Former Knox head ‘sorry’ to Royal Commission into child abuse never enough
Over his time as headmaster of Knox, Dr Ian Paterson’s authority was as unimpeachable as his seeming integrity, a man whose piercing eyes were so powerful, so pervasive, he was known as “Snake”. A glare from him could turn an errant boy, including this one, into a pillar of salt at a distance of 100 metres on a dark day.
Yesterday, when he appeared before the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse to give evidence as to his role in systemic abuse and its coverups at the school, all was different.
This time the piercing eyes belonged to former Knox students in the public gallery, victims of pedophilia, wanting an answer to how he, of all people, could have presided over it. And instead of glaring back upon us, this time his eyes looked stunned, bewildered, that it really could have come to this.
At least he started well, saying, “I am deeply and profoundly sorry.”
But then when counsel assisting, David Lloyd, took him through the lowlights of his actions, we were all shown that a “sorry” was never going to be enough.
A 15 year-old boy who had come to Dr Paterson in the late 1980s, to tell him that a teacher Damien Vance had made advances on him beneath Knox chapel, was initially told to go away and think about it before repeating the allegation, because … why?
“The boy was a drama boy, who liked to exaggerate stories … ” Dr Paterson said, to gasps from the gallery. “And that was the reason why I asked him to go and think about it.”
But, counsel persisted, groping and propositioning a boy was a crime …
“I was not aware that it was a crime.”
Most staggering was the infamous episode in 1989 where a man in a balaclava sexually assaulted a boarder, a man that Dr Paterson suspected was boarding master Christopher Fotis.
Did he call the police?
“To contact the police I dont think entered one of our heads … “
In fact, Dr Paterson, unbelievably, gave him a reference:
“Mr. Fotis is an enthusiast for his job. He is meticulous in his preparation and definite in the standards he requires from his students. He has been of enormous help to the Chaplain in teaching Religious Education.”
No thought of the students at other schools now likely to be exposed to Fotis’ likely predatorial instincts?
“It never crossed my mind.”
On many other occasions during the testimony, when difficult scenarios were put to him where he had looked away, done nothing, disgraced himself and the school, Dr Paterson was very quick to deny they occurred, or to say “I cannot recall”. He acknowledged at the end of the day, in regard to Adrian Nisbett, that he believed offering boys cigarettes and alcohol was more serious than inappropriate touching.
He denied constantly that he ever put the reputation of the school ahead of the welfare of the students. In short there was no escaping one terrible conclusion for this former student.
While our headmaster, so strong on teaching us morals, the difference between right and wrong, and the importance of having shiny shoes, straight ties and lifting our boaters to people who stopped for us at pedestrian crossings, he was all that while himself acting in a manner that enabled the most devastating damage to students who were in his care. And then often moving those pedophiles on to wreak their havoc elsewhere.
Last week I wrote that in my time at Knox, Dr Paterson ran a tight ship. He did, above decks. What was going on below decks was truly appalling and unforgivable. He told us, constantly, “As ye reap, so shall ye sow.”
And now we are seeing it. In his case, his reputation is forever destroyed. And yet that is far from the worst of it. What truly counts is the victims, and I imagine we will be hearing from them in lawsuits for many years to come.