Farrell scandal puts Catholic church’s attitude to Australian law under the microscope

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As the royal commission continues its investigation, the question that emerges is whether the church sees itself as a separate realm answerable only to Rome

The Guardian (Australia)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Counsel assisting Gail Furness during a public hearing into the response of the Catholic church authorities to allegations of child sexual abuse by Father Joseph Farrell in Sydney this month. Photograph: Jeremy Piper/AAP

The furrows deepened on the brow of Father Brian Lucas. His bouncy confidence evaporated in the witness box. He sweated under questioning. He confessed over and over again to be puzzled by his own actions. Puzzled by the actions of others. So puzzled. But he gave no ground.

On one reading of this tangled story, Lucas could face possible criminal charges for failing to alert the police 24 years ago to the apparently frank confessions of a paedophile priest. He doesn’t see it that way.

Lucas put everything he had this week into convincing the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse that his handling of the case of Father John Farrell – who was abusing children from the moment he was ordained in 1981 – was absolutely proper.

Lucas matters. Though he has no fancy title and doesn’t wear lace, this lawyer priest has been a fixer of great skill within the Catholic church for decades. He has been one of the hard men in the church bureaucracy: for years the spokesman of the archdiocese of Sydney and then secretary to the Bishops’ Conference.

The Farrell case is the commission’s last look at the role of the Catholic church. It’s no afterthought. This is the scandal that raises the fundamental question of the church’s attitude to Australian law. Is it a “good citizen” as Cardinal George Pell has so often claimed? Or does the church see itself as a separate realm answerable to the laws of Rome?

Lucas was the go-to man when paedophiles had to be persuaded to leave the church. Rules set in Rome made it essentially impossible to dismiss these men. They could be suspended from duties, given no work, forbidden to celebrate mass – but they had to consent to their own sacking.

How many cases he had handled before he confronted Farrell he couldn’t exactly say. Perhaps 35. He never turned them over to the police. And he never took notes. The ground rule of his operation was that no documents were left behind.

Even in the witness box this week, Lucas insisted the church had a right to protect the confidences of these men. He argued to a clearly sceptical commissioner, Peter McClellan, that they spoke to him on condition no record was made, so no record was made. There was nothing for civil authorities to discover in the archives. Lucas called it the right to silence.

Father Brian Lucas

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Lawyer priest Father Brian Lucas has been a fixer of great skill within the Catholic church for decades. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Lucas was not alone when he met Farrell in September 1992. With him were two senior churchmen: Monsignor John Usher, director of the Catholic charity Centacare, and the judicial vicar of the Armidale diocese, Father Wayne Peters.

Peters made a document.

Those three men already knew a good deal about Farrell and the trail of scandal he had left behind in his decade as a priest. After only a couple of years, he was forced out of his first parish, Moree in western New South Wales, pursued by angry parents and accusations he was abusing his altar boys.

The church undertook no investigation.

Farrell was charged in 1987 with five counts of indecent assault on one boy and six of sexual intercourse without consent. The church provided the priest with a fierce Sydney criminal QC, Chester Porter, to tear the victim to shreds in the witness box in Narrabri. Farrell wasn’t committed for trial.

He was then moved to western Sydney, where his abrasive attitudes, strange behaviour with children and sexual banter with altar boys led him to be shifted from Kenthurst to Merrylands and then thrown out of the diocese in June 1992.

By any measure, Farrell was a bad man. Lucas also knew the priest had indecently assaulted a young girl who described to Lucas in great detail what Farrell had done to her: touching her legs and breasts.

“Did you refer that complaint to the police?” asked counsel assisting the royal commission, Gail Furness.

“No, she was very adamant she did not want that done.”

Lucas had a policy then of not encouraging victims to go to the police: not dissuading, but not encouraging. He explained to the commission that he preferred to take a neutral stance: “I was nervous about putting too much pressure on someone.”

Farrell, cast adrift from Sydney, was keen to return to work in his old stamping ground, the diocese of Armidale. But a new bishop there, Kevin Manning, was wary.

