Ron Brierley: Inside the mind and crimes of a fallen knight

Once he was knighted for services to business. On Friday he will be sentenced for possession of child sex abuse material. David Fisher unravels the bizarre personality traits which may explain both sides of Brierley.

Sir Ron Brierley’s computer sat open, screen bright, no password required.

“He has difficulty working a computer,” says Paddianne Neely. Of all the people Brierley has met in his 83 years, Neely is one of the few to speak of friendship with a man who pleaded guilty in a Sydney courtroom to possessing child sex abuse material.

There are few crimes that create such an instant pariah as those involving the sexual abuse of children.

In December 2019, just days after Brierley’s arrest, Padianne and her legendary cricketing husband Don Neely were aboard the multi-millionaire’s grand yacht in Sydney Harbour.

That was where she saw Brierley’s computer in a central area on the yacht, open and unprotected. Seeing it like that reinforced his computer naivety and – to her mind – the unlikelihood of the charges he was facing.

“He types with two fingers, slowly,” says Neely.

They had flown to Melbourne for a reunion of those who had played the 1980 Boxing Day test there. As Brierley had done so many times, he helped cover costs for the event then hosted a number of the group in Sydney. That warm evening saw famous cricketing names at the table for drinks, then dinner and conversation into the night.

In the days leading up to the gathering, Brierley’s arrest had filled the news. Paddianne, though, struggled to reconcile the allegations with the man the Neelys knew for at least half a century.

“We don’t support his actions. We’re horrified and upset about that. I’m horrified. But I can’t forget the kindness he has given so many people around the world.

“He is, in my mind, a really good person.”

On April 1 this year, that good person was excused from standing in the Downing Street Local Court in Sydney because of his age. Grasping a cane in one hand and cloth bag in the other, Brierley offered three guilty pleas as 14 other charges were withdrawn.

On Friday, Brierley will be sentenced on three charges of possessing child abuse material at Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court.

In total, he was charged over 46,795 images found. They showed girls as young as four in sexualised poses in swimwear, underwear or other clothing intended to expose their bodies. Imagery included a two-hour video of six girls in swimwear, the camera focused on their breast or genital areas.

It had taken hours of painstaking work by police to sort the imagery into that which was criminal and that which was not. Much of the content showed children in sexually suggestive poses without explicit exposure. One single image depicted a naked child.

Online consumption of child sex abuse material is not a victimless crime. Somewhere, someone turned a camera on real children to produce the images Brierley collected. To capture images abusers want, trust is betrayed and children exploited.

Research by the United Kingdom’s Internet Watch Foundation in 2017 found 55 per cent of victims of child sexual abuse material appeared to be children aged from birth to 10 years of age, and 43 per cent aged 11-15 years. The findings are similar in comparable countries, as is the fact that a third of images show sexual activity between children and adults, including rape and sexual torture. None of the images found on Brierley’s computer showed torture, cruelty or physical abuse. None showed a child engaged in a sexual act, or in the presence of someone else carrying out a sexual act.

But research shows that, generally, online abuse is becoming more extreme. Online child sexual exploitation has undergone an exponential increased with increased bandwidth and better technology.

As it has grown, so too has an understanding of those who commit these crimes.

And perhaps in that understanding is an answer to the question. Why did Ron Brierley, now former Knight of the Realm, seek out sexual imagery of children on the internet?

Who is Brierley?

Brierley’s biography is well known to those old enough. Born in 1937 in Island Bay, Wellington, he was a Depression child only just walking when New Zealand declared war on Germany.

Brierley went to Wellington College, the school on which he would lavish philanthropy in years to come. He frustrated the headmaster with a stamp-trading business, developed a love of cricket and won the book-keeping prize.

From there, university – briefly – then a stock tips newsletter in which he shared his fascination with the sharemarket.

He had an eye for asset-rich and performance-poor businesses – those with absent or disinterested shareholders. With those Brierley grew up with in Island Bay, he formed a team that targeted those companies. It changed New Zealand business, creating a new type of wealth that wasn’t just found in the land.

