ABC 7:30 Report Prestigious private schools face multi-million dollar lawsuits from alleged abuse victims

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Reporter:Lorna Knowles

Claims for damages are being sought against schools including The Scots College, Knox Grammar, Waverley College and De La Salle, Revesby Heights.

Transcript LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Men who say they were sexually abused by their school teachers are preparing to sue their alma maters, claiming the elite schools failed in their duty of care.

Last year the Royal Commission into child sex abuse heard damning revelations about Knox Grammar School in Sydney – and five of its staff members were convicted.

But tonight 7.30 can reveal that the abuse of private school children was more widespread.

As Lorna Knowles explains in this exclusive report, the men are launching a string of separate legal actions for millions of dollars in damages.

LORNA KNOWLES, REPORTER: It’s been more than 20 years since Adrian Coorie saw the last of De La Salle College in Sydney.

(Footage of Adrian Coorie and Lorna Knowles walking outside the perimeter of De La Salle College’s grounds)

ADRIAN COORIE, FORMER DE LA SALLE STUDENT: It’s strange. It’s a bit daunting, actually. Yeah, I… From one point over here I was able to see the office. There happened to be someone sitting outside the office. But it jogged a few memories.

LORNA KNOWLES: Painful memories of sexual abuse he suffered when he was a young boy.

Adrian was 10 years old when he first met religion teacher Errol Swayne, who lived in a caravan on the school grounds.

ADRIAN COORIE: That’s the original science blocks. And actually tucked in behind there was where the van used to be located all the time.

LORNA KNOWLES: It was in that caravan, during weekend visits, that Swayne would show Adrian pornographic films and sexually assault him.

During school hours, Swayne regularly sent Adrian to his office for punishment, where he would molest him.

ADRIAN COORIE: He would explode in the classroom when sending me out. So I bet every student in that class felt that: you know, “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.

(Adrian points beyond the school gates)

ADRIAN COORIE: You can see the original science block just over there…

LORNA KNOWLES: The abuse continued for two years. Then, when Adrian was 15, Swayne committed suicide.

Many years later Adrian told his story to the royal commission and discovered that he wasn’t the only victim.

ADRIAN COORIE: 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.

LORNA KNOWLES: Adrian is now suing the college for damages. He alleges the school knew – or ought to have known – that Swayne was a “habitual sexual abuser of boys” and failed to ensure his safety.

(Footage of Adrian in meeting with Ross Koffel)

ROSS KOFFEL, LAWYER AND FORMER KNOX GRAMMAR STUDENT: Your claim occurred a long time ago and…

LORNA KNOWLES: His case is one of a dozen claims that lawyer Ross Koffel is preparing against some of the country’s most prestigious private schools.

ROSS KOFFEL: It is a systemic problem in the institutions, in the schools, and in relevant government departments where children were being looked after.

LORNA KNOWLES: What will be alleged in these new claims?

ROSS KOFFEL: Sexual abuse of the students during school hours in most cases and on the school premises. And it just really couldn’t be worse.

LORNA KNOWLES: Ross Koffel has already filed 10 claims in the New South Wales Supreme Court against De La Salle College Revesby, Knox Grammar, The Scots College and Waverley College. He’ll file another two claims in coming months and says he’s investigating a further eight cases.

(Footage of royal commission hearings)

JOHN RENTOUL, FATHER OF ABUSE VICTIM: I was shocked and outraged when David told us of the abuse. (Cries)

(Footage ends)

LORNA KNOWLES: It was hearing weeks of evidence about widespread child abuse at his former school, Knox Grammar, that galvanised Ross Koffel into action.

ROSS KOFFEL: It was horrendous. I was deeply affected by what had happened, because I had a recollection of the places, the rooms, the school, the playgrounds where it occurred. I knew a lot of the teachers by name. And I was just completely floored.

LORNA KNOWLES: The royal commission heard disturbing accounts of a group of paedophile teachers abusing school children, most of whom have now been charged and convicted.

After the Knox hearings last year, Mr Koffel went public and has been approached by a large number of men who alleged they were abused at other elite schools.

ROSS KOFFEL: It just seemed to me to be the same problem in school after school after school. And yes: that the surprise to us was how many schools, how many students are affected.

LORNA KNOWLES: They include one of the nation’s most exclusive and expensive private schools, The Scots College.

(Footage of Tom Jackson in meeting with Ross Koffel)

So the current position is that we have the statement of claim file…

LORNA KNOWLES (voiceover): Tom Jackson’s parents wanted to give him with the best education money could buy.

TOM JACKSON, FORMER SCOTS COLLEGE STUDENT: …them requiring particulars from me…

(Footage ends)

LORNA KNOWLES: Instead, his school life was miserable. He was 13 years old, on a school trip to the outback, when he was abused by the head maths teacher, John Beckett.

TOM JACKSON: It was on the third night. We had made it to South Australia. There were some rules during the- when it came to sleeping time, where we weren’t allowed to sleep with our underwear on.

LORNA KNOWLES: It was a hot evening and Tom accepted Beckett’s offer to help cool him down.

TOM JACKSON: His approach to that was to would run his fingers and up down our chest. And it worked. It cooled me down. And it was on a voluntary basis: like, “Who needs it?” It was like, “Yeah, I’ll try it” or something like that.

And so that was… that was it. That sort of set the scene. And then… he said, you know, “I’ll come back later if you like and if it’s, you know, still hot I can try it again” or something like that.

And he came back again later, while most people were asleep. I’d say- I don’t know what time it was: maybe three hours later or something like that. And did it again and this time, though, continued down to touch me everywhere.

LORNA KNOWLES: Tom confronted Beckett the next day and he denied any wrongdoing. Tom was miles from home and felt angry and confused.

TOM JACKSON: I was 13: puberty. I questioned my sexuality from that point onwards… ’til, you know, having to do a lot of work on it therapeutically and…

LORNA KNOWLES: Tom says he started acting up at school and barely passed the HSC.

It took him another nine years to tell his parents.

TOM JACKSON: Instantly my Dad was like, “We’ve got to go see the school.”

LORNA KNOWLES: Was anything done?

TOM JACKSON: Ah… not for my knowledge. Beckett taught for another two years.

LORNA KNOWLES: It was only when two witnesses to Beckett’s assaults on boys came forward that a criminal investigation began. Tom and two other victims were interviewed and Beckett was charged.

Last year he was convicted of sexually abusing boys at Scots College.

Ross Koffel is now suing The Scots College on behalf of Tom and two other students who were abused by Beckett on that trip in 1989. He’ll allege that Beckett was a notorious paedophile and that the school failed to protect students from his sexual predation.

ROSS KOFFEL: I hope that it’ll force the schools to have new procedures, so that these things can never happen again.

LEIGH SALES: That report by Lorna Knowles.