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Shore School headmaster criticised for comments about Lilie James’s suspected murderer in newsletter

An elite Sydney school headmaster calling Lilie James’s suspected murderer “an absolute delight” and “not a monster” has shocked a prominent domestic violence awareness advocate.

John Collier, head of all boys Shore School in North Sydney, wrote a newsletter on Friday, titled Looking in the Face of Savagery, about “the tragedy” that unfolded.

Dr Collier was previously headmaster of St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney’s CBD, where the body of 21-year-old Lilie James was found in the toilet area of its gym last week.

Her former short-term boyfriend Paul Thijssen is suspected of murdering her. His body was recovered after an extensive police search at Diamond Bay Reserve in Vaucluse.

Dr Collier said the “extreme violence was inexplicable, incomprehensible, unimaginable” before describing Thijssen, who he said he knew during his tenure as head of St Andrew’s between 2010 and 2022, as a “fine student, a prefect, a role model”.

“What is chilling about the tragedy which unfolded at St Andrew’s, the shock and grief of which will cascade for a long time, is that the young man concerned was, in everybody’s estimation, an absolute delight,” he wrote.

“He appeared to be just like the best of us. An hour before he committed the atrocity, he was speaking in a relaxed, friendly mode with staff at that school.

“He was not a monster; rather, in the last five hours of his life, he committed a monstrous act which was in complete contradiction to what everyone who knew him observed in the rest of this short life.

“What led to his mental disintegration? Was it a psychotic episode which was deeply out of character?”

The body of Paul Thijssen, 24, was found at Vaucluse along with items linked to the homicide.(Supplied: LinkedIn)

Dr Collier concluded his message saying “we earnestly desire to build, in conjunction with parents, young men of broad perspective and character who will be, in the deepest sense, beautiful men”.

‘Normal people do these crimes’

Sexual consent advocate Chanel Contos recently gave a National Press Club address about Australia’s domestic violence epidemic.

Some 58 women have died from alleged violence in the past year, according to Australian Femicide Watch. 

Founder of Teach Us Consent chanel contos speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra on wednesday november 1

Ms Contos says there is a culture of entitlement in boys from private schools.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

Ms Contos said Dr Collier’s newsletter was “symbolic of a much larger problem”.

“The idea that he [Thijssen] was a prefect, a role model, a fine student, this does not mean it’s an anomaly that he could murder somebody,” she said.

Ms Contos said there was a pervasive culture of entitlement in private school boys, that was being reinforced by the people around them.

“The whole point is that normal people do these crimes,” she said.

“It’s problematic to try and ‘other’ people who perpetrate violence because by doing that, we’re allowing people who exhibit normal behaviours in other forms of life to go unnoticed without accountability.”

She said it was especially important for schools to instil good culture, and reflect.

“The people who are raising the next generation, are they really that resistant to learning?”

the headmaster of shore school Dr John Collier sitting in front of books looking at the camera

Dr Collier was the headmaster at St Andrew’s Cathedral School from 2010 to 2022.(Shore School website)

Shore School in a statement said they “took on board the criticism”.

“It was never our intention to create any additional distress for those affected by this tragedy,” it said.

“The opinions expressed in this weekly article are deeply personal and reflect the thoughts of a headmaster who knew the alleged perpetrator and who, like many others, is struggling to make sense of the seemingly senseless.”

The weekly newsletter was an attempt “to consider what responses might be appropriate in a school that seeks to build good men”, the statement said. 

“And how our character development programs need to dig deeply into what respect for women fully means.”

‘Men can appear delightful’

Yvette Vignando, chief executive of anti-domestic violence organisation Mary’s House, commended Dr Collier for trying to reach young men, and make sense of the situation through his faith.

But she said the language he used was not helpful. 

“One thing that stood out to me was it was quite jarring to read someone describe, after such an horrific murder, the alleged perpetrator as an ‘absolute delight’, that was not helpful,” Ms Vignando said.

floral tributes are left outside St Andrew's Cathedral School in the Sydney CBD after the death of waterpolo coach Lilie James

The body of 21-year-old Lilie James was found in the toilet area of the school’s gym.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

She said the comments reflect a need to blame a “mental disintegration” or a “psychotic episode”.

“We do not want to acknowledge there are people out there — mostly men, who appear delightful to the rest of us, but they are actually terrorising their families and their partners,” she said.

“They are out there and living among us and living in some of the most privileged parts of Sydney.

“All across the northern suburbs — where the majority of our clients who are victims live — they [the perpetrators] are surgeons, academics, plumbers, leaders in business. Their mates and friends, rarely suspect what is going on behind the scenes.”

Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Jodie Harrison, said the tragic death “cannot be explained away”.

“Domestic violence needs to be absolutely condemned from everybody,” she said on Saturday.

“I think the principal should reflect on his words and consider the message that it does send. Not just to the students in that school but to people more widely.”

the outside of st andrews cathedral school in sydney cbd

The area where Lilie James’s body was found will be demolished.(ABC News)

In its statement the Shore School also said Dr Collier’s “deepest condolences go to the family and friends of the victim and those who knew her”.

“We understand the pain and suffering this incident has caused, and our heartfelt sympathy remains with all those affected.”

In a message sent to parents and students of St Andrew’s on Friday, principal Julie McGonigle said the area where Lilie’s body had been found would be demolished.

“As regards the staff toilet area of the Sports Centre, builders hoarding has been erected in front of that whole area so it cannot be seen, and the area behind the hoarding is being demolished,” Dr McGonigle said.

CCTV footage from St Andrew’s School shows Thijssen following Ms James into the bathroom, but emerging alone.

Police believe he used a hammer before calling them to report where they could find her body.

He drove to Vaucluse in a hired car, where police found items linked to the homicide. 

Police are still investigating the circumstances surrounding Ms James’s death.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-11-04/sydney-school-principal-lilie-james-murder-criticised-newsletter/103062628 Shore School headmaster criticised for comments about Lilie James’s suspected murderer in newsletter

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