The children saw him first.
“Look Daddy, there’s a man with a camera,” they told detective Dave Danslow as he walked along a quiet suburban street near his Brisbane home.
The policeman turned to see the menacing barrel of a telephoto lens pointed at him from a car parked on the side of the road.
He was shocked.
A stroll to his kids’ cross-country training had been disrupted by the sort of suspicious behaviour he would normally investigate.
The officer sprinted to the vehicle, snatched the keys from the ignition and yelled at the driver to wait while he called police.
But the man was too quick.
He grabbed a spare key and screeched off.
Tracked down a few days later, the driver told police his stake out of Sergeant Danslow was all a big mistake.
He told the officers he was a private investigator who had confused Sergeant Danslow for someone else.
As suspicious as it seemed, Sergeant Danslow wasn’t overly concerned.
He’d recently started a job with a new squad hunting paedophiles — the sort of criminals who usually did everything they could to avoid police.
What Sergeant Danslow couldn’t know was that he was now the prey — targeted by one of the most powerful and influential offenders he would never catch.
Despite multiple police investigations, it would be decades before the offender’s dark side would be officially exposed and even then, in the eyes of some of his alleged victims, justice would still not be served.
“It was a travesty,” Sergeant Danslow told the ABC.
“I never had a case before or after like it.”
GRAPHIC WARNING: This story contains references to allegations of child sexual abuse that may be distressing to some readers.
The anonymous tip-off
Late-1990s Brisbane was supposedly swept clean of bad cops, dirty politicians and their criminal associates thanks to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption a decade earlier.
But rumours persisted of an influential gang of paedophiles who lurked at the big end of town and included politicians and the professional classes.
“CJC Paedophile Watch” warned the headline in the local paper, The Courier-Mail, claiming the state’s anti-corruption body was investigating a scandal in which street kids were being preyed on by a network of child abusers.
In 1997, Queensland police established a dedicated task force named Argos after the mythological Greek figure Argus Panoptes — a giant with multiple eyes who always kept watch.
The squad has since earned international renown for its spectacular take-downs of paedophiles around the world.
Its officers are sometimes distinguished by the tiny scorpion-shaped badges they wear — the main predator of rock spiders, or prison slang for child abusers.
But in mid-1997, the unit was still in its infancy and detectives like Sergeant Danslow found themselves dealing with an untapped vein of suffering as complaints flooded in.
In October that year, one such case landed on Sergeant Danslow’s desk — phoned in during Operation Paradox, a national appeal for information on organised paedophile networks.
A high-ranking individual in the Catholic Church, who had recently attended a meeting with the government in Canberra, was acting suspiciously with children, an anonymous caller alleged.
The man liked to take young children to stay with him in the city’s most exclusive motels and he drove around with an eight-year-old boy sitting on his lap, the caller said.
The suspect was named as Christian Brother Stephen McLaughlin.
Sergeant Danslow thought the tip-off was rubbish.
The charismatic 44-year-old Brother had just been appointed Provincial — head of the Order’s Xavier province that encompassed Queensland and the Northern Territory.
McLaughlin also boasted extensive connections to Queensland’s elite having been boarding master at St Joseph’s Nudgee College in the early 1980s and then headmaster of the 106-year-old school from 1988 to 1993.
Nicknamed “Stumpy” by the college students for his short stature and solid figure, McLaughlin oversaw hundreds of staff and more than 1,000 boys at the school’s sprawling campus in the city’s north-eastern suburbs.
The college had a reputation for churning out confident young men who went on to become high-profile sports stars or influential leaders in their field.
To mark his appointment as Provincial in September 1996, McLaughlin penned a piece for the local paper referencing the program with the headline: “The Brothers They DO Trust” in which he vowed a crackdown on paedophiles.
In the piece he claimed to have personally “cared for” more than 40 foster children in conjunction with the Families Department and the school.
He wrote of how one of the foster children had greeted him in the playground by flinging his arms around him and declaring: “I’m not scared to hug you Brother. You’re one of the few people who haven’t hurt me”.
The Brother’s tough talking on paedophiles had Sergeant Danslow confused but he figured a check of motel records would soon put the allegations to rest.
