The headmaster of a prestigious Catholic boys’ school has expressed his “sincere regret” for giving a glowing reference to a coach who groomed a student, leaving the victim feeling “gutted” and “betrayed”, it has been revealed.
Stephen Russell of St Kevin’s College in Melbourne gave the character reference to longtime athletics coach Peter Kehoe at the end of his criminal trial, ABC’s Four Corners program reported on Monday night.
Mr Russell said supplying the reference was an “error in judgment” he regretted making in 2014.
He said he supplied “a limited, factual letter … with the very clear instructions that it could only be used by the court in a sentencing process, post conviction” the Age reported.
“The background to the decision made at the time about providing the reference, was that prior to his reprehensible actions in 2014, Mr Kehoe had no prior charges, or any student or parent complaint of a sexual misconduct nature,” he wrote.
“However, people make errors of judgement … In the same circumstances today, I would not provide a reference. I sincerely regret that I did so in 2014.”
The $20,000-a-year Toorak school made headlines last year after videos surfaced of students chanting gross and misogynistic lyrics on a Melbourne tram and by graduates at a pub crawl.
On Monday night, St Kevin’s once again made headlines.
As revealed on Four Corners, Kehoe – himself an old boy – groomed a student when he was in year nine, making lewd comments and sending revolting messages via social media before the police became involved.
The now-convicted child sex offender was sentenced to a community corrections order for one count of grooming a child under the age of 16. He was also placed on the sex offenders register for eight years.
THE GROOMING AND FACEBOOK MESSAGES
The year nine student’s mother first raised concerns in 2014 about Kehoe, a running coach, training her son alone.
However, on the program tonight, she said she was reassured in a phone call from a woman at the school on behalf of Mr Russell that “Peter is a good person, of good character, and you have nothing to worry about”.
“I don’t know how he knew that,” the student’s mother said.
The case was not made public at the time of Kehoe’s offending because the student was a juvenile.
But the young man, now 20, has bravely aired the chilling details of the abuse he suffered at school.
Kehoe once told the teenager he had an erection at training. Another time, when the boy told the coach he had an oral presentation due for Japanese class, Kehoe told him: “That’s not the only oral you’ll have to do”.
“Love you muchly,” Kehoe said to the underage boy via Facebook messages.
“Maybe you needed another hug from me.
“Ah, the pain of unrequited love!
“I think you’re the best thing since sliced bread.
“Love you. Xxxxxxxx.”
The student told the ABC he had been drinking chocolate milk after training one day and Kehoe commented: “Oh, the sight of that dripping down your face”.
The grooming became even more disturbing when Kehoe insisted the young boy come back to his place after training one day to look at some old St Kevin’s yearbooks.
“I felt like I was in a position where I couldn’t do anything,” he said.
He said it was “probably … one of the most scary times of my life”.
Kehoe showed the boy his bedroom and said he could jump in bed whenever he liked.
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A SECOND REFERENCE
Four Corners also revealed in addition to the headmaster’s written support, Kehoe had received an employment reference from the college’s Dean of Sport and old boy, Luke Travers.
Mr Travers was aware of the complaint at the time, having been told by the boy’s mother, according to the ABC.
He was questioned about the reference at Kehoe’s trial in 2015, when he was asked by the prosecution if it was appropriate for a teacher or a coach to tell a student “I love you” or “xxx” in text messages.
“It depends on the context,” Mr Travers replied.
On Monday night, the student said: “I was a student at the school and to have someone personally and professionally endorse him and support him, as I read in the emails and as I heard in Luke Travers’ evidence in court supporting him, it makes you feel betrayed”.
He said the further revelation of Mr Russell’s reference for Kehoe made him feel “just gutted”.
The boy and his friend, Ned O’Brien, both gave evidence at the trial. Kehoe was represented by Robert Richter QC, who would later act as Cardinal George Pell’s defence barrister.
Neither of the boys were contacted by the school prior to Kehoe’s day in court.
“Just to be appreciated for what we did, I thought it was a pretty big thing to do, but no, none of that really happened,” Ned said.
Ned’s mother said on the day of the trial, seven months after her son first told her what had happened, she was contacted by the school asking whether her son would be wearing their blue, green and gold-striped blazer to give evidence.
“I thought, ‘wow, you really do want to cover this up’,” Jo O’Brien said. “You really do want to keep this quiet.”
She said it was “crazy” that the headmaster got involved by way of his reference for Kehoe.
The year nine student’s lawyer, Judy Courtin, told the program: “It is quite extraordinary that a headmaster and a Dean of Sport in particular will basically disregard the vulnerable student and support an offender. I mean, what planet are we on?”
“It is just shocking and appalling,” she said.
According to the ABC, the president of St Kevin’s Amateur Athletic Club committee expressed strong disapproval that the Dean of Sport was assisting Kehoe instead of the two students.
“It (the reference) certainly lacked some critical information that someone wanting to potentially employ Peter with children would have wanted to know,” ex-committee member Patrick Noonan told the program.
The reference reportedly included Mr Travers’ “unqualified endorsement” for the coach and that Kehoe was “second to none”.
Mr Noonan said Kehoe’s behaviour was “clearly not the way someone should be interacting with a child”.
The Dean of Sport, Mr Travers, reportedly sent the athletics club an email which said “b****r off and mind your own business” and also threatened legal action.
Susan Lackner, who was a St Kevin’s parent at the time, said she wrote to the college.
“I was appalled, absolutely appalled. This could have been my son, you know, could have been anybody’s son,” she said.
In his latest junior and senior school newsletters, headmaster Mr Russell told parents and students that given the ABC had proceeded with the program “focusing on our school, I will be communicating with you all next Tuesday morning”.
“I conclude this week with the prayer that we shared around the table in my office as senior staff met this week,” he said.
The headmaster, noting his wife had also recently been “knocked down by a car”, chose a prayer from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.
Mr Russell declined to be interviewed for Monday night’s program but made a statement to the Age expressing his “error in judgement”.
“The care and development of students, staff and the broader St Kevin’s community is, and always has been, our first priority,” the college said in a statement to the ABC.
“The actions of Peter Kehoe were completely unacceptable and St Kevin’s College strongly condemns them. After his conviction, he was immediately banned from entering the school or having any contact with the college or its students.
“For legal reasons, St Kevin’s College is not able to provide any further comment at this time.”
She said the boy settled a civil claim with the school in August 2019.