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What The Royal Commission On Child Abuse Didn’t Fix – Andrew Coffey vs Shore

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Sydney Church of England Grammar School

What The Royal Commission On Child Abuse Didn’t Fix – Andrew Coffey vs Shore

It was 4.43 pm on September 2 when Andrew called. The precise time matters because of what he had to say and what happened in the next 90 minutes.

Andrew Coffey is his name. He’s being brave to use it because he has been through the mill and he was now about to expose it all in detail. Andrew insisted that what he was about to say should be recorded and then given to the ABC’s 7.30. Why will become clear.

Andrew, in short, was raving. What I didn’t know at the start of the call was that he had driven to a headland and was now sitting alone with a canister of petrol next to him. He also had a lighter.

There were several targets for Andrew’s rage, insurance companies prominent among them. But when you boiled it down it was the system: being passed from department to department by employees of huge organisations that are meant to care, but don’t, and transfer your call on to people who don’t know anything about you and your case – which you then have to explain, again and again.

It was about 10 minutes into the call that Andrew declared he’d had enough. When night fell, as he sat watching the ocean, he would douse himself with petrol and end it all.

I had a hunch that the best thing to do was to keep him talking. Maybe he would calm down. See reason. Pigs might fly. Andrew? Andrew?

Silence. He was gone.

There are two heroes in this short 90 minutes of life. One is Andrew for having made it to the age of 62 given what he says happened to him at the age of 15. The other is the NSW police officer who got to Andrew fast and talked him down before darkness fell. There were minutes in it.

I only found out the next day when Andrew sent a message to say sorry and thanks. (He had also sent a suicide note by text to his lawyers, Koffels, who mobilised to track him down.) He had been taken to hospital and later released into the care of his family.

Turns out Andrew was well into his plan when he saw torchlights coming up the hill to the headland where he was sitting. He was persuaded to drop what he was doing and to walk away before an officer brought him to the ground.

“I even failed at killing myself,” Andrew says ruefully now.

It was not the first time Andrew’s tried to take his life. This time though he had felt something new.

“Right at the end, I thought I wanted to be alive.”

Andrew Coffey’s is a voice from the void

If you assumed the ordeal for child sex abuse victims somehow ended with the McClelland Royal Commission into institutional Responses set up by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2013 then Andrew Coffey’s case is proof of how wrong that it is.

His story demonstrates how hard it continues to be to seek justice through the legal system where non-disclosure agreements act as a key bargaining chip for institutions. It is also, ultimately, the story of how people acting out of genuine goodwill and the Christian values they espouse, but often ignore, can make every bit of difference to a broken life.

The royal commission hearings acted as a daily reminder of what Andrew Coffery says occurred to him back in 1974 when he was a student at Sydney Church of England Grammar School, better known as Shore.

The hearings also made some sense of the horror of Andrew’s own life. In 2018, more than four decades on, he took himself off to the police and disclosed what had occurred. Andrew had crossed paths with a science teacher named Colin Fearon who, he said, abused him at the school.

Andrew was gripped by a need to find out everything he could about Fearon. He pursued freedom of information requests through the police. He also came across a report I had made on Fearon for the ABC’s 7.30 Report years earlier and he got in touch.

I suggested Andrew get a lawyer, ASAP. This was the first step to seeking justice. It also meant that Andrew’s life was about to enter a new hell.

Shore’s insurers call in Pell’s man

Shore is one of Australia’s wealthiest schools with playing fields and facilities fit for princes. It also promotes itself as a bastion of Christian values. But when Andrew Coffey’s complaint arrived it followed an utterly god-less protocol. The School, which takes in around $75 million a year in fees and government funds, on top of its $370 million in assets, handed the issue to the insurance company for the school’s owner, the Anglican archdiocese.

Shore’s insurers appointed lawyer, John Dalzell, whose name is associated with the so-called Ellis defence which the Catholic church under then Sydney archbishop George Pell had used with devastating effect on victims of child sex abuse.

Dalzell, now with Dentons lawyers, was then with Corrs Westgarth, the legal firm retained by the Catholic Church. The Church made the case that there was no legal entity that could be held responsible for the actions of its clergy which meant there was no entity a victim could sue.

Legally it worked a treat but morally and it was the antithesis of what a church should do. The church abandoned the defence in 2019 in the wake of the McClellan Royal Commission.

From Andrew Coffey’s point of view, Shore was sending a signal.