To his surprise they confirmed an S. McLaughlin was a regular at the motels nominated by the anonymous caller and the visits were paid for with McLaughlin’s credit card. One booking record listed “an adult and a child” as staying in the room.
Not convinced, Sergeant Danslow rang a contact in the Catholic Church.
“‘No way he should be staying at motels. He has accommodation here so why the motels?’ was the response,” Sergeant Danslow told the ABC.
“Keep digging,” the contact said.
More alarms went off when Sergeant Danslow discovered the supposedly busy Provincial was also keeping close company with two very unusual individuals — a self-confessed child molester and an alleged heroin addict.
Phone records showed regular contact with the pair who sometimes acted as drivers for Brother McLaughlin.
The alleged heroin addict was a baby-faced 21-year-old whom the ABC cannot name for legal reasons.
The child molester was a Nudgee old boy, 27-year-old Dennis Norman Douglas.
Skinny with red hair and freckles, Douglas was from a wealthy family who owned an airline and other businesses in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
At 10 years of age, he was sent from PNG to board at Nudgee College’s primary school, then known as Nudgee Junior, located at Indooroopilly in Brisbane’s west.
Douglas spent 1982 and 1983 at the junior boarding school before going on to an unhappy year as a Year 8 boarder at Nudgee College.
“The bullying that he got, especially in the showers, was unbelievable. They used to call him faggot and all sorts of things,” said one former student who asked not to be named.
Douglas quit Nudgee College after 1984 and moved to an Adelaide school.
He only lasted a year before he was expelled for a sexually related incident with another student, according to court documents filed last year and sighted by the ABC.
Douglas then gave up school completely and returned to Brisbane where he resided at homes owned by his family, occasionally working as a limousine or taxi driver.
A web of deception
Sergeant Danslow checked police records and discovered Douglas had been charged with sexually abusing a young boy in Brisbane and pled guilty in 1994 to indecent dealing.
No conviction was recorded and Douglas avoided jail time but was put on probation.
More worrying though, Douglas was the subject of current and very serious child abuse complaints relating to the three-year-old son of young Brisbane single mother, Jane Henderson*.
Sergeant Danslow tracked down Ms Henderson who revealed how she had allegedly been lured into the web of Douglas and, in turn, McLaughlin.
In 1997, during a night out in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, Ms Henderson said she met McLaughlin’s heroin-addicted driver and began seeing him socially.
He bragged to her about the “wonderful” Christian Brothers and how they helped him through some bad times, according to her police statement sighted by the ABC.
Ms Henderson said the man took her and her young son *Bruce to meet McLaughlin.
Later McLaughlin allegedly introduced her to Douglas who appeared personable and trustworthy and soon became close friends with Ms Henderson who let him babysit Bruce.
During the school holidays she allowed Douglas to take Bruce to the Christian Brothers’ beach house at Tugun on the Gold Coast.
Accompanying the pair were Ms Henderson’s two younger brothers — both in their early teens — and one of their young teenage friends.
On their return, it was clear something horrific occurred, according to Ms Henderson.
Her younger brother was in a rage, telling her that one of the boys had tried to run away and Douglas had behaved weirdly and was a “feeler” and a “groper”.
She noticed sexualised behaviour by Bruce and some injuries.
Furious, Ms Henderson went to police who arrested Douglas on child abuse charges.
When interviewed by police, Douglas confessed to some of the child abuse and claimed he had sexual interactions with McLaughlin, according to Sergeant Danslow.
Supporting aspects of Douglas’s story were extensive diaries he had kept over the past decade chronicling his regular contact with McLaughlin.
No direct admissions of Douglas’s child abuse crimes were evident in the neat handwritten entries, but they appeared to document Douglas’s extensive involvement with the children of disadvantaged families via his association with McLaughlin.
McLaughlin’s lawyers said their client didn’t know until “approximately 1998” that Douglas had been through the courts and pled guilty to child abuse.
They also stated that when their client became aware of Douglas entering school grounds, a directive was issued to Douglas in 1991, not to enter without first contacting the school and seeking authority from college officials.
But the diaries appeared to show that Douglas had the run of Nudgee College for years, often interacting with students on the campus well after 1991.
In one entry from December 3, 1992, Douglas described a visit to Nudgee where he associated with boarders.
