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How one man’s blindness allowed a generation of sexual abuse at Sydney’s Knox Grammar. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside the Knox Grammar’s sexual abuse scandal

He would become known as the “balaclava man”. At least in the sordid lore of Sydney’s Knox Grammar, and in the airing of it at this week’s hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The nom de guerre was useful for the school, for it suggested mystery and not the immediate implication of one of its own teachers. But the boys who were there referred to him by another name. Chris Fotis, religious teacher and resident master. 

Around 4.30 one morning in 1989, a 13-year-old student of Knox Grammar was asleep in his boarding house. He was woken suddenly by a man previously hiding beneath his bed. The man wore a balaclava and a Knox tracksuit. He groped the boy’s genitals. The victim screamed, triggering mayhem among the other boarders, and so the man draped the boy in his doona and ran. 

A few things suggested Fotis to the victim. His build, the tracksuit, and the fact he had earlier in the day promised the boy a “surprise”. But when news reached the headmaster, Dr Ian Paterson, his response wasn’t to call police but to announce an internal investigation and warn students about the perils of speculation. The account of what followed is debated. Some students and staff have testified that Paterson sought to mollify the boys by telling them that a “deranged Asian man” had been arrested by police and that he was the intruder. 

Paterson denies this. If true, it was an outrageous lie – Paterson never called the police about the incident. Ever. If Paterson did in fact say this, it was a clumsy sleight of hand. An attempt to convince the students their greatest threat came from unhinged outsiders, and not the wilfully maintained squalor of the school’s culture. The school itself was culturally homogenous: the “Asian” description eliminated suspicion it was one of their own.

This week, under oath, Paterson quibbled with his examiner’s description of the “balaclava incident” as “grave”.

“Then how would you describe ‘grave’?” asked David Lloyd, counsel assisting the commission. 

“I would define ‘grave’ very differently,” said Paterson. “As rape.”

Paterson could at least agree that what happened was serious, but could offer no explanation as to why he never advised police. “It never entered our heads.” If we are to believe Paterson, very little did in his 30 years as Knox headmaster. 

No background checks

Chris Fotis was a lucky man. He wasn’t a Knox Old Boy, but he knew some. Good guys. It was through them that he was offered a job there. As religious teacher and resident master, if he wanted it. It meant supervising the boarders in a particular house. He would live onsite. A room would be made available to him. Fotis was lucky because there were no checks done on him. Such was the blokey patronage of the Knox network. Fotis had two convictions, one of them for assaulting a woman. But there was no interview, no request for referees, and certainly no background checks. He got the job. 

Not long after the “balaclava incident”, Fotis drove to the front of a different school. It was home time and students were streaming past. He loosened his belt, took out his penis and began masturbating in view of the students. He was caught. Rather than be sacked and the offence recorded, Knox Grammar allowed Fotis to resign. The police were not called. Ian Paterson even furnished the man with a praiseful reference: “Mr Fotis is an enthusiast in the job … an enormous help.” 

Yes, Chris Fotis was a lucky man. But his luck seems to have run out. Summoned by the royal commission two weeks ago, Fotis failed to appear. An arrest warrant has now been issued for him. At time of writing, his whereabouts are unknown. Paterson, when asked this week why he had provided Fotis with a glowing endorsement, argued that he was required only to reflect upon Mr Fotis’s abilities as a religious teacher. It was an absurd defence. Under questioning, he would admit that the reference was, in fact, grossly misleading. 

Lord of his kingdom

Dr Ian Paterson, AM. Christian. Quasi-aristocrat. Legend of Knox Grammar. Paterson was an indoctrinator of values. A maker of men. Paterson was the patriarch of an institution named for one of history’s most bellicose misogynists, John Knox, who in 1558 wrote the pamphlet “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”. The Knox boys sheltered beneath the school’s Latin motto Virile Agitur, or “the manful thing is being done”. 