“Why Shore School and presumably the Church of England would think it a good idea to appoint Dalzell – given his past history – beggars belief. Whatever their reason, I interpret this as an aggressive step by the school and church, which is not what I had hoped for,” Andrew Coffey said.

It also triggered feelings of dread and despair that engulfed Andrew Coffey further.

A dangerous paedophile and the case against Shore

Andrew Coffey’s parents believed they had done the right thing by their son in getting him a place in Sydney’s exclusive harbourside school. Shore was also reminiscent of the English grammar school tradition with its boaters and grey suits and prefects and house groups familiar to the Coffey family.

Andrew’s was a life of innocence and hope. Fearon’s was the polar opposite. Unbeknownst to the Coffey’s the school had on its staff a man who was on the run.

Years earlier Fearon had fled New Zealand after police began investigating allegations of sexual abuse made against him when he was a teacher in Auckland.

After arriving in Australia he was hired by St Aloysius, a Jesuit-run school on Sydney’s lower North Shore. While there he sexually abused at least one student, a boy called Lucien Leech-Larkin. The abuse changed Lucien overnight. His mother took the matter to the school principal who denied any knowledge or liability. But quietly Fearon was, it seems, moved on. For Lucien, the encounter with Fearon ushered in decades of depression and destruction.

Fearon’s next school was Shore, just up the road. It was here that Fearon pounced on a young Andrew Coffey for skylarking in a classroom at break time. Andrew remembers being grabbed from behind by the teacher and marched into the empty office of the school’s Sergeant. Fearon ordered Andrew to remove his pants and had him bend over a chair He caned the teenager twice on his bare buttocks and then, allegedly, forcibly penetrated his anus with an object. In his police interviews decades later Andrew Coffey described it as being ‘fucked in the arse’. Records assembled by Andrew’s law firm show that the teenage boy’s grades soon dipped. He became troubled, so much so that the school suggested he move on.

Andrew Coffey never really recovered. Like Lucien Leech-Larkin, Andrew spent decades adrift and in despair, behaving in ways that have shamed him. Andrew has been in and out of psychiatric care and has taken more than his share of illicit drugs. He is married and has two children, one of whom has disabilities and needs daily care.

For most of his life, he had believed he was the only one – but he wasn’t.

By the late 1990s, Fearon’s crimes had caught up with him. He was charged with sexually abusing three teenage boys. One of them was a student from Shore in 1974, the same year as Andrew Coffey. Andrew Coffery knew nothing of this until very recently. (Fearon avoided a court hearing on the grounds he was too ill to stand trial. )

Later, NSW police records obtained by Andrew disclosed that there had been yet another complaint about Fearon from a former Shore boy, also relating to an act committed in 1974.

The police file revealed that investigators had obtained documents from Shore on Fearon years earlier.

Amongst the notes was a startling revelation: police had received documents on “historical sexual assaults correspondence” covering the period 1952 to 1996.

It meant that Andrew Coffey was far from the only boy to allege abuse by Colin Fearon. It also meant that the Shore school, a pillar of the establishment, had a 60-year record of dealing with abuse allegations.

The great and the good

The Shore school was established under the St James’ School Compensation Trust Act (1886) and is governed by a 17 member council which is dominated by Anglican church appointments. Six clergy and six lay members of the council are appointed by the Synod of the Diocese of Sydney. The remaining five members are elected by the Shore old boys’ union.

The council’s president is the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev Kanishka De Silva Raffel. The school is a highly successful business operation that commands enormous fees from parents keen to see their children prosper. At the same time, the school’s pitch is soaked in the religious language of compassion and love. It offers a long and well-argued case for the role of faith in the 21st century.

Its website promotes a sterling image of itself – past, present and future – when it comes to sex abuse. Shore insists that it holds “and has always held” a commitment to be above reproach in our responsibilities to all children and young people entrusted to our care” – despite police records indicating problems back to 1952.

Shore is a signatory to the National Redress Scheme, the legal mechanism which offers a way for parties to avoid the courts. But the standard compensation levels on offer are relatively low and much less than the awards being made by courts.

Andrew Coffey is in the middle of that court process which has been a case of lawyers at 50 paces.

In the legal contest between victims of sex abuse and institutions, the institution and its insurers have the upper hand.

They have the money and resources to withstand a drawn-out process while victims enter a nether world of waiting for some form of resolution as they tell their story again and again to lawyers and independent psychiatrists, with no clear end-point. Insurers have no emotional tie to the case. For the victim the opposite is true.