Another entry in 1997 described Douglas taking one of the young boys he was later accused of abusing “for a tour” of school grounds.
How the Christian Brother allegedly assisted the child molester
Importantly, the diaries contained references to McLaughlin dispatching Douglas to meet or “help” single mothers who usually had young male children.
“I’m over willing to help her, she has two boys, eight and six years.”
The detective now suspected that at the very least McLaughlin was exposing highly vulnerable children to the likes of Douglas.
The diaries provided clues to the children’s identities. One entry cited a “Dion” and his three brothers alongside an address on Brisbane’s northside.
Sergeant Danslow located Dion and his brothers in the care of their addict single mother.
The boys had been getting support from McLaughlin but with their mother battling addiction and a boyfriend who had just been in the justice system, obtaining evidence was impossible, Sergeant Danslow said.
The ABC recently found Dion living in country Victoria.
He alleged McLaughlin and Douglas had a close association with his family.
Chain smoking and emotional, the recovering alcoholic and former foster child is still angry about how he says his family were allegedly targeted by the two men.
“I lived in a shed in the back yard. I made it my own. I was sick of the yelling and fighting in the house.”
Dion said he went to live with his mother when his parents split up but when he tried to stop her new boyfriend from hitting her, she headbutted him in the face, breaking his nose, and her boyfriend then hurled him through a wall.
“Our parents didn’t care at all. I don’t remember ever seeing a social worker about any of this,” he said.
But someone who did show up to help was Brother McLaughlin.
He said the Christian Brother showered gifts on the four boys and their mother who struggled to care for them.
Dion said McLaughlin took them to stay in motels and to a house within the grounds of Nudgee College during the school holidays, but he did not witness any abuse.
He said they were also left alone in the company of Douglas, who told them he often acted as a driver for McLaughlin.
“I knew he (Douglas) was a paedophile. He drove around with me sitting in the front seat and I could see him masturbating,” Dion said.
In May 1997, Douglas offered to take Dion, his brothers and one of their teenage friends to his family’s farm at Mapleton in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
Dion said he didn’t go due to his suspicions of Douglas, but the other children did.
During the stay one of Dion’s brothers said they woke to see Douglas trying to sexually assault their young friend.
Angry and scared, the boys panicked and fled, according to Dion.
The suspect who was one step ahead
Meanwhile, Sergeant Danslow was on the trail of another family he suspected of being involved with McLaughlin and Douglas but he couldn’t get the family to talk.
Sergeant Danslow turned his focus to Douglas who agreed to assist in the police investigation, alleging he was manipulated by Brother McLaughlin after reconnecting with him as an adult.
Sergeant Danslow had Douglas make a covertly recorded phone call to the Christian Brother.
During the call, the pair discussed Douglas being under investigation for abusing Ms Henderson’s son.
No admissions were made by McLaughlin but he allegedly encouraged Douglas to withhold information from the police, according to transcripts of the calls.
“Be careful with that (the information in the diaries) because that might be used in evidence … you should take things out that you don’t want to be there … because just get rid of it,” McLaughlin said.
The pair also discussed how McLaughlin had lent Douglas money, how they had been away together and whether police knew.
When Douglas said it was “just over night”, McLaughlin replied: “Just generally a day and a night together, were they (the police) implying that I might have been one of the bad guys or something like that you know?”
In a second call on December 7, 1997, McLaughlin asked Douglas if his mother thought the two had been involved in a sexual relationship.
Sergeant Danslow suspected McLaughlin knew about the police investigation.
Those suspicions were confirmed when he brought in the police’s surveillance team.
The plain clothes officers, who normally followed dangerous drug dealers, violent bikies or murderers, tailed the Christian Brother as he visited toy shops buying bikes and gifts for children.
During the surveillance, McLaughlin suddenly sped off down a remote country road, slammed on the brakes, leapt out of his car and started filming the undercover officers.
Annoyed, the team leader rang Sergeant Danslow.
“He knows. We’re finished here,” the leader said.
Shortly afterwards Sergeant Danslow received a call from McLaughlin’s lawyer who asked him if police were tailing his client.
“I said ‘you know I can’t say anything’.
