Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Acts of charity – the William Street Pieta, jail visits and gold-plated legal defence teams

On 30 May 2011, there was what the Christian Brothers Oceania (Australia, NZ and the Pacific region) blandly termed a “sudden change in Best's legal position” – that is, their fellow brother Robert Best, who by then had been living for about four months on pre-sentence remand in Port Phillip Prison, after being found guilty of multiple child sex crimes by various juries in the County Court in Melbourne (William Street), and/or Ballarat, earlier in 2011 (as well as, possibly, back into 2010). 

The exact details here are hard to fathom; the suppression orders and closed courts applied until that May 2011 day haven’t seen much emerge retrospectively into the public domain since.  We do know, however that it was a protracted saga – Best’s committal was at Ballarat in 2009, and one of Best’s victims, “Damien”, committed suicide before he got to see justice done.   

We also know that it was an expensive saga: a figure of about $1 million in defence-side legal expenses (for the 2009-2011 cases) was widely reported in 2011 (and again, at the time of Best’s unsuccessful appeal, in November 2012).  But this same figure nonetheless drew gasps from the public gallery when it was once again cited at last Friday’s Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry. Of course, the taxpayer-funded prosecution case and court facilities would have added up to millions more (same URL).

As to why the Christian Brothers saw Best’s guilty plea to all remaining charges as a “sudden change” is also hard to fathom.  Granted, proceedings at that stage were only about halfway through the marathon, in total, and all Best’s pleas to that date had been not guilty.  But Best had been found guilty by juries on most of the earlier charges, and so was facing significant jail time, whatever happened in the second “half”.  One might have thought the early-2011 day (oh happy day!) that Best was remanded, pre-sentencing, in Port Phillip Prison was a bigger “sudden change”.  (Note that prior to this day, the previously-convicted Best had not so far served time, other than a three month appeal interlude between his March 1998 trial and the ordering of a re-trial on 23 July 1998 – a re-trial that never went ahead.)

But for the Christian Brothers, sudden changes, and acts of charity, are obviously very fluid and relative things.  Here’s Br Vince Duggan, the leader of Christian Brothers Oceania in an early March 2013 email:

“Quite a few brothers in Victoria are regular visitors to Br Bob Best who is currently in prison. I applaud the brothers who do this. I have visited Bob on one occasion myself, and plan to do so again in the future. One can visit someone in prison without making any judgment about the innocence or guilt of that person. Visiting someone in prison is in no sense condoning criminal activity. Indeed ‘visiting those in prison’ is listed among what used to be commonly termed the ‘corporal works of mercy’. I find it appalling that brothers who perform this act of charity should be publicly condemned in the press by one of their own [viz Christian Brother Dr Barry Coldrey]”.

Yep, being criticised just for going about one’s charitable day-to-day business is “appalling”. If the high-minded Vince Duggan is quite that sensitive, the mind boggles how enraged he must feel, to this day, about the fates of the hundreds of children sexually abused by members of his order.  Or not – there is no public statement to that effect by him, at least.  Plus it is not hard to imagine at least a sliver of self-interest behind all these prison visits (I stress here that I am referring to Best’s many Christian Brother visitors generally):  if Best is kept a happy man in prison, he is less likely to have a pang of Christian conscience, and name others – particularly those who concealed his crimes.   

The $1 million or so of donated Church funds that Vince Duggan also saw fit to tip into the pockets of Best’s defence lawyers between 2009 and 2011 also stretch the meaning of “charity”, if you ask me.  Blessed is the guilty-as-hell, got off by a smooth-talking QC, perhaps?  One mysterious element here is that Best’s (sole?) defence counsel, (first URL) at least in May 2011, was the relatively junior – and so cheap-ish – barrister Sarah Leighfield*, (who was still at Melbourne University Law School, to co-edit the MULR, in 2000). 

The Christian Brothers recently said, by way of vague explanation, that spending on Best's defence between 2009 and 2011 spiralled out of control”.  I suspect that Best may say much the same thing, by way of vague explanation, about his two decades of rampant crime.  In other words, the Christian Brothers are still perpetuating what Best (and his accomplices) started – albeit by being selectively incontinent with their wallets, this time.
In all this money, squalor and pious delusion, there was one beautiful, heartbreaking scene in court on 30 May 2011:   

As [Robert] Best stood and gave his [guilty] pleas, one of his victims turned to stare at him as the man's mother wept and embraced her son.”  (first URL, again

I call this three-way tableaux the William Street Pietà.  My favourite work of European art, when I want to touch base with an inconsolably burdened inner-child – somehow a creature both singular/“me” deep-within, and yet universal, liberated – is the Palestrina PietàPhotos don’t quite do this unfinished (?) Michelangelo (?) masterpiece justice.  The languid Christ figure is sumptuously over-finished, or put more bluntly, blatantly homo-erotic.  His mother Mary, directly behind, supports him rather well, with one very hefty hand. 

But it is the sparsely-chiselled third, child-size figure that makes this sculpture.  Viewed from the side, she (?) staggers under a heavy weight – giving the sculpture a forward momentum that is perfectly balanced and resisted (I’m talking art, not physics) by the backwards fall of the Christ figure, into the immovable upright pillar of his mother’s arm/s.  

The William Street Pietà is, in my mind’s eye (I wasn’t there, and only know of it from the newspaper account), a similar masterpiece: a sculpture of a moment of both steely resolve (between victim and Best), and primal howling (between victim and his mother) – two personal qualities Vince Duggan has evidently never encountered in his “charitable” travails.    

Update/re-post 8 May 2013

I’ve tweaked this post in mostly minor ways, adding some links, and fixing some broken ones.  There’s also now a clarification/disclaimer, which I’ve italicised and underlined, a new para on the Christian Brothers propensity to “[spiral] out of control”, and  a two-para background on my thinking behind the William Street Pietà.

* Update 4 May 2015

EK Hornbeck writes in the comments that Sarah Leighfield was NOT editing MULR in 2011.  While I don't think that my post implied that she was, since EK feels strongly about it, I'm underlining it here.  By way of explanation, MULR's mention in my original post was only as a date-marker for Sarah Leighfield's legal career - Google is a useful trove for some barrister's biographies, but not Sarah Leighfield's.

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