|How the Church Covered up for Father Kevin O’donnell — until Broken Rites Helped the Victims
September 6, 2010
One of Australia's most prolific child-abuse criminals, Father Kevin O'Donnell, was protected in the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese for fifty years. In his final years, he even received public praise from one of his superiors, Auxiliary Bishop George Pell.
O'Donnell is dead but his numerous victims — and their families — still bear the scars of his crimes.
Father Kevin O'Donnell was a child abuser from 1942 to 1992. He fitted Masses, weddings and funerals in between his sex-abuse activities.
The Catholic Church now admits that O'Donnell was a child-abuser from day one. Broken Rites has seen a typed transcript of an interview that Mr Peter O'Callaghan QC (sex-abuse commissioner for the Melbourne archdiocese) had with an O'Donnell victim on 23 March 2003. In the transcript, Mr O'Callaghan commented that O'Donnell was engaged in sex abuse from the time he was ordained — and (said Mr O'Callaghan) he did it in every parish he was in.
During his career, the Melbourne church authorities were told of O'Donnell's crimes but chose to keep him in the ministry, thus inflicting him on further victims. Some of O'Donnell's fellow-priests knew that he was a danger to children but they remained silent. Certain other priests, when consulted by O'Donnell victims, just "didn't want to know about it".
Instead of sacking O'Donnell, the Melbourne archdiocese retained him in parish work until he retired gracefully from full-time ministry in 1992, aged 75, after clocking up his 50 years of sexual abuse. On his retirement, he was given a parting tribute by Archbishop Frank Little.
The archdiocese then conferred on him the distinguished title Pastor Emeritus (meaning "retired with honour") — despite his record of sexual abuse. In 1993, O'Donnell was still serving as a part-time relieving priest at several parishes.
Beginning in late 1993, Broken Rites exposed the church's cover-up of O'Donnell. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to child-sex crimes and was jailed.
But, even after he was jailed, the church authorities failed to remove him the priesthood. They continued to list "Reverend" Kevin O'Donnell (in the next edition of the annual Australian Catholic Directory) as a "supplementary priest of the Melbourne archdiocese".
And after he died in 1997, he was honoured by other priests at a church funeral and his remains were interred among the graves of fellow priests.
Thus, the church resolved to harbour "Father" O'Donnell for eternity.
Broken Rites research
When Broken Rites established a national phone hotline in September 1993, one of our first calls was from a Melbourne man ("Damian", born in 1960), who said he had been sexually abused while acting as an altar boy for Father Kevin O'Donnell in the 1970s.
Broken Rites began researching O'Donnell. We ascertained that John Kevin O'Donnell (usually called Kevin) was born in Melbourne on 22 October 1916, the eldest of five children. He was educated at Parade Christian Brothers College in East Melbourne and St Kevin's Christian Brothers' College in Toorak. He entered Melbourne's Corpus Christi seminary in 1935 to study for the priesthood. He was ordained for the Melbourne diocese at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, on 21 July 1942.
We found that he had been an assistant priest at South Melbourne in late 1942, Balaclava in 1943-44, Chelsea in 1944-49, Seymour 1949-56 and East Melbourne (St John the Evangelist parish) in 1956. He was then promoted to be the parish priest (i.e., in charge) at Dandenong 1956-69, Hastings 1969-76 and Oakleigh 1976-92.
In these later parishes, his career spanned the decades of Melbourne's outer-metropolitan population boom. Kevin O'Donnell was a shrewd businessman and fund-raiser. As outer-suburban property values started to rise with population growth, he found good real-estate investments. Using diocesan funds, he bought up bargain sites (e.g., broad acres or a dis-used factory) which the church could sell at a profit after the land increased in value.
He bought land later used for a parish church in Doveton (the Holy Family parish). He also bought a site for St John's College, Dandenong (conducted by the De La Salle Brothers and the Presentation Sisters).
A history book about the Dandenong parish (published in 1983) says: "While some parishioners may have looked askance at Fr O’Donnell’s land deals, time has proven the wisdom of his moves."