Paterson saw Knox as transformative, inducing tenacity, respect and discipline in its young men. There were army drills. Uniform inspections. Punishments if you dulled the lustre of your shoes. Paterson drew upon the Bible and a faith in the cohesive powers of ancient traditions. Any guide for living had been enunciated long ago – by Knox, by the Good Book. Recalling a comment made to him by Paterson, convicted paedophile and former Knox teacher Damien Vance said this week: “It was something fairly 19th century, which is a bit like him.” Some of the boys may have laughed at his fustiness. His antiquity. But his power was unimpeachable. He was the lord of his kingdom. 

Dr Ian Paterson, AM. The latter title was conferred by Her Majesty, the former the result of a doctoral thesis in education administration. After decades of wilful and staggering maladministration, his insistence on that title is an awful joke. Humility might suggest he abandon it – justice might demand the state withdraw the other.

This Tuesday, Paterson took the stand. The day before, he was accused of sexual assault when Lucy Perry, a CEO of an international charity, said the headmaster had groped her in front of an audience of Knox boys in the 1980s. The allegation was not put to him.

Paterson was sworn in on a Bible. His lawyer asked the court, if it pleased, if his client might make a statement before his examination. The court obliged. Paterson read from a prepared statement: “As headmaster I am responsible for all that occurs during my headmastership. There were matters that I knew about and other matters that I did not. However, without doubt I should have known and I should have stopped the events which led to the abuse and its tragic consequences for those boys in my care and their families … I accept the decisions I made were wrong and that I failed to recognise and hence respond sufficiently to events that we now know were indicators of a sinister and much bigger picture, a picture of serious sexual abuse that would damage the lives of so many.”

The statement was unambiguous. It drew straight lines on accountability. It expressed contrition. There was even a hiccup of emotion. And then, over the next five hours, the apparent moral clarity of the statement was hopelessly corrupted by parsing and arrogant obstinacy. By day’s end Paterson’s reputation was smouldering. 

It is remarkable how similar Paterson sounds to Cardinal George Pell, a man whose testimony to this commission I watched last year. First there is the voice itself. The deep timbre and patrician’s accent. If I closed my eyes I’m not sure I could distinguish them. Then there’s the expression. Curt. Irritated. Most average people quiver under legal questioning. They wish to please authority. Flatter it by offering more than is asked. But not Paterson. He is cold and unflappable. Just like Pell. There’s no fealty. He’s not intimidated. There’s only self-assurance. His clipped monosyllables offer proof. So it is tempting to imagine his disgust at this unnatural reversal. In his three decades as headmaster, how many boys had been summoned to his office? How many sat before him awaiting fearful condemnation? 

Between 10.30am and 4pm, David Lloyd patiently unfurled Paterson’s bleak record. In a commission that has heard at least a hundred hours of dismal testimony – on rape and institutional concealment – Paterson’s examination miraculously retained its capacity to shock. Our doctor of education had a simple method for employing teachers and boarding masters: recruit Old Boys. No interview. No references. No police checks. In such a way did convicted criminals and paederasts insinuate themselves at
Knox. “I didn’t know it was necessary,” Paterson said this week. “The times were different then. We made our own judgements. I don’t consider that a failure.”

This appeal to “other times” was a common formula in his defence. When asked why he had not bothered to question and counsel a boy who had allegedly been assaulted, Paterson said: “Looking back, yes [I should have done that].” He repeated this phrase three times in rapid succession, then added: “It was not a failure at the time.” Lloyd came to call these qualifications “hindsight concessions” – Paterson was insisting that, at the time, he didn’t consider his decisions improper. It was a form of self-exoneration and he used it tirelessly. No due diligence in the recruitment of staff? “In retrospect, I should have.” Failure to call the police to investigate the “balaclava man”? “In retrospect, I should have.” In retrospect. Should have. Paterson was offering a younger version of himself, haplessly buffeted by “the times” and imperfect knowledge, but innocent of malice. It’s difficult to reconcile this with the unambiguity of his opening statement. Impossible, you might say. 

