A Marist brother about whom complaints were growing was allowed to continue teaching at a prestigious Sydney boarding school, an inquiry has heard.

A Marist brother who ended up working at one of Sydney’s most prestigious Catholic schools had possibly been abusing children since the 1950s, an inquiry has been told.

Brother Raymond Foster was teaching at St Joseph’s College, a secondary boarding school in Hunters Hill, in August 1994 even though there had been complaints about him starting in 1991.

The complaints between 1991 and 1994 included an allegation Br Foster had molested a boy when he was at St Augustine’s College, Cairns, in the 1950s.

Brother Alexis Turton, who was provincial of the Marist Brothers Sydney region until the mid-1990s, told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse he had not taken action against Br Foster until Queensland police began an investigation in 1994 after a man accused the brother of molesting him when he was 13.

The man, identified as DG, attended a north Queensland Marist school in the 1970s.

Br Foster killed himself on the day in 1999 he was to be extradited from NSW to Queensland, leaving a note admitting guilt and asking forgiveness of DG, who learnt of the note through the commission.

Br Turton said on Tuesday he had talked to Br Foster about complaints but did not stand him down.

“I assumed I would have an assurance from him that what was referred to 40 years ago was not an issue now,” he told the inquiry.

He said at the time the Marist Brothers had little understanding of abuse and its consequences.

Pressed by commission chair Justice Peter McClellan that it was a criminal problem, Br Turton said, “that took us some time to appreciate”.

He was then asked if he was saying that those in responsible positions in the Marist Brothers did not understand that sexual assault or sexual offences were against the law.

“I think in some cases it was a question of severity and whether it was the difference between inappropriate and sexual,” Br Turton said.

The commission heard there were 234 Marist brothers in Australia, compared with 1046 in 1948 and 444 in 1965.

Br Turton dealt with 128 abuse allegations from 2002 to 2012, when he was the professional standards director for the Marist Brothers.

Justice McClellan put it to him that given the number of brothers and number of complaints, the order had a significant problem.

Br Turton agreed that complaints he dealt with were probably just a portion made since 1948.

Of the complaints referred to him, 80 went through the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing process, intended to emphasise pastoral care and operate on principles of justice and compassion.

The commission heard that in dealing with DG, the Marist Brothers left the matter mostly with lawyers.

It was also told a public apology DG had requested was never made.

Br Turton and a previous witness, Brother Michael Hill, who was provincial in 2000, denied the apology was held back to protect the reputation of the order.