YEARS of research by an Armidale woman underpinned the ABC Four Corners program that investigated claims of a Catholic Church cover-up of child sex abuse cases involving defrocked priest and prominent Armidale resident, ‘Father F’.
The high school teacher, who prefers not to be named, has worked in child protection for more than two decades, and for the last few years she has provided information to Broken Rites, an organisation dedicated to supporting and empowering victims of church-related sexual abuse.
She was approached by a producer of Four Corners in May and invited to contribute to an exposé of the former Armidale diocese priest, who is known as Father F for legal reasons.
Father F has been accused of sexually abusing several boys in Moree during the 1980s. He was subsequently moved to the Parramatta diocese, where he allegedly abused another boy, who later committed suicide.
A letter uncovered by Four Corners documenting a meeting between Father F and three senior Catholic clerics in 1992 revealed that Father F admitted to sexually interfering with five young boys in Moree, but although he was relieved of his priestly duties, the matter was not reported to police.
Two of his alleged victims eventually received compensation from the Catholic Church; however, the money failed to take away the pain and both were dead by the age of 28.
Father F has never been convicted of sex abuse crimes, but he was formally laicised in 2005 due to “continued rumours” about him.
More allegations against Father F have emerged since Four Corners aired last week. ‘Steve’ was interviewed on Sydney radio station 2GB on Wednesday and claimed he was raped on the altar of the Moree parish church in the 1980s. He said his brother was also raped and he was warned his family would be killed if anyone was told.
Another man, who wished only to be known as ‘Bill’, spoke to the ABC’s 7.30 and claimed he was abused in his sleep by Father F in the mid-1980s. The father of one of the alleged victims claims he alerted both Moree police and officials in the Armidale diocese to the abuse of his son in 1983, but no action was taken.
The woman who contributed to “Unholy Silence” grew up in Moree and attended school with some of Father F’s alleged victims. She knew Father F at the time and recalled him regularly visiting the family home of one of his alleged victims.
“I remember as a child being struck by, it seemed odd to me that anybody would spend so much time at somebody else’s place,” she said.
However, it was only after she moved to Armidale to study at the University of New England in the early 1990s that she learnt of the abuse allegations.
“When I was studying at university I actually ran into him, and I thought, ‘Oh God, what’s he doing here?’” she said.
Her discovery that Father F was living in the Armidale diocese, combined with her work in child protection, led to research into his background and contact with his alleged victims.
“I’ve been incredulous for the last 20 years that he’s still been able to function,” she said. “Who paid for his HECS? How is he generating an income?”
Despite the allegations against him, Father F has remained in Armidale and become a high-profile member of the community. This week, Armidale Dumaresq Council asked him to vacate his position on the sesquicentenary committee, while another organisation is reviewing his position on their board.
The woman said she warned several local organisations of Father F’s background, including the police and local media, as early as two years ago, but was disappointed by the response.
“I found it extremely frustrating and extremely disappointing,” she said. “He’s never been held accountable and not only that, he’s been rewarded with very public and important positions, positions of potential influence.
“He’s got a record, he’s admitted to it, so that I suppose is my concern, that he’s still thrived in Armidale. It’s disturbing.”
She was also informed that the man had been asked not to enter the grounds of a local Catholic school in 2005.
“I have been told by a couple of fairly reliable informants that that was the case, that he was told that he wasn’t to come within so many metres of this particular school,” she said.
According to the woman, the airing of the Four Corners episode has already had a profound impact on the alleged victims and their families.
“I spoke to one of the parents of one of the boys who was abused last night and he was almost euphoric in the sense that finally, after 29 years, he felt that it’s getting closer to the truth, it’s getting closer to justice being done,” she said. “That’s a long time to be waiting for justice.”
She said the scandal provided the Catholic Church with the opportunity to show transparency and hand over any information they held on sex abuse claims to police.
“As the new bishop [of Armidale], Michael Kennedy has a perfect opportunity to show real leadership,” she said. “When ordained several months ago, he used the metaphor of the shepherd protecting his flock. What exactly is he intending to do to protect his lambs from the wolves?
“I really hope that he’s able to step up and be the Bishop Kennedy now that the Bishop Kennedy of 30 years ago [Bishop Henry Kennedy] wasn’t able to be. I hope that he can restore some faith in his institution by simply doing the right thing.”
Bishop Michael Kennedy has announced an independent investigation into the allegations while several groups, including the Australian Lawyers Alliance, have called for a renewed police investigation or Royal Commission.
The woman said any change was dependent upon a grassroots push for action from religious and political leaders.
“I would urge everyone who’s disturbed by the issue of the rape of children and the mechanisms which allowed it to happen, covered it up and protected its perpetrators to write to people like Michael Kennedy, George Pell, Richard Torbay, Tony Windsor, Julia Gillard and Pru Goward to demand honesty, accountability, a full investigation or even a Royal Commission into this,” she said.
“If we’re waiting for change to come from the leadership then we’ll be waiting for a very long time.”