He called the priest in for a remarkable interview at which Farrell claimed to be innocent of the Narrabri charge. But according to the bishop’s notes, “he referred to three other incidents which could have brought him ‘14 years apiece’.”

Manning did not question Farrell, nor did he report the priest to the police.

A couple of nights later, at Manning’s request, Lucas, Usher and Peters confronted this recklessly confessional man in the presbytery of St Mary’s Cathedral. Lucas told the royal commission: “I would have explained the nature of the meeting, that this was confidential as between ourselves and the bishop, and that he should be able to speak freely.”

Just how freely and truthfully he spoke in that three-hour meeting is the key dispute in this grubby saga. No one took notes. The priest refused to go quietly. All he would agree to do was take leave from the church for five years. Lucas accepted that. Nothing at all was reported to the police.

A few days later, Peters wrote a “short report” to Manning. Lucas and Usher had no idea it had been written. It’s only two and a half pages long but the details are dynamite. The bishop read it and he, too, failed to call the police. Instead, the report was left like a time bomb in the diocesan files.

Two suicides lead to Four Corners

Miracles happen. For 20 years Farrell remained a free man. Neither the church nor the police seemed curious about his depredations, not even after a few of his victims brought him to account.

The young man destroyed in the witness box won a settlement from Catholic Church Insurance. A few years later he took his life.

Another young man (known at the commission as CPK) began demanding money from Farrell. After handing over about $20,000, Farrell went to the police and the 19-year old was charged with demanding money with menaces.

Peters’ letter fell into the hands of CPK’s lawyer. It arrived in a bundle of documents subpoenaed from the Armidale archdiocese. Though it was not admitted into evidence, it was shown to Farrell and he was questioned about it at CPK’s trial in Parramatta in 2004.

“I suggest to you that at that meeting you made certain admissions to those priests that you had had oral sex with young boys. What do you say about that?”

“Yes,” replied Farrell.

“And that’s the reason why they won’t let you carry out your duties as a priest, isn’t it?”

“That’s part of it, yes.”

CPK told the police of Farrell fondling, fellating, masturbating and digitally penetrating him. He was acquitted. The police took no further action. CPK began civil proceedings and, in the course of reaching a settlement, the church finally compelled Farrell to resign from the priesthood.

CPK hanged himself in 2007.

Still nothing happened to Farrell. Those suicides – both at the age of 28 – and the continuing immunity of the paedophile who preyed on those young men put the Farrell case high on the list of outrages pursued by Broken Rites, the support group for survivors of clerical abuse.

It was a long haul, but in early 2012 ABC television’s Four Corners became interested. How, the journalists wondered, could this man have made those admissions to the church in 1992 and to the court in 2004 with no charges ever being laid? How could the police and the church be so blind to his crimes?

Four Corners made first contact with Lucas in late May 2012. The producer Mary Ann Jolley emailed wanting to know what happened at the 1992 meeting. Lucas immediately flicked her email to Usher. He also spoke to Peters. At one point Lucas organised a three-way conference call to prepare what he called a “common recollection” of the meeting in St Mary’s Cathedral presbytery.

John Usher (left)

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Monsignor John Usher, left, says Father John Farrell ‘made no personal disclosures of criminal behaviour’. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

“It looks,” Furness suggested, “like you put your heads together to come up with a view that was in each of your own interests.”

Lucas explained he was an expert handling the press and this was common operating procedure: “We were genuinely trying to be honest in the response.” What had to be avoided was giving Four Corners three different versions of what happened at the 1992 meeting.

So what, asked Furness? Wouldn’t they be giving three honest recollections of a meeting now 20 years in the past? Again Lucas explained: the discrepancies would become the story and the result would be “confusion … total confusion”.

The three men agreed: Farrell made no admissions.

