As far back as the late 60s-mid 70s, I had heard rumours about the Gerard Majella Society from members of other religioys orders (themselves not beyond reproach!). The nembers were often referred to as having odd practises, in an order that was, in no uncertain terms, set up and run in an odd, almost surreptitious way. There was talk of odd “dress-up” sessions occuring in the monastery, and of a certain “sleaziness” surrounding the priests who ran things. With all the recent controversy surrounding goings-on in the Vatican, and with the supposed return of Cardinal George Pell – the third highest ranking official in the Vatican – to Australia to face historic sexual abuse charges, it came to my mind to find out what had happened to the Gerard Majella Society. It is, with a shudder, frightening to me that I have been surrounded by sexual abuse amongst Catholic brothers and other clergy for most of my life…though not directly affected personally. My experiences at Marist Brother’s St Gregory’s Agricultural College whereby my Dorm 2 dorm madter – Brother Brian – was mysteriously “transferred” after molesting boys in the dorm; the Rev Father Peter Cominsole – who baptised me at St Gregs – who was Parish Priest at St John the Evangelist church in Campbelltown, and the college chaplain, was jailed on sexual abuse charges; recent research into St Greg’s shows a headmaster charged with sexual abuse, and several others charged bith there, and at St Joseph’s, Hunters Hill; my interaction with the St John of the Cross brothers whilst having a brief stint in a monastery myself, and the outcry when it was revealed that they were sexually abusing mentally incapacitated patients in yheir care. It goes on and on! The Gerard Majella Society has now been disbanded, and the priests in charge sentenced to – in my opinion – very short prison sentences for the amount of distress, and psychological damage that they caused those who suffered the abuse. This is the story of the Gerard Majella Society as exposed by researchers at Broken Rites.
By a Broken Rites researcher
In the 1990s, Broken Rites helped to reveal sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests in the St Gerard Majella religious order in western Sydney. Two decades later, on 15 September 2016, this religious order was mentioned at a public hearing of Australia’s national child-abuse Royal Commission. This Broken Rites article gives the background of the St Gerard Majella Society.
In the late 1990s the Sydney District Court jailed three priests who comprised the entire leadership of the St Gerard Majella Society. This society, operating in the Parramatta diocese in western Sydney, consisted of a core of three priests who recruited and “trained” a pool of young Brothers. The three priests were convicted for committing sexual offences against the trainees.
FATHER John Sweeney, then 59, head of the order, was sentenced on 18 July 1997 to 2 years 3 months jail (18 months minimum) after a jury found him guilty of three counts of indecent assault against a 19-year-old trainee Brother. Sweeney still faced further charges involving five other young males.
FATHER Peter Harold Pritchard, then aged 53 (born on 21 May 1944), second-in-charge in the order (and known as Father “Joseph” Pritchard), was sentenced on 29 October 1997 to six years’ jail (four years minimum). Pritchard pleaded guilty to charges of buggery, intent to commit buggery; and indecent assault involving seven trainee Brothers and another young male, all aged 16 to 21, over a 19-year period.
FATHER Stephen Joseph Robinson, the order’s novice master and “spiritual” director, was sentenced on 27 March 1998 to a minimum of 18 months’ jail after two juries convicted him for acts of indecency on two trainees. At the time of his sentencing, he was aged 51 (born in 1946).
The victims in these court cases were not the only victims, just those located by police. The sexual abuse continued for decades, right under the noses of the diocesan authorities, but the church ignored it and the victims had nowhere to go.
In sentencing, the judges said the three priests took advantage of the trainees’ naively and their vow of obedience. The trainees lived an “almost a child-like existence” in the order.
Pritchard, for example, silenced his victims by saying “nobody would believe” that Catholic priests would commit such acts.
The St Gerard Majella Society was formed by Sweeney in 1958 to conduct religious classes for Catholic students in state high schools. It had the blessing of Cardinal Gilroy, the then archbishop of Sydney. Sweeney recruited like-minded men as Brothers, some being upgraded to priests. Members wore conservative neck-to-ankle clerical cassocks. It is believed that, in the 1990s, the St Gerard Majella Society comprised about eight priests, including the three who were convicted.
The Society administered the Catholic parish church at Greystanes (near Parramatta), of which Sweeney was the parish priest, and also the nearby Newman Catholic High School, where Pritchard was the principal.
The order had several monasteries where it conducted camps and retreats for secondary school students and for young military personnel, such as naval apprentices. It trained novice Brothers (some beginning as young as 16), who were bound by rules of obedience to the priests in charge.
Parents, students and parishioners complained about the St Gerard priests but nothing was done. However, the cover-up began to crumble in April 1993 when Father Pritchard pleaded guilty in Liverpool Court to indecent assault of a young naval apprentice who was in his care. Pritchard was placed on a $2,000 good behaviour bond. Although it did not attract media attention, this case prompted other St Gerard victims to think about redress.