“Well, if they are your people, they are not very good at it,” the lawyer said.
The rallying cry
While Sergeant Danslow knew McLaughlin was awake to the police investigation, he didn’t realise he was calling on some powerful allies – the alumni of Nudgee College.
Six days before the secretly recorded phone call with Douglas, McLaughlin stood to make an extraordinary address to the pupils, parents and old boys of Nudgee College at the school’s speech night.
Instead of only platitudes for high-achieving students, the speech turned into a desperate plea to the Nudgee faithful to reject allegations of paedophilia involving Christian Brothers.
“I’ve thrown away the speech I was going to give,” McLaughlin started.
“…we are facing an orchestrated campaign where few individuals are systematically targeting and attempting to destroy the hard-won reputations of brother after brother,” he said.
He asked the audience to “fight for the Christian Brothers because we need you to support us in this time of real need.”
The call for help was heard at the highest levels of government. Twelve days later, then Liberal Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs John Herron rose in the Senate in Canberra.
The distinguished politician graciously thanked the Christian Brothers for his own education and then began reciting parts of McLaughlin’s speech before tabling it in its entirety.
Around the same time, Sergeant Danslow’s bosses started receiving calls from high-profile individuals asking “what’s Danslow doing to that good man?”
Furious, Sergeant Danslow fired off a transcript of the call between McLaughlin and Douglas to his boss and heard no more.
Rohypnol and a hangman’s noose
As the investigation progressed into 1999 another alleged victim came forward, also connected to Douglas.
Teenager David Wilson* was a champion junior swimmer who attended a school in inner Brisbane and was living with his single mother.
Around May 1997, the schoolboy, then aged 15, attended a party at a New Farm restaurant where he says he met Douglas who later introduced him to McLaughlin.
Some days later, the teen was invited to stay the night at the Coronation Motel with Douglas and McLaughlin where he alleged the Brother molested him in the motel spa and then later in the motel room, according to a copy of a statement he gave to police that was tendered in civil court proceedings.
He alleged he witnessed Douglas and McLaughlin also engage in sex. Mr Wilson alleged the Christian Brother then became infatuated with him.
In exchange for clothing and money, which eventually totalled $20,000, Mr Wilson alleged he regularly met McLaughlin for sex, according to a police statement sighted by the ABC.
During one stay at the Coronation Motel, Mr Wilson alleged a surreal scene unfolded.
Out on the high-rise motel balcony, the then-teenager alleged the Christian Brother smoked marijuana in a bong before going inside to have sex with him.
Mr Wilson said he came forward with his allegations about McLaughlin because he was struggling emotionally after losing a friend to suicide.
Police had the teenager wear a listening device and meet McLaughlin in a coffee shop in Brisbane’s Queen Street mall.
Again, McLaughlin made no admissions during the secretly recorded conversation, but he allegedly handed over a Rohypnol “sleeping tablet” to Mr Wilson and confirmed he was digging dirt on investigating detectives.
“They’re not lily white people … I’ve found out stuff about them,” McLaughlin said, according to a police transcript of the recording.
“I’ll go down fighting I’ll tell ya. Look there’ll be a few others if I go down.”
Shortly after that meeting, police said a card featuring a hangman’s noose appeared outside Mr Wilson’s home with the caption “dead men on campus” — which Mr Wilson took as a threat.
Unbeknown to detectives, the Christian Brothers appeared to have launched their own campaign involving a surveillance operation on police and alleged victims.
A source previously close to McLaughlin claimed that private investigators did surveillance on detective Danslow and Mr Wilson, even filming the teenager having sex with another man in a Brisbane house.
By 2000, Sergeant Danslow’s three-year investigation failed to build a case against McLaughlin with Douglas’s involvement proving problematic.
Laws around child sex abuse in Queensland prevent the ABC from providing some details, but Douglas’s status as a self-confessed child abuser raised grave doubts about his credibility.
Police did bring indecent dealing charges against McLaughlin in relation to his alleged abuse of Mr Wilson, relying on Douglas as a witness.
But the Magistrate rejected the case noting that Douglas was not a credible witness and had given no evidence of sexual acts between Mr Wilson and McLaughlin, including when the trio were in the spa at the Coronation Motel.
