a 12-year-old Rupertswood student.

Others include Father John ”Jack” Ayres, accused of abusing students in the ’60s and ’70s, and who is believed to now live in a nursing home in Samoa; Brother Gregory Vincent Coffey, who pleaded guilty to six counts of indecent assault against two students in 1976 and 1977 at Immaculate Heart College in Preston after he left Rupertswood; and Brother Peter Paul Van Ruth, who molested two 12-year-old boys within weeks of his appointment as dormitory master in the late 1960s, and was jailed last March on three counts of indecent assault.

Victoria Police say they are now using school year-books to contact hundreds of former students to ask if they had been victims or had witnessed abuse. Their initial investigation had focused on one suspect who had been at the school between 1980 and 1981, but the inquiry has been widened to encompass 1960 to 1990.

Meanwhile, the memories linger. Derrick speaks of priests who ”just weren’t like the other men you knew”, particularly given the way they behaved in the student communal washrooms.

”There would be a line of guys waiting for showers and some of these priests or brothers who were supervising would lean over the door instead of just banging on the door and telling you to get out. They would actually be peering over the door.”

What upsets Derrick most is how others knew what was going on and chose to look the other way.

A spokesman for the Salesian order declined to comment on the school’s past. He said it now ran a co-educational day school near the old mansion of Rupertswood. ”The nature of the school is very different from what it was back then,” the spokesman said. ”It provides excellent education for local kids and their families.

”All we can do is to continue the good work that is happening there and the other places where the Salesians have educational and outreach [services] to young people and continue to work with people in an open and honest, fair way.”