In December 1993, after Broken Rites was mentioned in the media, Broken Rites began receiving calls from several ex-Brothers. Each caller described the St Gerard Society’s systematic sexual abuse. The callers alleged that this order was virtually a paedophile organisation, running a male harem.
The ex-Brothers also gave Broken Rites several confidential memoranda written by Bishop Bede Heather, of the Parramatta diocese, indicating that the church was going into damage control. One memo, in May 1993, said Heather had asked two Sydney priests, Rodger Austin and Peter Blayney, to gather written statements from St Gerard Society victims about the abuse. After this process, a second memo in September 1993 said Heather was suspending Sweeney, Pritchard and Robinson from priestly duties.
However, the laity were not told the truth. For example, the Greystanes parish newsletter merely announced that Father Sweeney “has elected to resign” as parish priest to have “a necessary time of renewal”.
Broken Rites advised the ex-Brothers to give statements to the NSW Police child protection unit, which they did during 1994. Detectives then located further victims.
The chief burglar
While this police investigation was proceeding, another cover-up in the Parramatta diocese became exposed. Broken Rites learned that one of the diocese’s most prominent priests, Father Richard Cattell, then 54, pleaded guilty on 19 August 1994 to five counts of indecently assaulting a 14-year-old boy. The boy had gone to Cattell (as a parish priest) in 1973-6 after being molested by a teacher.
In 1991 Bishop Heather appointed Cattell as his vicar-general to administer the 48 parishes of the Parramatta diocese (including Greystanes, where the St Gerard Society had its headquarters).
Therefore, anyone who wanted to complain about sexual abuse in the St Gerard Brothers in the early 1990s would have gone through a vicar-general who was himself a paedophile.
To report sexual crimes to the paedophile vicar-general Cattell was like reporting burglaries to a burglar. How many sex-abuse complaints were received by Cattell? And where, are the files?
[This is why Broken Rites recommends that victims should first report a church-abuse offence to the police child-protection unit, not merely to a church official. The church official is a colleague of the offender and may himself be an offender.]
Broken Rites alerted the media to attend Cattell’s sentencing on 9 December 1994, when he was jailed for two years. Heather later wrote a letter to Cattell’s parishioners, supporting Cattell.
“He [Cattell] continues to be our brother priest,” Heather wrote.
St Gerard Society victims informed Broken Rites that four days later, on 13 December 1994, detectives asked Heather to hand over documents (including the Austin/Blayney report) relating to the St Gerard sex-abuse complaints but Heather allegedly refused. The detectives therefore returned with search warrants for both Heather’s office and the Sydney Archdiocese offices and seized the missing documents, including many written complaints that had not been forwarded to the police
Three days later, on 16 December 1994, Heather quietly announced that he was disbanding the St Gerard Society. The church evidently hoped that there would be no organisation left for the police to investigate but Broken Rites tipped off the media, and therefore in late December 1994 the Sydney and Parramatta newspapers began revealing the St Gerard scandal. Broken Rites then received more calls from informants.
The church promptly began disposing of the St Gerard Society’s property, believed to be worth millions of dollars. This was a big windfall for the church coffers.
The disposal would make it difficult for victims to tackle the St Gerard Society for damages. Innocent Brothers who had spent their teens and perhaps their twenties in the St Gerard order now had no job and no qualifications for a new one.
On 19 December 1994, Heather wrote to his clergy about the Cattell and St Gerard matters. He gave Cattell’s prison address, with suggestions for those priests “intending to visit”. He also indicated his depressed mood about all the scandals, saying that “priestly ministry has suffered a severe setback in the eyes of many people.” (That is, it was unfortunate that the scandals had become public.)
Sweeney, Pritchard and Robinson were arrested in early 1995 and their court appearances spanned three years. A week before the sentencing of Sweeney, Bishop Heather suddenly took early retirement (this could be interpreted as an attempt by the church to continue its traditional cover-up).
Several priests from the St Gerard Majella religious order, who had not been charged by police for sexual offences, were absorbed into the Parramatta diocese or other dioceses. And in 1999, Newman College Greystanes (formerly administered by the St Gerard Majella Brothers) changed its name to St Paul’s Catholic College Greystanes.
Thus, the St Gerard Majella religious order is gone — but not forgotten.
This article, based on Broken Rites research, is the most comprehensive article available about the St Gerard Majella case. Broken Rites conferred with some journalists, who wrote articles in the following newspapers: Sydney Daily Telegraph 19-7-1997, 13-11-1997, Sydney Morning Herald 13-11-1997, 3-3-1998, 4-3-1998, 28-3-1998; The Australian, 23-12-1994, p13, Sydney Sun-Herald 16-11-1997, p56.