The Magistrate did indicate there were some suspicious features such as visits to motels and matters relating to Mr Wilson’s phone. But he decided Mr Wilson was not a credible witness and had told a multiplicity of lies to many people.
In what was a standard job rotation, Sergeant Danslow was transferred to another squad, leaving him frustrated about the years of investigative work that failed to bring justice.
“There was some regret (about the transfer), but I felt sorry for the [alleged] victims,” he said.
The war room
Despite the investigation seemingly going nowhere, new complainants with allegations continued to come forward.
In April 2001, police were put in touch with Rosa Smith*, another struggling single mother who was known to Family Services.
Ms Smith said she had been receiving money and assistance from McLaughlin and some of her sons were given a free education at Nudgee College.
Ms Smith alleged that her two younger children, a boy and girl, had been abused by McLaughlin.
Police brought indecent dealing and rape charges against the Christian Brother.
Soon after, the family reported someone lurking outside their house taking photos and following the children.
Police were so concerned they started doing school drop off and pick-up and considered putting the family into witness protection.
Meanwhile, a war room of sorts was set up at an apartment at Kangaroo Point on the edge of Brisbane’s CBD to coordinate McLaughlin’s defence, according to sources linked to the operation.
A public relations specialist who did communications work for the Brisbane Catholic community and McLaughlin’s solicitor both operated out of the apartment, the source said.
Private investigators covertly filmed Ms Smith and her children, sources told the ABC.
At the committal hearing, McLaughlin’s barrister Bob Mulholland QC tried to have the charges dismissed on the grounds the allegations were “ludicrous and fantastic” and the female victim had been abused by older males prior to making the allegations.
Mr Mulholland told the court the family had already been exposed to a paedophile while a younger child behaved in a sexualised manner. He said there were discrepancies in the victims’ recollections and problems with the way police had interviewed the children.
But in late 2002, Magistrate Terry Duroux committed McLaughlin to face trial.
McLaughlin’s distraught supporters reportedly wept in the court, but police were jubilant – years of investigations had paid off, or so they thought.
In early 2004 one of the investigating officers received an unusual call from the Justice Department.
The ABC understands the officer was told that videos of the children’s police interviews had been sent overseas by the defence for forensic examination and were found to be flawed.
The Justice Department dropped the case.
This month, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare QC, discontinued the case after consideration of advice supplied to her.
The Crown did not have reasonable prospects of success of conviction at trial based on the admissible evidence available to it at the time, the spokesperson said.
“The reliability of the three interviews was the subject of expert analysis concerning the questioning undertaken and the responses given. The Crown also obtained an expert report on their contents before the matter was discontinued.”
McLaughlin’s lawyers say this was another example of complainants not being credible.
Tracked down by the ABC last month, Ms Smith, who has since had extensive treatment for severe mental health issues, said she did not recall ever being told the reason the charges were dropped.
But she did remember being so angry she had to be dragged out of the Justice Department by security.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin celebrated with a party at a city nightclub associated with a former Nudgee old boy and was welcomed back into the Brothers’ operations, according to two people who attended the event.
In 2004 McLaughlin was dispatched to the Philippines to scope out new ministry opportunities including potential school sites where he had contact with children. He then went on to hold various jobs with the Brothers including a communications role.
The influence and the power
It would take another decade before his behaviour came to police attention.
By 2015, McLaughlin was living at Sandgate in Brisbane’s outer eastern suburbs, when a new complainant came forward.
This time the alleged victim was the son of a single father who worked nights. McLaughlin had struck up a friendship with the father and babysat the man’s sons.
The victim alleged that in 2015, when he was 12, McLaughlin sexually abused him in a suburban home. He was charged by police in 2019 over the allegations.
McLaughlin went on trial in March this year and a jury found him guilty of two counts of indecent dealing with the boy who had been left devastated by the abuse.
The victim “took drastic steps to numb his feelings” including inhaling substances and skipping school leaving him “jobless, depressed and angry”, sentencing Judge Anthony Rafter said.
He said the victim suffered immensely but ruled McLaughlin’s sentence be suspended due to ill health and submissions from the defence about his lack of previous convictions and antecedents.
Judge Rafter noted that the defence had included references from individuals that praised McLaughlin’s “commitment to the rights of children”.
