By a Broken Rites researcher
Catholic Church authorities knew for years (since at least 1995) that there were concerns about how Father Anthony David O’Hearn behaved towards children, according to documents tendered to an Australian court. But these concerns did not, at first, reach the police. Eventually, in 2004, the church itself started an “in-house” inquiry but Father O’Hearn was “tipped off” that he was under scrutiny, the court documents allege. Finally, in 2008, the police became involved and they charged Father O’Hearn with child-sex crimes.
In 2010, Father O’Hearn is before the criminal courts, charged with 17 child-sex offences relating to five young boys, in the 1980s and 1990s.
Father David O’Hearn, who was born on 28 April 1961, is a priest of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, north of Sydney (this is one of the eleven Catholic dioceses covering the state of New South Wales).
On 17 June 2010, after a preliminary (committal) hearing in the Newcastle Local Court, magistrate Elaine Truscott ordered Father O’Hearn to stand trial. The case will now proceed to a judge in a higher court, the New South Wales District Court.
As a part of the committal proceedings, the prosecution submitted a brief of evidence (a file for the information of the court). This included a statement by Helen Keevers, who was the manager of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese’s child-protection unit (she has since left this position). She was on a Child Protection Advisory Panel which the diocese formed in 2004. The O’Hearn matter was discussed at one of the first meetings of the panel, Ms Keevers’ statement said. Bishop Michael Malone asked the panel to investigate Father O’Hearn, she said.
The panel was advised about a series of complaints, dating from the 1990s, alleging inappropriate behaviour by Father O’Hearn, Ms Keevers’ statement said. She said a psychologist’s report given to the former Bishop Leo Clarke outlined information about O’Hearn’s behaviour in the company of children. (BishopClarke was in charge of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese until 1995.)
A panel member was asked to investigate, but declined because this panel member was a friend of Father O’Hearn, Ms Keevers’ statement said.
The panel hired a private investigator but he told Father O’Hearn’s friend: “Tell your mate there’s nothing to worry about,” Ms Keevers’ statement said.
Father O’Hearn’s friend told the panel about this disclosure and another private investigator took over the investigation. He found that there was no substance to the allegations against Father O’Hearn.
Father O’Hearn later told Ms Keevers that the first private investigator told him he had nothing to worry about.
Members of the panel believed that the friend also discussed the investigation with Father O’Hearn and disclosed information to him, Ms Keevers’ statement said.
Statement from a jailed priest
The brief of evidence tendered to court also contained a statement from a Catholic priest, Vincent Gerard Ryan, who was jailed in 1996 after pleading guilty to abusing dozens of boys over a 20-year period.
Ryan’s statement said O’Hearn was his assistant at the Cessnock parish in the early 1990s, however Ryan “didn’t hear anything about him or another assistant priest in relation to children”.
But Ryan went on to say that “they wouldn’t have been aware of my behaviour either”.
How the case began
During the early court proceedings of the O’Hearn case in 2009, it emerged that in 2008 the New South Wales police received a complaint from a person who alleged that when he was a child, he had been sexually abused by Father O’Hearn. Charges, relating to this boy, were laid in the Newcastle Local Court in February 2009.
In further procedural court appearances in 2009 and early 2010, Father O’Hearn was charged with offences against additional boys.
The prosecution alleged that the earliest of the charged offences occurred in the Muswellbrook parish in 1987. This was early in Father O’Hearn’s career, shortly after he was ordained.
Other offences allegedly occurred in the early 1990s while Father O’Hearn worked in parishes at Cessnock, Maitland and Windale.
Police documents tendered in court on 15 July 2009 referred to youth-group activities that were conducted by Father O’Hearn.
June 2010 hearing
During the final stages of the magistrate’s proceedings, on 16-17 June 2010, Father O’Hearn faced multiple charges including sex with a minor, indecent assault and committing acts of indecency against a person aged under 16.
This hearing was held in a closed court.
The alleged victims were not in the courtroom — they gave evidence from elsewhere via closed-circuit TV.
The court was told that one of the boys had been emotionally disturbed and asked Father O’Hearn for advice. The complainant, then a ten-year-old altar boy, alleged that, during a period of months, Father O’Hearn forced him to perform oral sex on the priest, either in the priest’s car or at a church presbytery. The alleged victim said in a police statement that when he once refused to comply with Father O’Hearn’s sexual demands, the priest said: “If you don’t do it, nothing will be fixed and you will still have your problems.” The boy was also allegedly told: “This is how we fix your problem” and “I could make things harder for you at school and no one’s going to believe you anyway.”