O’Donnell's victim "Damian" told Broken Rites in 1993: "The church authorities did well out of O'Donnell's business activities. Naturally, they protected him."
O'Donnell also helped to develop a retirement fund for priests. This made him an important figure among Melbourne priests.
Praise from George Pell
Broken Rites has obtained a video tape of a confirmation ceremony at Kevin O'Donnell's Sacred Heart parish in Oakleigh in 1989. On this tape, Auxiliary Bishop George Pell (then responsible for Melbourne’s southern suburbs, including O'Donnell's parish) praised the work of Father Kevin O'Donnell.
Near the end of the ceremony, Pell thanked all who helped to organise the ceremony. He then told the parishioners: "And I would like to congratulate Father Kevin [O'Donnell] and Father Michael for all the work they are doing here. It is obviously a great and strong parish with a proud Catholic tradition, and I know you will work to maintain this just as your priests do, and I look forward to many, many more years of work from Father O’Donnell in the church here."
After hearing from Damian in late 1993, Broken Rites encouraged him to contact the Victoria Police sexual offences and child abuse unit, where Damian made a signed, sworn statement. Early in 1994, detectives made a surprise visit to O'Donnell at his house in Carrum. O'Donnell remembered Damian and did not deny the allegations.
In March 1994, police charged O'Donnell with indecent assault of Damian and summoned the priest to the Frankston Magistrates Court. Damian, accompanied by a Broken Rites representative, went to the Frankston Court that day but found that O’Donnell's lawyer had contacted the court registrar's office and had obtained an adjournment for a few months to prepare for the defence.
On 25 March 1994, a news item about the Damian charges appeared in the country edition of the Melbourne Herald Sun and later similar news items began appearing in regional weekly newspapers surrounding O'Donnell's former parishes. As a result, more victims phoned Broken Rites and/or the police. In several instances, a caller had presumed previously that he/she was the only victim (that is, it was an isolated offence) but now he/she realized that the scandal was far bigger. Some of these callers agreed to make a signed police statement but others refused a statement because they did not understand prosecution procedures. This meant that the eventual prosecution of O'Donnell would relate only to a small proportion of alleged victims.
The O'Donnell case was transferred to the Melbourne Magistrates Court, and John Kevin O'Donnell appeared there briefly on 7 September 1994, charged with 32 incidents of indecent assault at four parishes, involving seven boys and one girl. Broken Rites representatives were present in the courtroom.
O'Donnell figured prominently in that evening's Channel Nine news, with footage of him leaving the court building. Reports were published in local newspapers surrounding all of O’Donnell's former parishes. This resulted in still more victims contacting Broken Rites or the police.
At the September 7 hearing, O'Donnell was released on bail pending a further hearing, because the prosecutors knew that further victims were coming forward.
Support from fellow priests
After the September 7 hearing, a priest in one of his former parishes asked the congregation to "pray for Father O'Donnell" but did not mention the victims.
Some Melbourne priests in late 1994 discussed the possibility of issuing a joint public statement, supporting O'Donnell. However, a better-informed priest (who knew "Damian") warned his colleagues that massive evidence was mounting against O'Donnell, and this was likely to result in a conviction.
Melbourne newsrooms were kept informed about the next court date for the case. When Kevin O’Donnell came to court again in early 1995, he was charged with indecently assaulting 12 victims (ten boys, two girls), all aged between eight and 15, at each of the five main parishes (Chelsea, Seymour, Dandenong, Hastings and Oakleigh) in which O'Donnell served between 1946 and 1976.
The prosecution submitted documents in court, containing full details of the victims’ evidence. A Broken Rites researcher (together with newspaper journalists) examined these documents at the court at the end of the proceedings.
According to the court file, each victim was assaulted numerous times, generally over several years.
These were not O'Donnell's only victims. These were merely the victims who were selected by the prosecutors for purposes of this court case.