More than two decades after the first allegations about McLaughlin emerged – he was convicted.
But McLaughlin’s lawyers said while their client was currently battling serious, life threatening health issues, he was taking legal action to mount an appeal.
They said he believed he was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice and intended to take whatever action was necessary to restore his good name and reputation.
McLaughlin has repeatedly denied any sexual interaction with Douglas. A court also rejected Douglas’s claims of sexual interaction with the Brother.
For those who had come forward previously to make allegations about McLaughlin, or were impacted by Douglas coming into their lives, the result brought both relief and anger.
For the Smith family it was too late.
The boy who made the complaint in 2002 died in 2012 from a heart attack, which his family believed was brought on by the medication he was prescribed for depression and other ailments.
Dion said he didn’t believe justice had been served.
“By him getting off jail … it is not good for victims. It’s like he’s someone in a higher power and you can’t touch him,” he said.
For Mr Wilson, whose life had spun out of control after his association and failed criminal case involving McLaughlin in the 1990s, he was distressed he would serve no jail time.
“He was supposed to be sick back when I was taking legal action against him,” Mr Wilson said.
It took until 2017 for Mr Wilson to receive a settlement from the Christian Brothers for the abuse he alleges he suffered at the hands of McLaughlin.
When Sergeant Danslow learned Judge Rafter had mentioned character references praising McLaughlin’s work with children he was confounded.
“I don’t think I have ever struck anyone like him that had the influence and the power and the people to support him.”
New investigation launched
After questions from the ABC the Christian Brothers Oceania Province said they would launch an independent investigation into concerns around McLaughlin, Douglas and Nudgee College, to be conducted by Brisbane barrister Troy Spence.
“I am very concerned by what has been raised and I have instructed these matters to be the subject of an independent investigation by an experienced Queensland barrister,” Province leader Brother Gerard Brady said in a statement.
“Whilst this takes place, the Province respectfully refrains from responding to these questions.”
The Queensland government confirmed McLaughlin, while not having been “formally assessed” as a foster carer, had an established relationship with the Department of Families.
As a direct result of his role as principal at Nudgee College, the department assigned him some caring responsibilities for children, a spokesperson said.
Departmental records indicated McLaughlin had offered a range of scholarships and supports to vulnerable children and their families and some of the children were in the care of the department at the time.
McLaughlin’s lawyers last week said their client was the temporary on-site foster care nominee as part of a program to provide education for disadvantaged children – a role he undertook for approximately three months prior to completion of his five-year term as college principal.
They said at no time did any student from the program make allegations of wrongdoing against their client who, after 1993, had very limited contact with Nudgee College and no involvement in the student equity program.
They said their client did not take any students from the student equity program to stay in motels.
McLaughlin’s lawyers said from time to time office staff for the Christian Brothers used McLaughlin’s credit card to make motel bookings and for expenses associated with visiting guests.
They said McLaughlin did stay at the Coronation Motel in the late 1990s, as did other staff, while renovations were being undertaken at the province leadership living quarters.
In responding to the ABC, they said it was “deplorable” to seek to link McLaughlin with “the many shameful acts which Dennis Douglas has been convicted of”.
Nudgee College issued a statement saying it was devastated to learn of the abuse allegations involving McLaughlin and Douglas, describing them as shocking and disturbing.
“The college acknowledges the bravery and courage of those who have come forward to tell their stories of this period. We also acknowledge the pain experienced by these individuals,” the statement read.
The college said the student equity program had been discontinued many years ago and those who oversaw the program were no longer involved with the college.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin’s former associate Douglas was last year released from prison where he had been serving a lengthy sentence for committing serious sexual offences against children in the 2000s.
State Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman unsuccessfully applied to block the Nudgee old boy’s release under the Dangerous Prisoners Sex Offender Act.
A court ruled Douglas could be released under rigorous supervision that included 48 conditions.
Like McLaughlin, Douglas is now back in the community.
*Names have been changed for privacy and legal reasons.
In-depth producer: Heidi Davoren
Digital production: Heidi Davoren
Photography: Michael Lloyd, Alice Pavlovic and Sandra Lording
Graphic production: Lewi Hirvela