The problem with writing your own story to mitigate past failures is that it often bends towards naivety and incompetence. By offering himself merely as a cypher for “the times” – that vague but useful construct – Paterson was sacrificing the old vision of himself as
a morally stout and independent leader. But the implication of this narrative is that he was miserably weak. Unmanly.
A weather vane.

Except, we know he was much worse. We learnt this week that Ian Paterson was once told that teacher Damien Vance – another Old Boy – had shared cigarettes with a student in the basement of the school’s church. Then he grabbed the boy’s behind and asked for sex. Told this by the boy himself, Paterson’s response was to send the student to the library to sit alone and “think about what he had said”. There was no support for the boy. Asked about his reaction, Paterson said: “He was a drama boy. He liked to exaggerate.” Vance was convicted for this indecent assault in 2009, but only after a long teaching career assisted by Paterson’s written endorsement. “Mr Vance is a strong teacher and personality… He is highly experienced and he knows the art and craft of teaching, both in the classroom and the sports field.”

Vance wasn’t sacked. He was allowed to resign. Paterson never made any record of the allegations. Nor did he call police. Asked why he didn’t, Paterson said this week, “I wasn’t aware it was a matter for the police or a crime.” 

Ian Paterson oversaw five convicted paedophiles, as well as the absconded Chris Fotis. And they are merely the men brought before the courts. There may have been others – victims have said as much during this commission. For each of the six men, Paterson responded similarly – or, rather, failed to respond. The pattern was: never call the police. Retain the services of the teacher, or allow them to quietly resign. Offer no counselling to the student. Inquire as little as possible. Keep “sparse” notes, limiting a paper trail of accountability. And, if required, offer flattering references to the offending staff member when they move on.

This happened repeatedly over three decades, and it protected a nest of predators. On Wednesday, it was revealed that Paterson had deliberately misled a police investigation into Knox abuse. It is difficult to overstate the bankruptcy of Paterson and his governance. Difficult to lurch into hyperbole. That his arrogance has survived this spiritual contamination is extraordinary. Testament, I suppose, to the stringency of cognitive dissonance. Christian. Member of the Order of Australia. Head of an institution that produced Rhodes Scholars, a prime minister and a Hollywood star. He was a custodian of virtue. Hadn’t he been validated? By the Queen, the state, his peers? Wasn’t he validated by his very position? Wasn’t it enough to commit to this place, to suppress the wicked contingencies of lust and protect Knox’s reputation? Modernity was a vandal, but Knox would stand firm. Implacable. It was bigger than these wayward men. It would go on. Virile Agitur

A gifted manipulator

Craig Treloar was appointed resident master of Gillespie House the usual way – a chat and a slap on the back. No application. No references. No checks. He was an Old Boy. In 1982 he settled into his new room. His job would ask that he supervise the boarders of Gillespie, but in 1984 he would also assume teaching duties at the preparatory school. He would keep that position until 2009. 

Treloar was a gifted manipulator, his grooming techniques advanced. He ingratiated himself by flattering boys with secrets and gifts, and demonstrating how cool he was. He played rock music and made ironic devil signs as he swayed to the music. AC/DC was commonly played. He knew to discover the boy’s individual interests, and then feigned similar passion himself. He knew the ways. 

Coryn Tambling was a gifted student, but vulnerable. His parents had sent him to Knox from Darwin. He was a long way from home. He began at Knox a year after Treloar, in 1983. A report card from the following year reads: “One of the most co-operative and well-mannered boys in our community.” Tambling was more vulnerable because of the distance from home. Whereas most of the other boarders went home on weekends, Tambling stayed under the watch of Treloar in largely empty premises. 

Treloar took an interest in Tambling. He initially tested the waters by suggesting to the boy that “AC/DC” was all about sexual flux, that bisexuality was natural. It was Treloar’s way to adjudicate Tambling. Was he curious? Offended? Should he escalate his advances or withdraw them? Meanwhile, Treloar was taking a select few boys on special weekend outings. Trips to the movies or the rugby league. He’d buy them soft drink and lollies. He was the cool uncle – a role he had assiduously created. 