Four Corners knew they were on to something for, as the journalists kept pressing, Lucas and Farrell tweaked the formula. Confusion was creeping in. The denials were no longer absolute. Lucas told the ABC the priest “was not specific with respect to any admissions”. Usher said Farrell “made no personal disclosures of criminal behaviour”.

But they all agreed, there was nothing to tell the police.

Pell fronted the camera. He looked the reporter Geoff Thompson in the eye and said: “The file note of that meeting does not show that he made any admission and that is the recollection of the three priests who were actually at that. They were dissatisfied with his credibility. They thought he represented some sort of danger for the future and although he made no admissions to them they suggested to the bishop who followed it that he be stood down.”

The cardinal had no file note of the meeting. He was referring to a briefing paper Usher had put together only days before. But from early in the research for the show, Four Corners was aware that a contemporaneous document did exist that gave an absolutely contrary account of the 1992 confrontation with Farrell.

The problem was to find it. Weeks after Pell was interviewed and only a few days before the show went to air, Four Corners tracked down a copy of Peters’ report among the court papers from the CPK case in Parramatta.

The document was devastating. It recorded Farrell admitting “there had been five boys around the age of ten and eleven that he had sexually interfered with in varying degrees in the years approximately 1982 to 1984 while he was the assistant priest at Moree”.

Farrell also admitted fondling a boy’s genitals “during a car trip from Moree to Narrabri” and assaulting another two boys far more seriously: “He admitted that over a period of approximately twelve months he fondled the genitals of each of these boys and to quote ‘sucked off their dicks’. As far as Rev. Farrell can remember this was done on about a monthly basis …”

‘I have to stand by my letter’

Four Corners called the show Unholy Silence. Its impact was enormous. Along with a handful of scandals that broke in mid-2012, the report was key to Julia Gillard’s decision four months later to call the royal commission.

In Victoria, police denounced the church for failing to hand paedophiles over for investigation. In the NSW Hunter Valley, a police whistleblower claimed Catholics among his colleagues were frustrating investigation of paedophile priests. And now in Sydney, it seemed that officials of the church had kept secret for 20 years highly detailed admissions of paedophile behaviour crimes.

The common theme was the impression that the Catholic church saw itself standing outside the law.

Lying to Four Corners – if indeed these were lies – is not a crime. But in NSW the ancient offence of misprision of felony survives in section 316 of the Crimes Act. The crime of concealing knowledge of a crime is punishable with up to two years’ imprisonment.

Within days of Four Corners going to air, the former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery told the Sydney Morning Herald there were grounds to proceed against Lucas, Usher and Peters under section 316. He said: “I can’t, frankly, see any reason why it would not proceed.”

By this time, Pell’s officials in Sydney had held urgent meetings with lawyers to look for a way out of this mess. File notes from these meetings have been in evidence before the royal commission. Lucas and Usher were not in the hot seat. Peters was. Why did he write the report? How did it get out? Was it accurate?

“If that is what I wrote,” said Peters, “I have to stand by my letter.”

Peters left the room. A combative Lucas came on the line from America. According to the minutes he had a plan. “He would talk to Mgr Peters about the letter and the need for him to include that he had embellished it. He said that in the context of time this would be understandable. That would be the end of it and ‘gets him off the hook’. This is the only way ‘to clear this up and explain things’.”

This troubled Danny Casey, the business manager of the archdiocese and Pell’s right-hand man. When he suggested this course was imprudent, Lucas slapped him down. The minutes record: “BL responded that he had 25 years of media experience (and was not inclined to take advice from DC).”

The Sydney archdiocese put out a press release the same day to announce Lucas and Usher were holding their ground. Lucas was not its author, but under questioning at the royal commission he conceded the release made a series of claims that were not right – among them that:

  • Lucas and Usher “separately told” the ABC no admissions were made
  • Peters’ letter to his bishop was “not an official record” of the meeting
  • the Church’s Professional Standards Office held “notes of the meeting”.

Lucas conceded all were wrong. The Professional Standards Office didn’t even exist in 1992.

