Abuse survivor takes Archdiocese of Melbourne to trial over historical sexual abuse

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

March 3, 2022

By Lucy MacDonald

Oliver* will never forget the day his life changed forever.

It was the day a Catholic priest — a man he saw as God — abused his trust and allegedly set him on a path towards “shame, substance abuse and profound mental illness”, the Supreme Court of Melbourne heard.

“I was dead. He murdered me,” Oliver told the court.

“He murdered that boy, that little boy, that I used to be.”

In 1968, Oliver was sexually assaultedby Desmond Gannon — now known to be a notorious paedophile priest.

Gannon was convicted and sent to jail for Oliver’s abuse in 2009. 

Now Oliver is suing the Archdiocese of Melbourne,  arguing it breached its duty of careand knew — or ought to have known — that Gannon might sexually abuse him.

It is the first time in its 150-year-plus history than an abuse survivor has taken the Archdiocese to trial.

‘I’ve never been the same’

Oliver and his “very religious” family were “good Irish Catholics”, the court heard.

So when the chance to become an altar boy arose, he leapt at it.

After Gannon’s abuse began, Oliver, who had once dreamed of being a police officer, became a delinquent, the court heard.

“It’s been eating at me ever since,” Oliver told the court.

“It f***ed me up. Completely. And I’ve never been the same since that day.”

The court heard Oliver eventually dropped out of school, began to binge drink, struggled to hold down jobs and seriously considered taking his own life — acting on those thoughts several times.

“The abuse robbed him of his childhood, ruined his mental health and set him on a path towards a life of shame, guilt and profound mental illness, substance abuse, alcoholism, fractured relationships, anger, suicide attempts, criminal activity, violence with partners, neighbours, police and damaging property,” his lawyer Fiona McLeod AO SC told the court.

The Archdiocese denies the sexual abuse is solely responsible for Oliver’s substance abuse, alcoholism and run-ins with the law, saying his childhood before the abuse was “not idyllic”.

But Oliver was far from the first child Gannon abused. 

Priest accused of abuse for 30 years

The 2013 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse revealed there were 25 people who had claimed they were abused by Gannon over a period of 30 years from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Gannon resigned from the church in 1993 after a victim survivor told the Vicar General, and Gannon admitted to the abuse, the royal commission was told.

However, Gannon then retired under the guise of “health issues” and was appointed Pastor Emeritus — a position granted to a retired pastor to show honour.

Despite knowing about the abuse, the archbishop at the time thanked Gannon for his service with “zeal and love over 37 years” and said he had “always given the highest standard of pastoral care”. 

Two years later in 1995, Gannon was convicted of nine counts of sexual abuse of four boys aged between 11 and 12. He was sentenced to one year in jail.

He was convicted again over separate abuse charges in 1997, 2000 and 2003.

In 2009 he was convicted for the assault of Oliver, and went to jail for the second time.

It was revealed in the royal commission that 22 of Gannon’s victims, including Oliver, had been compensated through the Melbourne Response scheme, receiving an average of $33,000 each. 

That is far less than the damages that can be paid out in a civil case.

Archdiocese rejects royal commission evidence

Oliver is the first of Gannon’s victims to take his case to a civil trial. He is suing the Archdiocese for more than $2 million.

Oliver is claiming the Archdiocese is vicariously liable for the abuse he suffered at the hands of Gannon because he was effectively an employee and the abuse occurred in the context of his role as a priest.

Oliver’s abuse is not in dispute. The Archdiocese has admitted it in its defence. 

It is, however, denying responsibility for Gannon, arguing priests are not employees and the abuse did not occur through his role as a priest.

Further, it argues that the Archdiocese is a collective of worshippers, not a corporation, so it is not responsible for anything its former archbishops or priests did.

The Archdiocese also claims it is not liable because it did not, or could not, have known about the abuse.

In trying to prove its liability, Oliver’s lawyer, Fiona McLeod AO SC, has attempted to introduce evidence from the royal commission involving another survivor of Gannon’s abuse.

Ms McLeod told the court there was evidence presented to the commission, that another survivor was allegedly abused eight years before Oliver.

The commission heard that the boy told his mother about the abuse, who then told another priest, named in royal commission documents as Father Connellan, who responded by saying that the allegations were made up.

The archbishop at the time of the royal commission, Dennis Hart, told the commission that he did not doubt the complaint was made and that it appeared the priest had “rebuffed the complaint and never gave it proper consideration”.

Ms McLeod argues that this means the Archdiocese accepted at that time that the facts were correct and that if the Archdiocese was aware of abuse allegations levelled against Gannon well before Oliver was abused, it knew or ought to have known that Gannon might abuse him.

The Archdiocese’s lawyer, Jack Rush QC, has been fighting to keep this evidence out of Oliver’s case.

He is arguing the abuse and subsequent report did not occur as described and denies that Father Connellan had any knowledge of it.

He has also pointed to alleged discrepancies in the survivor’s statement, and argued there was doubt as to when the abuse occurred, who it was reported to, and how Gannon was involved. 

He told the court that the evidence is hearsay and as it cannot be investigated further or verified because all three people involved  — the survivor, his mother and Father Connellan— have now died, it should be thrown out.

Even if the evidence is included, the Archdiocese claims the current Archbishop Peter Comensoli is not bound by the comments of his predecessor. 

The civil case was heard before Justice Keogh, who has reserved his decision.

*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the survivor.

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