One weekend, Gillespie House was all but empty. Only Treloar, Tambling and one other student remained. Treloar asked the boy to his room. Last week, Tambling testified that Treloar told him he loved him. “During that conversation he showed me a photo of himself from a student union magazine in which he was naked and holding a wine box in front of his genitals. He also told me about a sexual affair he had with a secretary at the teachers’ union.”

Treloar then asked Tambling to take a ride with him. Tambling assented and Treloar drove them to an adult video store. While Tambling waited in the car, Treloar picked out a selection. In his private quarters, with a locked door, Treloar showed the videos to the boy. One involved heterosexual sex. One bestiality – “cows, chickens, pigs and snakes”. The last showed paederasty. “It was completely confusing,” Tambling said last week. “Almost everything I knew about sex came from Treloar and I was shocked and amazed that this is what adults did. The third movie was a homosexual gangbang involving teenage boys. By this time I was completely shocked, these kids were my age and a little older. As I was watching this, Treloar said to me: ‘See how much fun they are having? You could be part of this.’”

It was not long after this that Treloar lay back on his bed and requested oral sex from Tambling. Tambling knelt. But then a realisation. This wasn’t right. He said so and Treloar bolted. Word got out and the story eventually got to Paterson. Surprising as it is, it is no surprise to find that Paterson did not call the police. Nor did he thoroughly inquire into the matter. “I have no memory of what I said to Treloar,” Paterson said this week, but admitted to not having asked him the fundamentals: what kind of pornography, had he abused the boy, had he shown such tapes to anyone else, had he propositioned boys, etc. Treloar admitted that he had shown pornography, and so was shocked to find that Paterson merely suspended him for six months. When he returned, he would teach at the same school for another quarter of a century. 

“I dealt with the facts before me,” Paterson said this week.

Paterson’s deliberately barren investigations meant there weren’t any facts. That was by design. Meanwhile, Tambling’s behaviour deteriorated. He was depressed and anxious and loathed authority. He was mistrustful. The positive report card he received in 1984 would be replaced by this one of 1989, written by Paterson: “Coryn was one of our most difficult fellows.”

In 1990, a year after leaving Knox, Tambling returned to the school for a comedy revue. One of the boarding houses was putting on a show. Furious, Tambling buttonholed Paterson and told him what had happened, and why he had misbehaved so much. This week David Lloyd relayed the anecdote to Paterson, and asked him if he remembered it. He did not. “There was comedy that night … so not sure if that would have hit me hard. The excitement of the time, the news wouldn’t have registered.”

My mouth was agape when I heard that. It would have angered Tambling when he heard it, but the royal commission has helped him. What happened at Knox has haunted him – and the Treloar episode wasn’t the end of it. He attributes drug, alcohol and marital problems to it. He cannot hold down a job, so contemptuous is he of authority. Knox has never left him. But this week he did say, “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to tell my story and that this royal commission has been established to prevent future suffering of children in Australian institutions.”

Another victim, Scott Ashton, testified last week. As a nine-year-old he was molested by Barrie Stewart. There were multiple incidents, repeated by other teachers when he left the preparatory school. In 1986, when Ashton was 16, he left Knox and enrolled in North Sydney Technical College. He also became a sex worker. That year, he testified, he was contacted by a boy he knew who invited him to a party where he understood he would be paid for sex. Two other boys, who were students of Knox at the time, were also there. Ashton, still 16, said he was given cocaine and paid $1000 to have anal sex with one of his former teachers. He identified the man as Treloar. “I attended the party and there were about 10 Knox teachers, including Stewart, [Adrian] Nisbett and Vance. There were other teachers as well and it was apparent to me that there was a large paedophile cohort at the school.”

Paterson assures us that it wasn’t apparent to him, despite the evidence. Thanks to the royal commission, his blindness can no longer hide it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "Inside the Knox abuse scandal". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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