By the 1980s, one in 20 New Zealanders owned shares in Brierley Investments Limited. He was made chairman of the Bank of New Zealand and, even though the 1987 crash hit the bank hard, was knighted a year later.

By then Brierley had moved to Australia. His eye for a deal made him a business powerhouse across both countries. In Sydney, he hired the brashest young thrusters and trained a new generation of corporate predators before his focus shifted to London and Europe as chairman of the Guinness Peat Group merchant bank.

Brierley retired as a director from BIL in 2001 then from the chairman’s role at Guinness Peat Group in 2010, bowing out as a director in 2015. In June 2019, he retired as chairman of Mercantile Investments, a Sydney-based investment boutique with $80m invested.

Two months later, New South Wales Police was told Brierley possessed child sexual abuse material.

Brierley knew nothing of this. As Christmas approached, he did as he had often done and sought out an escape over the festive season.

On December 19, Australian Border Force officials were waiting for him to step across the invisible line at Sydney International Airport where no warrant is needed to search personal belongings.

Brierley’s hand luggage held a laptop and two electronic storage devices. On those, border officials found child sexual abuse material.

“I reckon they’re all … perfectly okay,” Brierley told police.

Disbelief was the immediate reaction among those who knew Brierley, until the guilty plea. So now they ask why he did it. They have no answers.

But then, for those who embraced Brierley as a friend, they rarely did have answers to the many idiosyncratic traits that set him apart so thoroughly from everyone else. And perhaps in those unusual behaviours – those quirks that always came with the man – can be found an answer that explains, in part, his egregious offending.

In 2016, academics at England’s Lincoln University, Dr Hannah Merdian and Dr Ross Bartels,devised five offender-types specific to those using child sexual abuse material. Psychologists who study offenders identify particular types of personality traits that motivate the criminal act.

When it comes to trying to understand those who access child sex abuse material online, it’s a developing science and different to what we know about those who offend physically against children. Online offenders rarely cross over to real-world contact, and that has led Merdian and Bartels to create five new profiles for the internet age.

The “Unhappy World” offender finds offline existence “limiting and unsatisfying”. Those with an underlying sexual attraction to children may seek out child sexual abuse material to block out the real world, or to develop “a more fulfilling identity online” through networks that share such content.

There’s the “Self as Uncontrollable” offender, who blamed addiction or obsession, and the “Children as Sex Objects” offender, who mentally separate the child from his or her body or body parts, distancing themself from the victim that is the focus of their abuse.

There is the “Nature of Harm” offender, who minimises harm to the victim because they are viewing images (“it was okay because I’m not … touching anybody”).

Then there is the “Collector”.

Who is Brierley… really?

There’s a different Brierley biography to be written. It is one that doesn’t focus on his business success, boardroom triumphs, lightning corporate raids.

It’s a character study which depicts a man always different from those around him, isolated by idiosyncratic behaviour.

“Fancy that,” said Brierley, looking up at one of his executives in the 1970s. It was a day in which his wealth had grown $5m but he spent it at a desk sorting stamps. “Here I’ve been trying all day to make sure that I’ve put together a stamp collection of only $49 to sell for $50.”

It was a scene in Yvonne van Dongen’s biography Brierley, in which she wrote of how he collected only British Commonwealth stamps from the mid-nineteenth century to the Second World War. He would buy stamps and, Dongen wrote, find “a deep, private joy in discovering a hidden treasure and knowing that a single stamp is worth ten times the price he paid for the whole bag”.

The Herald has learned Brierley’s stamp collection is among the top 10 in the world. The collection itself is unusual according to one expert because rather than collecting whole sets as other aficionados did, Brierley would fixate on one stamp, buying copy after copy.

“The price went up but he wasn’t doing it to corner the market,” said one person familiar with his stamp trading habits.

Van Dongen wrote that Brierley “had no interest in having possessions”. Instead, he was a creature of obsessive habit. He eats steak and chips whenever possible, always wore crocodile shoes, always drank red wine.

