By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated on 1 February 2017
Jesuit priests and brothers operate some of Australia's most prominent schools, with famous ex-students such as former prime minister Tony Abbott. After Brother Victor Higgs committed sexual offences against boys at one of these schools (St Ignatius College, Adelaide), the Jesuits kept Brother Higgs as a member of the Jesuit Order and moved him to their famous Sydney school (St Ignatius College Riverview). One of the Adelaide victims finally reported Brother Higgs to the South Australian police and, in 2016, Higgs was jailed for some of his Adelaide offences. Now, in 2017, Higgs is being prosecuted by New South Wales police regarding alleged offences by Brother Higgs while he was at the Sydney school.
Sydney's Riverview has a long list of well-known ex-students who have gone on to carve out distinguished careers in politics, law and professional sport. Apart from former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, other Riverview students include federal minister for agriculture Barnaby Joyce and former NSW Premier Nick Greiner. Others include Chief Justice Tom Bathurst of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and Australian Test fast bowler Jackson Bird.
Likewise, St Ignatius College Adelaide has some famous ex-students, including former federal Coalition leader Brendan Nelson, federal Coalition minister Christopher Pyne and leading legal figures like Federal Court Judge Anthony Besanko.
According to statements made in the Adelaide District Court in 2016, Victor Thomas James Higgs was born in the late 1930s, the youngest of nine children. After a period of training with the Jesuits, he became a Brother in the Australia-wide Jesuit religious order in 1963, aged in his twenties. He later spent three years working at St Ignatius College in Athelstone, Adelaide (1968 to 1970, inclusive, when he was aged around 30). He mostly did administrative duties for the school, although he taught some classes (for example, in religious education and in commerce).
After a complaint by a parent in Adelaide, the Jesuits transferred Brother Higgs to St Ignatius Riverview, Sydney, where he spent ten years. The Jesuits kept him as a member of the Jesuit religious order until he retired in Sydney in 2001.
Higgs was interviewed by South Australian police in early 2013 regarding boys from St Ignatius, Adelaide. When charged, Higgs indicated that would plead not guilty, meaning that he would fight the charges in court. Eventually, nearly three years later, he changed his plea to guilty, which meant that no trial would be needed (a judge would merely have to impose a sentence).
On 29 January 2016, Higgs (aged 78) was sentenced in the Adelaide District Court for indecent assault of two boys at St Ignatius Adelaide (one charge for each boy). These were not the only allegations that police had made against Higgs in Adelaide. These two charges were those to which he finally agreed to plead guilty.
Judge Gordon Barrett sentenced Higgs to a maximum jail sentence of two years and three months jail. He said that Higgs would be able to apply for parole after serving one year behind bars.
In his sentencing remarks, Judge Barrett told Higgs:
"The first [charge] involved a boy who would have been about 12 at the time. You took him into your room, made him take down his pants and there fondled his genitals. You did so on the pretext of giving him sexual counselling and assessing his development. You touched him on only that one occasion.
"In relation to the other boy, he was about the same age. He had misbehaved in class. You made him turn up at the canteen where you got him to take his pants down and bend over. He was expecting to be caned for his misdemeanour. Instead you touched his buttocks with a feather duster. The boy asked you what you were doing. You told him to get out. He reported the matter to his parents who raised it with the school. Whether as a result of that report or for some quite other reason, I am not sure, but you left the college in Adelaide and moved to a brother school in Sydney.
"While the two offences consist of a single episode of touching each boy in the ways that I have described, and it is not alleged that you touched other boys, your behaviour has to be seen in a context. That context is that you used to get boys into a private room, make them take down their pants and look at their genitals. You engaged them in sexual talk. All of this, the charged and the uncharged acts, were on the pretext of checking the boys’ development or counselling them, but it is quite plain that you were doing nothing of the sort. You were engaging the boys in this way for your own sexual gratification.
"The reaction of the two boys to your offending is instructive. The first boy appears to have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of another teacher at the school and so it is hard to separate the effects of your offending from the effects of the other teacher’s offending. However, his account of what happened after he came out of your room where you had indecently assaulted him is indicative of the consequences of your offending. Other students noticed the boy come out of the room. They asked him if he had let you touch him. Whatever his response, the other students assumed he had. He was taunted, suggesting he [the boy] was a homosexual. It appears your proclivities were widely known among the students. That boy’s trust in teachers and trust in that school has been damaged forever. It has caused frictions in his own family. When he disclosed what had happened to them, they either did not want to know about it or they told him to get over it. He has continuing anger. In addition, although this may have more to do with the offending by the other teacher, he has had some sensitivities in his personal life.
"The other boy’s reaction was different. He stood up to you. He immediately told his parents. His parents did something about it. He has not provided a victim impact statement. I do not know, but it is possible that he has not been affected in the same way as the first boy. However, that is just chance..."
Judge Barrett said that originally Higgs claimed to the police that, in his encounters with the boys, he had merely been "counselling" them about sexual matters.
In sentencing, Judge Barrett told Higgs:
"You did tell the police that you had counselled boys about sexual matters, but in that interview there is a surprising lack of insight into your own motivations and the likely harm that you were causing the students. You really conceded no more than that you went about a legitimate task in the wrong way.
"You have entered your guilty pleas at a very late stage...
"I will give you the credit that the law entitles you to for your guilty pleas. It is up to 10%. A more timely guilty plea would have reduced the anxiety of the victims and the witnesses further, and would have entitled you to a greater leniency...
"This is serious offending. It was a breach of trust for you to behave as you did to these boys. If you did not know before, you know now of the consequences that your offending can have, and has had. You are to be sentenced only for two charges to which you have pleaded. Each is a single act of indecent touching but the acts do have to be understood in their context.
"The maximum penalty for indecent assault at the time was seven years imprisonment. I must sentence you on the law as it was then. I will impose one prison sentence for both offences but take both into account. If it were not for your guilty pleas, I would have sentenced you to two-and-a-half years imprisonment. I reduce that by about 10% to two years and three months. I fix a non-parole period of one year.
"The question of suspension [that is, postponing the jail term] is a difficult one. You are elderly and in ill health. You have no other court appearances. In many ways, you have led a productive life. On the other hand, your behaviour was a gross breach of trust. The students and their parents were entitled to your protection, not your abuse.
"I think the offending is too serious for me to be able to suspend the sentence. I have shown what leniency I can in fixing the non-parole period which is lower than I would otherwise have fixed. You will have to serve the sentence. It will begin to run from today.
In a Sydney court on 31 January 2017, Victor Higgs was charged with indecently assaulting children during his time at St Ignatius College, Riverview.
Higgs (now 79) did not enter a plea during a brief court mention after being extradited from South Australia.
Higgs has been charged with four counts of indecent assault, allegedly involving three Sydney victims, between 1978 and 1980.