By Debbie Cuthbertson, Simone Fox Koob, Farrah Tomazin and Chris Vedelago
February 16, 2020 — 12.00am
“Jesus is coming to get you.”
That was the warning Lionel (not his real name) alleges Christian Brother Rex Francis Elmer gave in an attempt to silence him after he sexually assaulted him at a Melbourne orphanage in the 1970s.
The words rang in the boy’s ears long after.
Elmer “kissed me on the forehead and said well done” after molesting him, Lionel said.
“He then told me not to tell anyone. He said to me, if you tell anyone, Jesus would come down from heaven and take me away and you will not see your family or friends ever again,” he told police.
“I was scared and really believed what he had said, that Jesus would take me away if I said anything. I was an altar boy and I believed this.
“The word ‘Jesus’ was ringing in my ears.”
The assaults continued, as did the warnings, for more than a year, Lionel said. It was a vicious circle.
“This sort of incident happened at least two to three times a week,” Lionel said in his witness statement to police. “The same sort of thing. I would piss the bed scared at night that [Elmer] would come to me. I was petrified of him. I couldn’t tell anyone because I was scared of getting a flogging and being taken away by Jesus.”
Another boy who had complained about being abused by Elmer was flogged with a cane by another brother then removed from the St Vincent de Paul Boys’ Home, Lionel said.
“He dobbed Elmer in for doing something sexual to him. It was two days later that this guy who got hit and dobbed got taken from the home.”
He said he told another boy at the home about the abuse. That boy replied that Elmer had also sexually assaulted him. “We were both scared that Jesus would come to take us,” Lionel said. “This is what we thought happened to [the boy who left].”
Lionel said he also confided in a nun from a nearby convent. “I told her what Elmer had been doing to me. She said ‘Darling, please do not say a word to anyone, I will fix this for you’.”
Soon after he confessed to her, Lionel alleges, Elmer and two other brothers brutally beat him, including with a cane, in an assault that left him bleeding from his behind and bedridden for more than a week.
While he was still recovering, Lionel said, Elmer abused him again. He punched the boy repeatedly, giving him a black eye and bloody nose after the boy vomited on the brother during the assault.
When I spewed, he punched me in the face with a clenched fist … three or four times. I couldn’t see out of my left eye for a few days until the swelling went down. He said to me ‘Jesus is coming to get you’. This is the last time that I ever saw Elmer.”
In mid-1976, Elmer suddenly left St Vincent’s. “I don’t know what happened to Elmer, but he was gone from the home,” Lionel told police.
Lionel, now aged 59, said of the ongoing effect of his abuse: “I get teary talking about this but I have learnt to deal with it. It is always in my mind and it always hurts me.”
On Monday, Elmer pleaded guilty in the County Court to the indecent assault of two other complainants, also from St Vincent’s, in the 1970s, after which prosecutors did not proceed with charges related to Lionel’s accusations. That meant that Lionel’s witness statement was never tendered and Elmer never faced his allegations.
Court documents show the 75-year-old was charged in 2018 with 19 counts of indecent assault and one of false imprisonment in relation to three victims during the 1970s.
The first complainant, who had been in state care since infancy, told police Elmer repeatedly abused him between the ages of 11 and 13, usually while he was sleeping in a dormitory.
He said the first assault occurred when Elmer threw off his bed covers, demanded he do as he was told, and put his hand down the boy’s pyjama pants. The assault, however, was interrupted. “Someone has approached the bed as he was being assaulted by the accused, who then fled,” according to the police brief of evidence.
“The complainant was summoned to the office of the now deceased Brother in charge, Brother Carey … Shortly thereafter the complainant recalls being sexually abused by the accused on many occasions.”
The second complainant, who came to the orphanage aged seven after his parents died, was sexually abused by Elmer repeatedly between the ages of nine and 11.
On one occasion Elmer led the boy, who had been playing in the grounds of the home after school, upstairs into his private bedroom at the end of a dormitory.
Elmer produced a large book with pictures of human anatomy and made the boy sit on his knee while the brother asked him to name various body parts, including male genitalia, and masturbated against the boy’s back during the 20-minute assault.
As dormitory master at St Vincent’s, Elmer was responsible for up to 40 children at a time, aged between seven and 14.
The most senior Christian Brothers officials in Victoria knew in mid-1976, when they removed Elmer from the orphanage, that he had abused boys there.
Later that year they made Elmer principal of St Joseph’s, a Catholic boys primary school in Warrnambool.
Elmer was in charge of the school from 1976-81. He worked in the town alongside several other notorious paedophile clerics including priests Paul David Ryan and Robert Claffey, and fellow Christian Brother Edward Dowlan (all since jailed for child sexual assault).
Elmer left Warrnambool after more complaints about his behaviour at St Vincent’s reached his superiors. In 1988 he reappeared, in an article from a small Tasmanian newspaper called Western Tiers, published in his home town of Deloraine.
“Brother Rex Elmer will be spending Christmas at home with his mother … and family before leaving to go to Africa to set up a Mission School at Arushia [sic] in Tanzania with two other Christian Brothers,” the newspaper reported proudly on page 3.
“Rex was a pupil at Our Lady of Mercy College and St Patrick’s [College] and has been teaching at various schools, including Warrnambool in Victoria. He is hoping to see old school friends while at home and we all wish him well in the future.”
