Royal Commission: Case Study 44

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse returned to Sydney this week with Case Study 44, looking at the case of former Priest, John Joseph Farrell.  While the hearing is located in Sydney, it relates to the Dioceses of Armidale and Parramatta.

Testimony of CPA

CPA is an abuse survivor who encountered Farrell when he began serving as an altar boy at St Francis Xavier parish in Moree from the age of 10, something CPA described as “a big honour” which ended up being “the biggest mistake of [his] life.”

CPA told the Royal Commission that Farrell forced CPA to perform oral sex on him to the point where he began to gag.  Farrell told the Commission that he reported to Monsignor Frank Ryan that Farrell had hurt him, but that nothing came of it.  CPA said that the following day, Farrell anally raped him and threatened to kill CPA and his family if he told anyone.

CPA then told the Commission of the effect the abuse had on him.  He stopped attending Church, began to steal cars and commit other petty crimes, left school at 14 and drank and smoked marijuana.  CPA said that he has never been able to commit to work, has few close friends and does not trust people.  He also spoke about planning to end his life.

Testimony of Michael McGroder

Michael McGroder attended St Philomena's School, Moree and was also an altar boy.  He described Farrell as being overly friendly with the altar boys, including taking them away on holidays.  He also built up a culture of secrecy by doing things such as showing the boys a samurai sword and his .22 calibre gun which he used to shoot rabbits.

At one point, Farrell invited Mr McGroder to Armidale to assist with a home Mass at a farm.  McGroder told the Royal Commission that a number of times along the way, he placed his hand on McGroder’s thigh and attempted to move it to his crotch.  When McGroder resisted, Farrell grabbed his hand and put it to his own crotch, forcing McGroder to feel his genitals.  Farrell then placed his hand on McGroder’s crotch, squeezing his genitals.

McGroder said that he mentioned the incident to a number of other friends who reported similar behaviour (and worse), although they did not go into detail.  McGroder reported the matter to his parents, who met with other Priests at the parish and also with the police.  He told the Commission that his parents were upset the Church was not doing anything about it, but that he soon ceased acting in an official capacity around Moree and then left the parish.

Mr McGroder described the effects of the abuse and the reaction to him reporting it, including a loss of friends, and chronic alcoholism.  He told the Commission that although he despised what Farrell did, his main issue was with the Church and the way they handled (or failed to handle) the matter.

Testimony of Karolyn Graham

Mrs Graham is the mother of Mr McGroder, the previous witness.  She recalled for the Royal Commission her first impressions of Farrell, and described the conversation she had with Michael not long after the abuse occurred.

She told the Commission that her then- husband had gone immediately to see Monsignor Ryan, who reportedly told him that Farrell “loved the boys,” “didn't mean to do them any harm” and “only fondled their genitals and it was his way of showing his affection.”

She also said that Farrell was “whisked out” of the parish and, when he ran into her former husband some years later and was confronted by him, threatened to disclose what he had said in confession.

Testimony of Father James Flood

Father Flood was an assistant Priest at Moree at the same time Farrell was there.  He told the Commission that he recalled that a number of Priests believed that Farrell should not be ordained because of strange behaviour – not necessarily sexual – but that Bishop Kennedy had a good relationship with Farrell’s mother and so it was believed that was the reason he was ordained. 

Asked about his own view, Father Flood commented that he thought Farrell should not be taking boys away on trips because of the possibility of sexual contact. 

He recalled for the Commission that he was told one day that Farrell had been ordered to leave Moree and not visit again.  He said that he did not know why this occurred, but was asked some time later – after he himself had left Moree – to return and visit some of Farrell’s victims, about six or seven of them.  Father Flood told the Commission this was the first time he knew there were victims.

Father Flood was challenged about his friendship and relationship of pastoral care to Farrell, including stating that he would have preferred to not have known what Farrell had done.

Testimony of Father Richard Gleeson

Father Gleeson was an assistant Priest at Moree parish at the same time Farrell was there.  He told the Commission that he noticed Farrell would be surrounded by young people, and thought it unwise that he would take a single altar boy away on a trip, although he explained it more in terms of singling a child out for special treatment rather than assuming anything untoward.

He told the Commission that Monsignor Ryan told him one day that Farrell had been "mucking around with kids," that he assumed it involved touching them, but that it didn’t occur to him that this went to the extent of criminal behaviour.  Father Gleeson told the Commission that the attitude at the time was that the police were the last resort, not the first (as it would be today.)  He also said that there was a large focus on not ruining a person’s reputation unless you were certain of their guilt.

Senior Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Gail Furness SC, took Father Gleeson to the testimony of the survivor witnesses, including those who said that he argued with the Mr McGroder, telling them that he was driving a wedge in the community by  making complaints about Farrell.  Father Gleeson said that he did not recall saying it, but that he could not say the conversation did not take place.