Furness finished questioning Lucas about the release by ridiculing a flourish of rhetoric about the continuing commitment of the archdiocese to “bringing sexual abuse to light”. Wasn’t the opposite result achieved by the machinations of the church in these weeks? Lucas replied: “I accept that.”

The church now pursued a familiar strategy: hiring a former judge to conduct a private inquiry into an embarrassing scandal. Antony Whitlam QC began work a fortnight after the Four Corners show to report on the church’s management of Farrell from his earliest days in the seminary until he finally threw in the towel in 2005.

Whitlam would excoriate the failings of the church, particularly its failure to investigate Farrell’s crimes and to properly protect children in the various parishes to which this obviously dangerous priest was sent.

But the former federal court judge came to a curious conclusion about the 1992 meeting. He found that Farrell’s talk that night was essentially fantasy. The priest was not confessing to his invigilators but “speaking in some detail about sexual fantasies”.

The royal commission’s inquiry into the Farrell scandal is, among other things, a review of Whitlam’s findings – particularly his conclusion that there was “no cover-up” in 1992 and “nothing sinister” in the gulf of recollection that separated Peters on one side from Lucas and Usher on the other.

Furness probed this issue for days, taking Lucas and Usher in detail through all the accounts of the meeting they have given over the years – to the ABC, the church, Whitlam and, in Usher’s case, to the NSW police.

Lucas held his ground. He still maintains no useful admissions were made by Farrell and that Peters’ letter is not accurate. “The explicit description of that appalling behaviour,” he told the commission, “would have been seared in my memory – those explicit words – and I did not hear them.”

Usher gave ground. He won’t endorse Peters’ language and doesn’t accept he wrote a fair account of that fateful meeting, but under close questioning from Furness he agreed that Farrell might well have said what Peters recorded him saying. But that was no reason to believe him.

“Farrell raved on about many things,” Usher said. “It is not inconceivable that Wayne Peters heard some of this stuff and believed that he was making admissions about things when, in fact, he was just raving on about many, many aberrations, fantasies and ‘What people say about me’.”

Whitlam ultimately accepted that argument. Furness is sceptical. She was keen to trace its origins. She noted it first appeared only after Four Corners had gone to air. She took Usher through document after document from 1992 that suggested whatever had or had not been said at the fateful meeting, everyone took Farrell seriously.

“Now, is it the case, Father, that you have constructed him as rambling, bizarre, et cetera, because that’s the only way you have sought to explain Father Peters’ letter?

“No, no,” replied Usher. “He was strange and bizarre.”

Farrell sentenced – and more charges laid

Immediately after Four Corners went to air, the NSW police established Strike Force Glenroe with detectives from the NSW Sex Crimes Squad and the New England and Barwon local area command to investigate Farrell’s crimes. There would be those who said this move came 20 years late.

Once the first charges were laid in October 2012, Farrell was protected by non-publication orders and the pseudonym Father F. They were lifted in May this year when he was sentenced for 62 historical sex crimes against children, with a further 17 offences taken into account. The sentence was 29 years.

A few weeks ago, Strike Force Glenroe laid further charges relating to child sex assaults in the 1970s and 1980s. That trial is set down for April.

Usher told the royal commission he had been interviewed by detectives from Strike Force Glenroe. “They told me that … the DPP had asked them to investigate this Farrell matter to see whether I, and others, had failed to report matters to the police.”

Though Peters was placed under great pressure, he never backed away from his letter. He would not declare it was embellished. Furness assured the commission that under questioning by Whitlam, “he said he stood by the letter as being accurate”. In the aftermath of the scandal, Peters drank heavily and died in February last year.

Whitlam is suing the ABC for, he says, accusing him on the 7.30 program in May this year of conducting a “sham” inquiry and being a “stooge” of the Catholic church. A case management conference is set down for 10 October.

The commission seems not to have finished with the Farrell scandal. Furness announced that this week’s adjournment was to allow “further inquiries that those assisting the royal commission wish to make”.

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