Postscript, February 2012
In early 2012, according to several websites, Stephen Robinson is still associated with certain religious groups in Sydney (these groups are not in communion with the Vatican). For example:
A congregation known as the “Metropolitan Community Church Good Shepherd”, at Granville, in Sydney’s western suburbs, stated that one of its contact persons is “Stephen Robinson, BTh, MA, DipTG, DCH Dip. Reflexology, cert. massage.” (This western-suburbs group is not to be confused with another Metropolitan Community Church congregation, located in inner Sydney.)
Stephen Robinson has also had some connection with a body called Ecumenical Catholic Ministries. The National Library of Australia has a publication, by “Stephen Robinson, born 1946”, entitled The New Jerusalem Liturgy, which was produced in association with Ecumenical Catholic Ministries.
Apart from church matters, Stephen Robinson is also pursuing other interests. A website in February 2012 referred to Stephen Robinson in Sydney who is “currently in private practice as a body therapist and personal growth consultant”. And another website in February 2012 referred to Stephen Robinson running courses at the “College of Complementary Medicine” in Sydney — and his qualifications are said to include a Bachelor of Theology degree and a Diploma in Remedial Massage.
Postscript, April 2012
Stephen Robinson has been mentioned on the website of St Bernadette’s Catholic parish, Lalor Park (in the Parramatta diocese, western Sydney).
The website has stated on its “Parish History” page:
“In 2006, the Parish celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the building and dedication of their second church. The celebrations started on Friday 15th September 2006 with a Jubilee Mass for St Bernadette’s Parish School …
“New Hymn to St Bernadette and a new music Mass setting, dedicated to St Bernadette were composed by Stephen Robinson for the 25th Anniversary…
“Fr Andrew Robinson [the parish priest at St Bernadette’s] celebrated his 60th Birthday with his twin brother Stephen. The parishioners presented Father with a gift at the 10.00am Sunday Mass. After Mass the community shared a cuppa and birthday cake outside the Church to celebrate…”
“In 2008, icons of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel were painted by Stephen Robinson for the Sanctuary of the Church.”
On 13 March 2011, the St Bernadette’s parish bulletin stated:
“Our thanks are due to many people who assisted in making our Jubilee celebrations last weekend a special time at St Bernadette’s.
“…The Parish Ministry – singers, musicians who worked so passionately to learn the program of Sacred music, under the musical direction of Stephen Robinson… Thank you Stephen for composing all the hymns and Mass in honour of the Immaculate Conception for our Jubilee Year…”
SEPTEMBER 15 2016
Bishop Bede Heather ‘destroyed’ documents: Royal Commission
By Rachel Browne
The former Catholic Bishop of Parramatta Bede Heather has told a royal commission he destroyed documents relating to potential legal action against a paedophile priest.
Bishop Heather told the public inquiry he destroyed documents because he was traumatised by a police search of his office as part of an earlier investigation into sexual abuse by clergy.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard Bishop Heather advised his lawyers Makinson & D’Apice of his actions in a 1996 letter.
“Following the police raid on our offices, shortly afterwards I took the precaution of destroying all papers of mine which could have been to the disadvantage of persons with whom I deal,” he wrote in the letter which was partly read out before the commission.
“You’ve destroyed documents that might say something which could be adverse to an individual?,” commission chairman Peter McClellan asked.
“Yes,” Bishop Heather responded.
Justice McClellan: “That would include potential criminal offences?”
Bishop Heather: “It could, yes.”
The commission heard Bishop Heather destroyed material relating to a western Sydney priest who was first jailed for child sexual offences in 1994 even though he was aware there were potential further civil claims against the man.
Bishop Heather told the inquiry he became anxious about confidentiality following a police search of his office as part of a separate investigation into a local religious order, St Gerard Majella Society, which was part of the Parramatta Diocese.
“From that point onwards I became a bit cautious about what I kept on file,” he said.
“I was traumatised by the event . . . and suffered stress disorder as a result.”
Three brothers from the now defunct St Gerard Majella Society – Joseph Pritchard, John Sweeney and Stephen Robinson – were convicted of sexual offences, the commission heard.
Bishop Heather told the inquiry he did not report allegations about the brothers to the police when he first became aware of them.
“No I didn’t see that as my obligation,” he said. “I suppose I was principally concerned about the impact on the community, the church (and) the community of brothers.”
The fourth day of the hearing into how the Catholic Church responded to allegations about jailed paedophile priest John Joseph Farrell heard Bishop Heather accepted him into the Parramatta Diocese in 1990 because he wanted to “give him a fair go” despite knowing of child sexual abuse claims against him.
Bishop Heather told the commission he suspended Farrell in 1992 after learning he had behaved inappropriately with altar boys, checked to see if a school girl was wearing a bra and made a lewd comment to a teacher.