The school Elmer helped found in northern Tanzania is now run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers East Africa District and has more than 1300 students.
Elmer left the school in 1993 after more complaints surfaced, and was sent by his order to the United States for counselling at the St Luke Institute for paedophile Catholic clergy in Maryland.
He was charged In 1997 with 69 counts. He was convicted the next year of 12 counts: one charge of indecent assault against each of the 12 boys. The judge sentenced him to five years in prison with a minimum of three years and four months.
At his sentencing, Judge Thomas Neesham described Elmer, then 53, as a man of God who had indulged in “depraved self-gratification”, The Age reported at the time.
“Each of your victims was a small boy in your care. Each was an inmate,” he said. The boys, many of them orphans or wards of the state, were aged between eight and 12.
“They were helpless,” Judge Neesham said. “Who could they tell, who would believe them?
“All your victims wear deep emotional scars to this day as is brought out by their victim impact statements,” he said. “As a teacher and a man of God, how could you not have had an inkling of the devastation to your victims’ faith … by your act of misbehaviour.
“Your victims will have to live in the misery that you inflicted upon them … You will have to live with the disgrace that you brought on yourself and your family.”
Elmer had been living in a Christian Brothers home in Brunswick at the time of his first conviction and was still working for the order in an administrative role. In 2002, after his release from prison, he was placed him on “restricted ministry”.
He now resides in a property owned by the order in the same suburb. His bail was extended following his guilty plea this week until his sentencing in July.
“The accused is currently retired and resides within the Christian Brothers Community,” a police brief from his current case states.
The order has received 22 claims for redress from people who allege Elmer sexually abused them as children, according to documents it provided to Austalia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, which reported its findings in 2017.
Those claims all related to accusations of multiple assaults alleged to have occurred between 1969 and 1985 – from when Elmer was a novitiate (a Christian Brother in training) to the years when he worked in South Melbourne and Warrnambool, mainly during his time at St Vincent’s.
The documents also show the order knew that a number of victims had alleged that other clergy had participated in the abuse by Elmer.
Catholic Church Insurance (CCI) refused to cover the Christian Brothers in relation to any claims of abuse by Elmer after 1976, ruling the order – including its most senior cleric, then provincial Brother Patrick Naughtin – had “prior knowledge” of his crimes.
“Whilst the Visitation was in progress [13/06/1976], a Child Welfare Office reported to Brother [redacted] Acting Superior that Rex had been interfering with little boys; this was true and it had been attended to by the Provincial,” said a CCI document submitted to the royal commission.
In a letter dated June 20, 1976, Naughtin wrote to the acting superior of the orphanage: “Thank you very much for the report on the situation which developed … in connection with Br Elmer. It is indeed a serious and most unfortunate state of affairs and I am grateful for your bringing it to my attention so promptly.”
In his letter, Naughtin (who died in 2010) expressed concern for Elmer’s reputation, not for the welfare of the children he had abused. He also referenced the illegality of Elmer’s actions but did not report him to authorities.
“I have interviewed Br Elmer and discussed this position with him. He is clearly aware of the serious nature of his actions and I took pains to point out his legal and moral obligations in the matter.
“It seems to me extremely unlikely that there will be any recurrence of what had happened … It would seem to me best at this stage not to transfer Brother … immediately, though I would propose to announce his change next August – the usual time for releasing details of staffing for the following year.
“In coming to this decision I have been guided by the Brother’s assurance for the future, by his excellent record to date and by consideration for his reputation which would undoubtedly be harmed by a sudden transfer at this time.”
When Elmer left St Vincent’s he was replaced by Edward ‘Ted’ Dowlan, now one of the most notorious paedophile clerics in Victoria. They later worked together at St Joseph’s in Warrnambool.
A 1996 letter from an unnamed Christian Brother was submitted to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry in 2013 into the handling of child abuse by institutions, including religious orders. It sheds light on how widespread the abuse was at St Vincent’s, and how determined the church was to dismiss it.
“I accepted with good faith the sudden departure of Brother Elmer from the school and the appointment of Brother Dowlan to fill his position,” the letter reads. “Indeed, I spent many extra hours, which I could ill afford, assisting Brother Dowlan to understand the nature and behaviours of the boys and the teachers.
“As you are probably aware, many of St Vincent’s residents had been sexually abused, and often displayed overt and outrageous sexualised behaviour. Furthermore, they expected or requested that this behaviour be reciprocated by the adults in their lives. A major part of our endeavours at St Vincent’s was getting these boys to a point where they would expect not to be abused. Now I find that all of this work could have been compromised by the presence of a man like Brother Dowlan …
“I take note of your congregation’s position that the brothers were unaware of Brother Dowlan’s tendencies and activities. I cannot accept this as a reasonable position. I cannot believe that the number of allegations against this man could have been kept from his various communities’ and the congregation’s superiors. I find that expecting the public to believe this is preposterous. I do not believe this plea of ignorance.”
St Vincent’s orphanage closed in 1997. It was home to more than 6000 boys over 140 years.
Information provided by the Catholic Church to the royal commission showed it had received 114 claims of sexual abuse at the home, the highest number of any Catholic institution in Victoria.
The Christian Brothers declined to answer The Age’s questions about Elmer, citing “ongoing legal proceedings”.
If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue 1300 224 636.