The Jaguar or Mercedes he drove was left where ever he finished his journey. “He would park anywhere – on corners, no-stopping zones, yellow lines, or in front of expired meters.” He would be called to court for unpaid parking fines and not attend, with his executives eventually stepping in to pay his debts.

Brierley lived in the Crest Hotel in Sydney for a decade and moved only when his executives bought him a house. When he refused to move, months later those same executives cancelled his room at the Crest, forcing him out. Brierley trotted out to the footpath to find a car waiting to take him to his new home. It was furnished for utility, not comfort or style. Van Dongen wrote of pictures bought for the Sydney home lying face down on the floor for years, Brierley seemingly disconnected from any desire to hang them on the wall.

Author Tony Williams, in The Rise, Fall and Flight of Brierley Investments, was told by Brierley: “My strength was to research companies to reach a conclusion that their assets were worth more than their sharemarket price and to work out ways to exploit that to our own advantage in the most effective way.”

So he would find those companies, organise takeover bids and, as one person said, “he collected companies” the same way he collected stamps.

Likewise, his love for cricket was rooted in statistics. He would sort and analyse, order and make sense of the game. Williams, writing of Brierley and the sport he loved, said: “Cricket is essentially a game of collecting runs.”

There would be talk of Brierley being “on the spectrum”, meaning Autism Spectrum Disorder. Two core areas of impact that come with autism, according to the American Psychiatric Association, are impaired social communication and interaction, and “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”.

Brierley, wrote van Dongen, “would appear… incapable of feeling any strong emotion, even for friends he has known since childhood”. “They are fond of Brierley but known that he is limited to a kindly but pragmatic response to them.”

One person who has known Brierley for decades recalled a photo shoot set up in Sydney for a corporate annual report. The theme was chess and there was a chessboard arranged in the room where photography was to be done.

The photographer had made an arbitrary move to get pieces framed for the photograph, the intent artistry not grandmastery. Brierley was to pose facing the board with a hand on a piece in a contemplative fashion.

That’s not what happened. Seeing the board and pieces in play, Brierley was transfixed. The photographer’s instructions went unheard.”Ron stared at that board for 10 minutes and then made a move.”

It’s behaviour familiar to those who know Brierley. Bruce Hancox, a director of his New Zealand and then Australian investment companies, told van Dongen: “He has such funny ways and sometimes I do things just to piss him off. He always has his pens arranged in front of him, one on the left, the other on the right.”

On one occasion, Hancox came to Brierley’s office with a document for Brierley to read. While talking about it, Hancox pushed the pens aside as if to lay it on the desk.

“He just pushed the paper away and picked up the pens and put them back in place.” Themisalignment of the pens blocked out the world. “He didn’t listen to anything I was saying.”

If you knew what to look for, you could read Brierley like a book.

Brierley unmasked?

When it comes to sentencing this Friday, expect to hear more of this. Brierley’s inner circle are believed to have inquired into Australian cases involving child sexual abuse material in which the offender has Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD.

Those idiosyncratic behaviours, the compulsion to collect, the obsessive focus on specific objectives – does this explain why Brierley did what he did?

Forget Rain Man, says forensic psychologist Dr Clare Allely. The 1988 American movie starsTom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, who plays an autistic savant. Autism Spectrum Disorder is much more complicated than Hollywood would have it, she says.

Alley, who lectures at England’s University of Salford, is an expert witness in court cases involving people with ASD, and was involved in a study of Australian cases in which those on the spectrum were found with child sex abuse material.

Brierley’s behaviour is “definitely consistent” with someone with ASD, she says.

It’s dangerous and emotional ground to tread, which Allely knows well. Linking a particular type of offending with an often-misunderstood neurodevelopmental disorder can inspire exasperation, even anger.

Allely is clear: “People with autism are no more likely to be offenders than the general population. In fact, some studies show they are actually less likely to. They are law-abiding citizens overall.”