The commission heard Farrell returned to the Diocese of Armidale where he continued to work with children until at least 2000.
Former Bishop of Armidale, Luc Matthys, told the commission he did not believe people who had suffered abuse by clergy should get compensation from the Catholic Church.
The commission heard Bishop Matthys started the process of laicising Farrell on advice he posed an unacceptable risk to children.
Farrell was was sentenced to a minimum jail term of 18 years in May after being convicted of a string of child sex offences.
The hearing will resume on September 19.
Lifeline 13 11 14
Broken Rites Australia http://brokenrites.org.au/drupal/node/12
Barry M Coldrey: Religious life Without Integrity – The Sexual Abuse Crisis In the Catholic Church http://www.bishop-accountability.org/reports/2000_Coldrey_Integrity/integrity_23.htm
Child Sex Abuse In Australia Royal Commission http://www.tastessightssounds.com/2015/06/child-sexual-abuse-in-australia-royal.html
6 thoughts on “Gerard Majella Society Sexual Abuse Case”
I was a member in 1973. Stephen Robinson was my perpetrator. Thinking of the Cult figure Jim Jones, would John Sweeney be classed as such?
That is a very good question…whether you
are talking about a small group or a large group of people, the indoctrination process is very similar…and is so for many cults. That the sexual abusers were often answerable to higher sexual abuser authorities is just jaw-dropping. The victims just never stood a chance.
Agree. I’m currently writing my focussed account on my experiences there with the SSG. My earlier memior covers my whole life story, but this will focus as i said. If you know others who would wish to contribute, let me know. Paul.
The postscrips dated 2012 were my contributions, from my research. I did my best to shut down Stephen Robinson. He is (recently) a priest in another church in Western Sydney.
Unbelievable! The Catholic Church are masters at deniability and being blinkered…though perhaps not surprising considering the sheer volume of sexual abuse within its walls.
I am often amazed at how close I sailed to the wind of abuse, remaining merely an observer at an age…I was 13…when I had no concept of what was going on, despite it being talked about amongst my dorm and classmates…my upbringing in the 50s/60s left me quite naive about sexual matters. I was acutely aware of Brother Brian…this happened at St Gregory’s College in Campbelltown…as he was coach of the swimming team, and this occurred in the dorm of which he was dorm master. When the new swim teams Speedos arrived…or him coming out of his room and into the dorm after lights-out, whispering to one or another of the swim team members, getting them up, out of bed and into his room to try on their new swimmers and “get the sizing right”. Not being on the swimming team, I was spared that! When he suddenly got “transferred” there seemed to be little shock. Obviously one of the boys passed on something to their parents or others.
I converted while I was there…I had been Congregational…and was baptised by Father Peter Cominsole (not the same named Archbishop of Melbourne) in the college chapel. He was very touchy-feely, but again I wasn’t an altar boy, which was his specialty. I was watching the news the night he was arrested. Again, it came as no shock when I looked back.
I had a man try to drag me into a car, when as a young kid on my way to school, at Sylvania in the very early 60s. He told me he was a friend of my fathers, but I knew he wasn’t, and managed to pull away, and ran for home, which was close by. Naturally he fled…my father would have loved to have got his hands on him…but I do wonder to this day if he didn’t manage to grab somebody else. My brother and I never walked to school alone from that day on.
I spent a brief period in a newly formed contemplative order in Leura called the Community of St Thomas More in the mid 70s. The founder…whose name escapes me now…was a bit of an odd bod, who had close contacts with the John of God Brothers, who I met quite a few of. This happened at a time when I was personally questioning a lot of what I had been taught, and adding in personal observations all combined to leave a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and I left the monastery before first vows, and basically chucked it all in. An awareness of my own repressed sexuality also had a place there, as I came to realise that hiding myself away in a monastery was not a healthy thing to do. The revelations about the John of Gods came out at a later date.
I have the greatest respect for people such as yourself who have the bravery to tell a story that continually needs to be retold, as this is STILL going on, and despite this the Church continues to bury it’s head and deny culpability. The sheer scope of sexual abuse is so prolific it defies imagination. When I left school in 1969, being an agricultural college and having mainly country boys as pupils, they went their way and I went mine…back to the city…so had no further contact with those abused at the hands of the Marist Brothers, though it would not surprise me to find them amongst the Broken Rites abused.
Hi Tim et al,
I met Comonsoli snr while i was a Seminarian at St Patrick’s Manly in 1994 or 95. We were told he was on *study leave*, but we knew otherwise. Such a slime bag. We had to sit with him at chapel and in the dining room. No one spoke to him.
I met Bishop Comonsoli too at The Entrance on the NSW Central Coast, seemed a nice enough man but said he could not tell the local PP to leave my Loud Fence ribbons on his parish fence.
More tomorrow… Paul