This Christian Brother abused children in a Melbourne orphanage but was allowed to keep his career

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 17 April 2020

The Catholic order of Christian Brothers knew that Brother Rex Elmer had been committing sexual crimes against boys in a Melbourne orphanage-like institution. But the Christian Brothers administrators allowed Elmer to continue his life-long career as a senior Brother in Catholic schools. His crimes were concealed from the police. The administrators also allowed him to spend time working as a Brother in Africa. Eventually, some of his Australian victims (acting separately) reported Elmer's crimes to police, resulting in him being convicted by Melbourne courts in 1998 and in 2020. He is currently awaiting sentence in the 2020 case.

This Broken Rites article will describe the 1998 court case first, followed by the 2020 case.

In court documents, Elmer's full name is given as Rex Francis Elmer, born on 1 December 1944. When he joined the Christian Brothers, he was given a new middle name, Ignatius (in honour of an ancient saint). Thus, he became listed in the Christian Brothers publications as "Brother Rex Ignatius Elmer".

Brother Rex Elmer belonged to the Victoria-Tasmania province of the Christian Brothers, having joined the order in 1961 when he was 16. In 1971, after teaching in various schools, he was appointed as principal of a Catholic primary school in the South Melbourne area.

While working at South Melbourne, he began living at St Vincent's Boys Home (an institution for boys who were wards of the state) which was situated nearby in Cecil Street, South Melbourne. At the Boys' Home, each dormitory housed boys according to their age and a Christian Brother (for example, Brother Elmer) was responsible for those within that group. It was some of these victims who eventually reported Elmer to the Victoria Police, resulting in him being charged in court in 1998.

St Vincent’s orphanage closed in 1997. It was home to more than 6000 boys over 140 years.

The 1998 court case

Brother Elmer (then aged 53) appeared in the Melbourne County Court in September 1998. A Broken Rites representative was present in court. At this time, Brother Elmer was living at a Christian Brothers residence in Brunswick, Melbourne.

The 1998 court hearing was told that, at night, from 1971 to 1976, Elmer was in charge of one or other of the dormitories at the orphanage. In several of those years, he had a dormitory containing younger boys, aged 7 to 12.

At night, Elmer would sexually touch boys under the blankets for his own gratification, the court was told. Sometimes a boy was forced to masturbate Elmer, the court was told.

In the 1998 case, Elmer was charged with 61 incidents, including buggery and indecent assault, involving 13 boys, aged between seven and eleven. Each victim told the police that he was sexually abused by Elmer about once or twice a week for a year or more. One boy was assaulted on his tenth birthday.

The Christian Brothers administration hired a leading Melbourne Queen's Counsel to defend Elmer in the 1998 court case and to oppose the victims. This barrister was expensive but he proved to be a good investment for the Christian Brothers. He managed to get the case against Elmer scaled down considerably, resulting in a plea bargain.

The prosecution agreed to drop the buggery charge and Elmer pleaded guilty to one incident of indecent assault (that is, indecent touching, which is a less serious charge than a penetration charge) on each of 12 boys.

As stated by Judge Thomas Neesham during his sentencing remarks, the boys were helpless. Most were wards of the state and had nobody who would believe them. The judge said that one boy, who arrived at the orphanage in 1974, tried to complain to the orphanage administration about Elmer but was reprimanded.

Another boy dared to tell his parents but they were "devout" Catholics. The boy told police: "My father slapped me across the face and told me I was telling lies" because Christian Brothers would "never" molest boys.

The judge commented: "It is little wonder that all the victims have scars to this day."

Elmer's career

In the 1998 hearing, during submissions by the prosecution and the defence, more information emerged. In 1976, another boy told his parents about Elmer and was believed. But the Christian Brothers withheld this complaint from the police. The Victorian province of the Christian Brothers then appointed Elmer as principal of St Joseph's primary school in Warrnambool, in south-western Victoria, where he taught Grade 6 until 1981.

Later, after more complaints surfaced about Elmer at St Vincent's Boys Home, the Christian Brothers sent him to teach in the village of Sinon in Tanzania, East Africa, where the Christian Brothers (also known as the Edmund Rice network) were developing a school. Elmer's absence from Australia put him out of the reach of Australian police. He stayed in Tanzania until 1993.

In 1993, after still more complaints surfaced, Elmer was given an expensive trip to the United States to have a stay the St Luke Institute for pedophile Catholic clergy — twenty years too late. On returning to Australia, he was given administrative duties at the Christian Brothers Victorian headquarters in Parkville, Melbourne, until the police finally caught up with him.

Jailed in 1998

In sentencing Elmer in 1998, Judge Neesham said that this sentence was merely for the charges which were presented for sentencing. He said that while he must sentence on the evidence before him, he would be loath to infer that the absence of evidence proving further offences meant that none had occurred.

Elmer was sentenced to five years' jail, with parole after 40 months.

Other victims

The victims in the 1998 court case were not Elmer's only victims at the orphanage — they were merely those who signed a statement for the police. Outside the court, a welfare worker told Broken Rites that he had a list of Elmer victims much larger than the list that was given in court.

One of Elmer's victims was "David", born on 1 March 1968. David was at St Vincent's orphanage from age 5 to 16, together with two older siblings. David alleged that Elmer molested him when he was aged 7 and 8. After being discharged from the orphanage at 16, David lacked adequate support services. He gravitated towards sex-industry opportunities in Melbourne and Sydney, becoming a prostitute to other males. At the time of the 1998 court case, when he was aged only 30, he was terminally ill with AIDS.

It is alleged that David's siblings "Peter" and "Mark" were also sexually assaulted by Elmer. By the time of the court case, Peter (the second oldest) had taken his own life with a drug overdose.

These tragic stories are typical of the experiences of disadvantaged boys at orphanages run by the Christian Brothers (and also the Marist Brothers and the St John of God Brothers) around Australia.

Still a reverend Brother

After his release from prison in the early 2000s, Elmer lived in a property owned by the Christian Brothers in Brunswick, a Melbourne suburb. He was given an office role at the Christian Brothers Victoria-Tasmania headquarters in Parkville in inner-Melbourne. Eventually, Brother Elmer retired from full-time work.

The 2020 court case

In the 2020 court case, Elmer (aged 75) pleaded guilty to two charges of indecently and unlawfully assaulting a male aged under 16 and another male aged under 18, between 1971 and 1974.

Some time in 1971-1972, Elmer placed his hand down one boy's pyjamas and molested him, according to court documents. The victim had been asleep in his dormitory bed when Elmer woke him, threw off his bedding and demanded he follow instructions. There were up to 40 children who slept in that dormitory

Some time in 1972-1974, Elmer assaulted his second victim. The boy was required to sit on Elmer's lap as Elmer showed the boy a sex-education book while performing a sex act, according to court documents.

Several other charges relating to a third victim were dropped by the prosecutors.

The court bailed Elmer while he awaits a pre-sentence hearing, which is scheduled for later in 2020.

The charges in the 2020 case were laid by detectives from the Victoria Police child-protection unit (the Sano Taskforce at Victoria Police in Spencer Street, Melbourne).