However, there are those with autism who do offend. Allely’s work has found that with those people, their autism provides context when explaining their particular vulnerabilities. Among those is accessing, and collecting, child sexual abuse material.

In a 2020 paper, Allely wrote of a growing body of research that linked behaviour or characteristics common among those with ASD that created a particular vulnerability around illicit images of children.

For those with ASD, there may be a lack of understanding of the criminality of the images they are viewing, Allely has found.

And there are other factors. Those with ASD can have difficulty interpreting facial expressions and so may misread – or just not understand – the expressions on faces of child victims.

Likewise, those with ASD will struggle to correctly identify the age of others.

“There’s a black-and-white inflexibility of thought – ‘if I can get this online, how can it be illegal’. People struggle with that. ‘How could they not know?’ I don’t think people really understand autism.”

Those who are older, she says, also faces the complication of growing up during a time in which the condition was not understood.

When Meridian and Bartels honed in on “the Collector”, they found two types – the offender who gathered material to boost their status among those who also consumed child sexual abuse material and those whose urge to collect came from a compulsion greater than any drive related to the content.

They cited an early study in which those with online child sexual abuse material likened harvesting the material to collecting baseball cards and stamps.

That’s not to say there’s a connection to baseball cards or stamps – there isn’t. Instead, the offenders’ focus was on the act of collecting, saying they took satisfaction in completing a series or a set and not the content of the material being collected.

One researcher also noted “individuals who are not interested in baseball generally do not collect baseball cards”.

The Herald understands these factors will be among those canvassed by Brierley’s defence team, though his lawyers would not comment on the contents of their submissions ahead of Friday’s hearing.

If Brierley has ASD, if he is a Collector, the developing science that supports those arguments only explains his behaviour. It does not excuse it. The charges he has admitted are serious and carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Brierley others knew

Paddianne Neely properly met Brierley at least 40 years ago. She’d mingled with Brierley at cricket functions husband Don attended, but there had been no formal introduction.

On the occasion they were formally introduced, both were asked: “Have you met?” When Neely said yes as Brierley said no, the knight was left flushed and flustered at the awkward social fumble.

A year later, at the same event, she turned the tables on him.”Have you met Paddi,” he was asked. Before he had the chance, she chipped in with quick wit, “No, we’ve never met”, and he blushed then laughed.

Brierley has been a constant presence since through cricket, as a fan and then a substantial financial backer.

“He’s been brilliant to New Zealand cricket – an extremely generous and kind man. It’s so sad this sort of thing has happened.”

That’s when you find out who your friends are. “You don’t kick a friend when they’re down,” says Paddianne, “You stick with them through thick and thin.” Don would say the same, she says, if he had not recently moved to a care home as dementia closed in.

After his first court appearance, Brierley wrote to Wellington College, his old school and one to which he had donated millions of dollars.

“Ironically, of course, I’m exactly the same person as I have always been,” he said.

That’s how Padianne sees him but not others. Wellington College took down Brierley-related signage, Cricket Wellington has distanced itself. She ticks through cricket grounds across Australia and New Zealand that Brierley funded, the reunion trips he paid for, the cricketer’s wife he supported after a serious heart attack near claimed her husband.

“I can’t help but look back at the pleasure he has given to hundreds of cricketers around the world. No matter where you go, he has poured in money. You don’t forget these things. You do remember kindness and generosity. Will they give it back? No bloody show.”

At that dinner on the yacht, just after his arrest, Brierley was as he had always been – a glass of red wine at hand, but silent, socially retiring with a small group of friends who knew just what he was like.

“Everybody was there to cheer him up and talk cricket.” Brierley was okay, suffering an eye infection and feeling it but otherwise in good spirits.

As conversation flitted about, Brierley appeared to nod off. He wasn’t sleeping, just typically withdrawn.

Then someone said something that jarred with the order of his mind. He perked up and piped: “That’s not true.” Then with his universe again ordered in a way that made sense, he slipped back to silence. “Like a doormouse,” says Paddianne.

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