Brisbane’s shameful secret past

Bill O’Chee
Published: March 1, 2016 – 11:24PM

The media is currently turning itself inside out over Cardinal Pell’s evidence in Rome, but we needn’t look further than Brisbane to find high ranking people who have protected and enabled paedophiles.

They include high profile figures in politics and public life. It is time they were held to account, because the effects of their actions are felt even now.

In the early 1980s I observed at close hand how a paedophile, who went by the name Garth Kolter, manouevred himself to a position of power and influence in the Queensland Debating Union. It gave him almost unfettered access to minors.

Outrageously, the Queensland Debating Union knew that Garth Kolter’s real name was in fact Desmond Sanderson.  Worse still, it knew that in addition to being a paedophile, Sanderson had served 13 years in prison for attempted murder.

The Queensland Debating Union knew about Sanderson’s criminal record because he came to the union through a prison debating programme.

In spite of this, the Queensland Debating Union appointed Sanderson as the coach of the Queensland schools debating team. That meant he was responsible for taking school students interstate for national debating championships.

He was also chief selector, meaning that he had huge influence over which students did or did not make the team.  For months, aspiring school students (and finally the Queensland team) were very much at the mercy of his caprice.

Sanderson was a master manipulator, who used his skills to groom boys. Teams would be invited to his flat in Spring Hill where drug taking paraphernalia was also on open display.

I knew of his past, and wasn’t going to play along, but others didn’t know or didn’t want to know.

While he was doing this, he was able to draw on a close circle of protectors, which included people well known in politics and public life.

When a complaint was made about a person with Sanderson’s criminal history and predilections being anywhere near minors, the response from the organisation was to say that it was alright because he didn’t touch the boys until they turned 18.

Yet despite this, he was able to operate for years, protected by an organisation that seemed to care little for its duty to the hundreds of school students with whom he had contact.

The union even named its most prestigious trophy after him – albeit under his assumed name, not his real one.

One of the people I believe Sanderson to have groomed was Greg Masters. Greg Masters took his own life last year after allegations were made that he had sexually assaulted a student at St Paul’s School.

When I knew him, Greg Masters was himself at St Paul’s, and an aspiring debater. His relationship with Sanderson was somewhat unnerving, although as a student myself I found it difficult to pinpoint what it was that caused me unease.

I strongly suspect there were others who may have fallen prey to Sanderson. I doubt any of them will want to admit it. Thirty years ago, being a member of the Queensland schools debating team was considered something of an achievement. Many are very prominent today. I am sure they would rather not have to confront the past.

The Queensland Debating Union, however, should not be allowed to escape scrutiny.

How any organisation could ever have considered Sanderson a fit a proper person to have charge over impressionable school students is beyond me. How it could keep him in that position for years after complaints had been made is even more unbelievable.

Sadly, after 30 years, the indifference or complicity is still being felt.  And all of this is right here in Brisbane.