Father Gleeson spoke about the improvements in record-keeping and supervision which have occurred in the Church in the last 30 years.  He said that personally, he has become somewhat obsessed by the matter because he lived with Farrell for 18 months and did not realise he was offending.

Testimony of Bishop Gerard Hanna

Bishop Hanna has just retired as the Bishop of Wagga Wagga.  He was assistant Priest in Moree from 1978 to 1980 and administrator of South Tamworth parish from 1982 to 1983.  It was there that he encountered Farrell.

Bishop Hanna recalled that Farrell was not recommended for Ordination, but commented that the problems which had been identified had were of attitude and personality, not child abuse.  He said that once Farrell was removed from Moree, there was an assumption that it had been for criminal behaviour.  He was placed on administrative leave to give people an opportunity to come forward, but that no one did.  It was then mooted that Farrell be placed in South Tamworth.

Bishop Hanna told the Commission that he had heard of the problem of paedophilia before, and that knew at least one case in which a Priest was involved.

When Farrell was sent to South Tamworth, Bishop Hanna placed him on restricted duties.  Farrell was not allowed to celebrate school Masses, nor was he permitted to have contact with altar servers.  Bishop Hanna said he was upfront about the restrictions and why they were in place.  He also informed the principal of the local school about the allegations.

Bishop Hanna said that at one point, he believed Farrell was spending too much time with one particular family, and so spoke to the parents to warn them, but they dismissed it.  As far as could be seen from the evidence and the names of victims, Bishop Hanna told the Commission, Farrell did not offend in the years he was in Tamworth under restricted ministry.

Bishop Hanna spoke about the arrest of Farrell, the subsequent committal hearing (where the charges were dismissed) and Farrell returning to the parish at Tamworth.  He said that, against the advice of the Vicar General at the time, Bishop Hanna did not allow Farrell to undertake any public ministry.

Testimony of Bishop Bede Heather

Bishop Heather was the first Bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, which was newly created due to the expansion of the Archdiocese of Sydney.  He had been told by then- Bishop of Armidale, Bishop Harry Kennedy, that Farrell had been charged but acquitted of sexual offences, and asked if he would consider taking him on in Parramatta until the issue settled in Armidale.  Bishop Heather told the Commission that based on what he thought was an acquittal, the assurance given by Bishop Kennedy and an independent conversation with Farrell's treating psychologist, he allowed him to serve in Parramatta.  He described this as "one of the greatest mistakes of [his] life."

He told the Commission that although matters about child sexual abuse had been raised at the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, he did not consult with those who were involved with these issues at a national level.  He said that he was still inclined to see abuse as a moral failing from which a person could recover, and not in terms of a matter of civil law.

Bishop Heather first placed Farrell in Kenshurst parish, and then to Merrylands.  Bishop Heather told the Commission that he was anxious to give Farrell “a fair go,” and so allowed him to go to the Merrylands parish, instructing the other clergy to notify him if anything untoward happened. 

Asked why he did not place restrictions on Farrell's ministry, Bishop Heather explained that he thought Farrell had been acquitted of the crimes with which he had been accused (as opposed to there being a lack of evidence to take the matter to trial), so did not consider him to be a risk.  He acknowledged that he did not take similar precautions to those taken by Bishop Hanna in Tamworth, and was challenged by Commissioner McClellan for having too much concern for Farrell's reputation.

Bishop Heather terminated Farrell's appointment when it was reported that he used sexual language in front of altar boys.

Bishop Heather was then asked about a search warrant which was exercised at the diocesan offices in December 1994, in relation to another matter.  He said that all the files had been thrown around and left in such a state of disarray that he realised how vulnerable the confidential documents were, so he destroyed a number of them.  Justice Peter McClellan challenged him on this, suggesting that the documents were only vulnerable to another search warrant. 

Testimony of Bishop Luc Matthys

Bishop Matthys was the Bishop of Armidale from 1999.  He told the Commission that he did not issue faculties to Farrell upon his arrival because of the allegations against him.

Bishop Matthys was asked about a meeting with survivor CPD and his mother, in which he told them that they needed to go to the police before they could receive compensation from the Diocese.  This led to a lengthy conversation in which the Bishop said he did not consider compensation to be available under Towards Healing.

Bishop Matthys sent Farrell to Encompass, a program for those who sexully offend against young people.  After a negative report, Bishop Matthys sought to have him laicised.  He told the Commission that he did not put any additional restrictions on Farrell (apart from the existing lack of faculties) during the two years it took to have him laicised.

The hearing will continue on Monday with testimony from Father Brian Lucas.

Monica Doumit, catholicTalk editor

Thursday, 15 September 2016 10:08 Written by 
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