Another alleged victim, also a former altar boy, stated that his parents showed little interest in him. He said that “Father David” was the closest thing that he had to a role model and that he had confided in him about being abused by his uncle. The prosecution alleged that Father O’Hearn took the boy on a camping trip for altar boys and shared a tent with him. During the night, the boy woke to find Father Hearn lying on him with an erect penis, his statement said.
Witnesses told of wrestling matches involving Father O’Hearn when the boys were aged from eight to about twelve.
During the “wrestling”, Fr O’Hearn allegedly rubbed a boy’s genital area and rubbed his own genital area against the boy’s body, the court was told.
Prosecutor Helen Wilson told the court: “This is not a case of two grown men in sport — here we have one gown man and a boy.”
Next step in the court process
Following the magistrate’s decision, the case is scheduled to come up for a procedural mention in the District Court at an early date.
Father O’Hearn has not yet entered a plea but he has previously made a statement protesting his innocence.
The police investigation is being conducted by Detective Sergeant Kristi Faber, of the “Strike Force Georgiana” investigation team, Lake Macquarie Detectives Office, at Charlestown Police, Hunter Valley, NSW, telephone 02 4942 9909. The investigation is still open.
Broken Rites research
Broken Rites has researched Father David O’Hearn in the annual editions of the Australian Catholic directories. His annual entries all list him as a priest of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.
Before being ordained, David O’Hearn was a deacon at Waratah parish in 1985 and at Singleton parish in 1986.
He was ordained in late 1986. He then became an assistant priest at Muswellbrook in 1987.
In the 1990 directory Fr David O’Hearn was listed as an assistant priest at St Joseph’s parish in Cessnock, where the priest in charge was Father Vincent Gerard Ryan.
In the early 1990s, Father O’Hearn was listed as the priest in charge firstly at the Windale parish (St Pius X) and later at the Toronto parish (St Joseph’s).
In the directories from 1995 to 1999, he was listed as being in charge of the Rutherford parish (St Paul’s).
In the 2000 edition of the annual Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy, he was “a priest in residence” at St Columban’s/Christ the King, 58 Church Street, Mayfield West. Also listed at that address was Father William (Bill) Burston, who was the Vicar-General of the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese.
In the directories for 2001 and 2003, David O’Hearn was listed as the acting parish priest at St Patrick’s, Swansea.
In the 2003 directory, he was listed as “on leave” (care of the diocesan office).
In the 2004 directory, he was listed as the Parish Priest of St Michael’s, Nelson Bay, and was still listed there when the police began investigating him in 2008.
Fund-raiser for O’Hearn
In August 2009, while Father O’Hearn was on bail awaiting his next court appearance, the Newcastle Herald reported that about 100 supporters of Father David O’Hearn, from as far away as Sydney, “attended a function at a Port Stephens restaurant this week that raised $18,000” for the priest.
The following is from the Herald article on 27 August 2009:
The priest, who was stood down from his position at St Michael’s parish, Nelson Bay, attended the event despite being described as initially “a bit nervous” about what the crowd would say.
It is understood the function has infuriated other Catholic parishioners.
Corlette resident and parishioner Tony McGowan said the function had been organised by himself and four other O’Hearn supporters and had nothing to do with the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese.
He emphasised the function had not been promoted as raising cash for O’Hearn’s legal fees, but rather an amount for “him to use for whatever he wanted”.
Tickets were sold, cash donations made and items donated by supporters and businesses were auctioned.
“It was packed to the rafters . . .and everyone wanted to know when the next [night] would be,” Mr McGowan said.
Mr McGowan said O’Hearn, who had supported him at the time of his wife’s death, had been under enormous pressure since the charges were laid, which had prompted the function.
He said he had not heard of any complaints about the function, but that “everyone is entitled to their opinion”.
A diocese spokeswoman said Bishop Michael Malone was out of the area and unavailable for comment.
She said the diocese had not been involved in organising the event. She declined to respond to a question as to whether the diocese considered it appropriate that the function took place, the Herald report concluded.