When Justice Isn’t a Celebration

Today, following a scathing report by ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) journalists on the 4 Corners program aired on Monday, February 17th, Headmaster Stephen Russell – of Melbourne’s prestigious boys’ school St. Kevin’s College – resigned. He resigned full of disgrace following a blatant cover-up of a complaint involving a staff member grooming a young student.

Stephen Russell today resigned from his position as Headmaster of St. Kevin’s College, following a 4 Corners investigation into institutional child sexual abuse at the school. Photo: St. Kevin’s College

His resignation may be called for, it may be a positive result for all the past students, families and other staff involved in similar circumstances. It may be that Russell’s resignation is even the right thing to do – but what it isn’t (or wasn’t); is timely, and; nor is it a cause for celebration.

These incidents date back nearly seven years to 2013, when now registered sex offender – Peter Kehoe – groomed year 9 student Paris Street whilst acting as an athletics coach on school grounds.

So why is it only now that the hammer should fall?

ABC’s 4 Corners program aired an investigation recently which delved into the scandal involving Kehoe, which not only reveals his sexual misconduct towards young students, but also a gross mismanagement by the St. Kevin’s senior staff, who proceeded to then write ‘positive’ character and employment references for the accused, long after the incidents had been first brought to the school’s attention.

Headmaster Stephen Russell and long-time Dean of Sport, Luke Travers “wrote a glowing employment reference for Kehoe after Paris’s mother Caroline had expressly told Mr Travers about her son’s complaint”. (source: abc.net.au)

How this could come about is not only morally objectionable, but 100% reprehensible and completely, utterly wrong.

Let’s think about the role schools play in our society – the education of the young. No less private education, of which St. Kevin’s falls into, the prestige and promise that is tagged along with attending such institutions of high repute. To lead by example and mould our youth into striving for success through adulthood. Moreover, to protect them and cultivate them.

The perception that the college’s response portrays is that of betrayal, of failing to protect their students (our young) and, certainly in this case, sending Paris Street into a lifelong struggle with his own mental health – all to preserve the proud reputation of the school, which now ironically becomes heavily more tarnished than it would have had the complaint been dealt with appropriately.

Street’s recount of his dark years subjected to Mr. Kehoe’s behaviour on the 4 Corners program were highly emotive and utterly moving, often referring to his struggles since the incidents, describing the ordeal as “exhausting and debilitating”.

The fact of the matter is, that this resignation of Mr. Russell, and that of the Dean of Sport, should have happened long ago. There are so many layers of ethical responsibility to this saga that need to be identified, beginning at the top with Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA) – who have been seen to be publicly supporting Mr. Russell throughout the years following Street’s initial complaint and legal proceedings, right down to Kehoe himself who in a position of authority, performed the most heinous of abuses.

This issue is of course, not something new to us all, following the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which mostly concentrated on the Catholic Church and other institutions that lie within. The fact that St. Kevin’s has failed to act on such a response whilst the Royal Commission was taking place adds an extra element of doubt and mistrust within the school’s administration halls.

Mr. Street filed a suit against St. Kevin’s College which was settled out of court in August 2019, however financial damages cannot repair the mental scars which he must now wear forever.

Paris Street settled a case out of court against St. Kevin’s College in August 2019, following periods of hospitalisation for depression and being at risk of suicide following his experience with Mr. Kehoe. Photo: ABC/Four Corners

It is now known that two other staff members of the school are under investigation by EREA for similar complaints, so it begs the question: how many more kids have suffered under the watchful eyes of Stephen Russell and his team? How many incidents have been swept under the rug? How many ‘glowing’ endorsements have former staff who have engaged in underage sexual abuse have been given?

One thing we can celebrate is Paris Street’s bravery in coming forward with such a detailed, and at times horrifying account, of his time at St. Kevin’s College under the coaching guise of Peter Kehoe.

What we can’t celebrate is the resignation of a man who sat on this for 6+ years; who endorsed the man responsible (and eventually, convicted for these acts) and at every turn and every opportunity was so determined to keep the whole thing quiet and away from the public eye.

What we can’t celebrate is that the institutions within which these acts occur, continue to cover-up, lie, dismiss, scoff at allegations and ultimately race to protect their ‘image’ and their ‘reputations,’ only for them to emerge later, from the murkiest of waters imaginable, and an irreparable scorn burdened to their emblems, for the remote possibility in that initial moment of admitting fault – of admitting guilt – seemed to be the greatest and most emphatic burden of them all.

Josh Forner has no affiliation with St. Kevin’s College, EREA, the ABC or any other organisation involved in this editorial.

Sources: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyxPM-g6U2g
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-19/st-kevins-headmaster-stephen-russell-resigns/11980008
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-17/st-kevins-college-supported-sex-offender-over-student-victim/11957510

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