The role of non-disclosure agreements

Andrew Coffey – like many in his position – has one card to play: the story of what he says happened to him at Shore is bad news for the school’s reputation.

In most negotiations, it is the one bit of leverage victims have and silence, via can come with a premium in exchange for signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

So is Andrew Coffey now throwing away whatever advantage he might have?

“No. I have no intention of signing an NDA. I want the truth to be known and to be out there, even if not signing it gets in the way of a settlement.”

Andrew Coffey also has a challenge for the clergy and the leading citizens that make up the Shore Council. It involves getting the insurers out of the frame.

“What I would really like to do,” he told Crikey, “is to meet with the council members and discuss this person to person, even if it is one versus 17.

“I know none of them are responsible for what happened in 1974 but to me this is an opportunity for them to accept responsibility on behalf of the school and to be open about the past and make a statement about who they are, rather than try to keep it shut down.”

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

I’ve been writing Andrew Coffey’s story on and off while doing other reporting for Crikey. But I haven’t been the only one. It turns out that Andrew Coffey has also been at it, writing emails fashioned into arrows to those on the other side of the legal divide.

Reading them it’s as though Andrew has gone rogue, abandoning any process that a lawyered-up victim is meant to follow.

Andrew has basically thrown the rule book away. He’s written directly to Shore’s lawyer, John Dalzell, and has put Dalzell on the spot about why he does what he does.

Here are excerpts from one email:

“Hi John,

I thought that I would email you.

I’m trying to figure out why you do what you do; what drives you to take on victims of sexual abuse, and how does doing so fulfil you, how your conscience decides that you are making a worthwhile contribution in the area you are best known for. Fame, fortune, respect from your clients, some type of inner calling to defend institutions against their victims? Perhaps – whilst using your obvious intelligence and renowned skills – you too have been able to live wearing the two hats of individual and lawyer, prosecuting positions that one might expect to be in conflict with your personal rather than your professional views. That must take a lot of strength to be able to separate the two, as you seem to achieve, to be resolute in your goal to deny victims what they seek.

Man, a bloke of your learning, your experience, your intellect – how can I convince you to decide that you would rather represent the victims. If you were on the side of the victims, what difference would that make to victims? How much would it cost me to help you change sides? Well, I have it in mind to attempt to do so, if only to put my life experience to some worthwhile use in what some would describe as a good cause.

Anyway, you and I will meet. You will try your very best to defeat me, as I see it. A tip from me here is for you to harass me as much as possible, put me down, upset me and continue to deny liability on behalf of your client – because although I’m going to fight you as hard as I can, I’m liable to lose that ability to go on with the fight based on my history. At some point, it is conceivable that the upset will get on top of me and force me to give up on all this.”

John Dalzell has replied the only way he can – by pointing out that the rules of the game prevent him from writing directly to a litigant. He has told Crikey XXXX

But Andrew Coffey’s email frenzy has also, miraculously, hit the mark.

Shore’s Community chaplain, Rev Dr Nick Foord, wrote back to Andrew Coffey expressing horror about what he’d learnt from one of Coffey’s emails.

And it was more than lip service: Foord got into his car and drove north three hours to Andrew Coffey’s house. The two met and conversed.

Within days Foord got back to Coffey with a development: he had arranged a face-to-face meeting for Andrew with Shore’s headmaster and the head of Shore’s school council, the well-connected Bay Warburton, one time chief of staff to former NSW Premier Mike Baird.

And how did that feel?

“Yeah. Good,” Coffey said. “It’s not everything yet but it means I can talk to them direct and let them know how I feel. I just want them to know”.

The meeting is set for early December.

Around the same time, there was news from a whole other quarter that had nothing to do with Andrew Coffey and everything to do with him. The Armidale School (TAS) in the north of NSW had decided to resolve the outstanding grievances from a paedophile teacher back in the 1960s by agreeing to publish a full-page apology in The Weekend Australia along with the school’s “unequivocal support” to alumni.

“We encourage former students who may have suffered from, or have knowledge of, historical abuse to come forward so the perpetrators can be brought to justice,” the school wrote. Like Shore, TAS is an Anglican school.

Maybe, just maybe, schools will see the sense in facing up to the past with openness and compassion.

If so then Andrew Coffey is part of a small revolution. In the meantime, there’s still a legal mediation booked for early next year.


 

This article originally appeared on Crikey and is republished here with the kind permission of the author David Hardaker.

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