September 30, 2020
By Rochelle Kirkham
A Catholic priest will serve 12 months in prison before he is deported to India after sexually assaulting a parishioner in the Ballarat district.
Alexander Athanas was sentenced at the Ballarat Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday after he pleaded guilty to multiple acts of sexual assault earlier in September.
Magistrate Ron Saines said Athanas abused his position of trust and took advantage of a vulnerable woman.
Athanas, an ordained Catholic priest, arranged a private mass for a 28-year-old parishioner who had suffered serious health issues.
The victim arrived at the church with family members before Athanas took her alone upstairs to a private room in the presbytery where there was a mattress on the floor.
Mr Saines said Athanas directed the victim to remove her clothing and underwear.
“Despite her queries and timidity, you exploited her nakedness drawing crosses on her skin,” he said.
The court heard Athanas touched the victim’s breasts, buttocks and vagina for a period of time before she broke free from his embrace.
The victim told her family about the assault and reported it to police.
Athanas had arrived in Australia from India in May 2019 and worked at a number of locations including in the western region.
Mr Saines said Athanas’ abuse of his position of trust was a major aggravating feature of the offence.
“Your role as a priest involved a trust held by her and her family as sacred,” he said.
[“This was a poor disguise of looking at and touching her sexually for your personal gratification.” – Magistrate Ron Saines]
Mr Saines said the offending was also aggravated by Athanas’ exploitation of the victim’s vulnerability as someone who suffered serious health issues.
Mr Saines said Athanas’ conduct was contrary to the ethics and teaching of religion but also involved contact with a parishioner which was prohibited due to the pandemic.
“You told her not to tell others… and to say it was a special full-body healing,” he said.
Mr Saines said there was a degree of premeditation evidenced by the selection of the location, absence of witnesses and family and the mattress on the floor.
He said he took into account Athanas’ early plea of guilty, his expression of remorse, his lack of criminal history, low risk of reoffending and more onerous time in prison due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Mr Saines said he must also take into the account the ‘profound’ impact on the victim and her family.
“The family describe social and spiritual isolation and wider isolation from their church community,” he said.
[“The victim’s spirituality, faith in priests and the religion she has practised all her life has been shattered, her pre-existing health problems are exacerbated and her psychological health is significantly harmed.” – Magistrate Ron Saines]
The court heard Athanas’ visa had been cancelled, meaning he will be deported when he is released from prison and the Catholic Church in Victoria had withdrawn his authority to act as a priest.
Athanas was sentenced to 12-months’ imprisonment. Mr Saines said the sentence would have been 20-months if he had entered a not guilty plea and then been found guilty.
Police prosecutor Senior Constable Jack Fletcher said he would investigate whether a sex offender registration act order in Victoria would have any effect when Athanas’ returned to India.
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