And the time-span 1946-to-1976 does not mean that O'Donnell stopped offending in 1976. It merely reflects the fact that the first written complaint (from Damien in the Hastings parish in the early 1970s) was referred to the Hastings detectives' office for investigation. Damien told the Hastings detectives that he knew of other victims in the Hastings parish, and that O'Donnell had continued to associate with boys from O'Donnell's previous parish, Dandenong. The Hastings detectives then interviewed some (but not all) of O'Donnell's Dandenong victims. And, after the earliest media publicity, the Hastings detectives were also contacted by a few of O'Donnell's many victims at earlier parishes (Chelsea and Seymour), plus at least one victim from his final parish, Oakleigh. However, the Hasting detectives' investigation was focussed mainly on two parishes (Hastings and Dandenong), meaning that many victims from other parishes (including Oakleigh) were not interviewed.
And eventually the prosecuting authorities decided not to wait for more victims to be interviewed but to go to court immediately with the existing batch of signed victim statements.
The fact that most victims in this court case were males could be because the police were first contacted by a male victim (Damien), who referred the detectives to other male victims. Most of O'Donnell's countless victims remained silent, and it is not known how many of these silent victims were female.
The male victims, who served as O'Donnell's altar boys or in his scout troop, were assaulted in churches, presbyteries and cars and at drive-in cinemas and beaches. O'Donnell bribed them with money, gifts and favours.
O’Donnell would invade a boy's trousers and grope the boy's genitals, while O'Donnell masturbated himself, often rubbing his own genitals against the boy's bare body. This assault by O'Donnell could be a boy's first sexual experience and the fact that it was with a Catholic priest could leave the boy confused and feeling guilty.
Several victims said O'Donnell indicated that he wanted to penetrate them anally but the victims managed to evade this.
A victim would find it hard to stop being an altar boy or stop doing jobs at the presbytery, because his parents would want him to continue seeing the priest.
The earliest victim in the court case was "Brendan", who was aged eight in 1946 at St Joseph’s church in Chelsea. Many years later, long after O’Donnell had left Chelsea, Brendan got married in this parish. Brendan’s wife was not a Catholic, so the couple were not allowed to have their ceremony in front of the altar. The ceremony was shunted into a side room – the sacristy – which was the very room where Father O'Donnell used to assault Brendan.
Female victim complained to a priest
A female victim ("Mary", from the Seymour parish) was sexually abused for three years from the age of 13 when helping O'Donnell conduct late-afternoon catechism classes for State School children in the early 1950s. To escape O'Donnell, Mary entered a nunnery at 16 and remained a nun until she was 25. The loss of these vital years had a devastating effect on Mary’s later life.
Mary told police: "While I was still a nun, I told a Catholic priest, from the Jesuit order, about O'Donnell but he didn't want to know about it."
The other female victim was a sister of one of the male victims.
Church authorities knew
One victim, "Michael", from the Dandenong parish, said that he and his Scout leader officially reported O'Donnell's sexual abuse to the Vicar-General of the Melbourne archdiocese, Monsignor Laurence Moran, in 1958-59. Laurie Moran went to see O’Donnell about it.
Michael said: "A couple of days later, O’Donnell told me he knew I’d dobbed him in and his boss had been out to see him... He said it was only a problem he’d ever had with me, and it was because he loved me."
Michael says that, after this, Auxiliary Bishop Arthur Fox also interviewed him and urged him to remain silent about the sexual incidents.
For 35 years, Michael presumed that he was O’Donnell's only victim. But in early 1994 he was shocked to see the media reports about O’Donnell being charged with assaulting another boy [this was Damian, the victim who had contacted Broken Rites]. Michael then contacted the police, becoming the second victim to make a police statement.
Michael told the detectives in 1994 about his scoutmaster's 1959 complaint to the archdiocese. When O'Donnell was charged in 1994, O'Donnell was given details of the evidence against him, including the information about the scoutmaster. In October 1994, while church lawyers were considering how best to defend O'Donnell, the church's Melbourne vicar-general (Monsignor Gerry Cudmore) sent a priest to interview the scoutmaster. After this interview, the priest wrote to Cudmore on 31 October 1994 with some good news — the priest "assured" Cudmore that the scoutmaster does not intend to give evidence in the criminal proceedings. Thus, the church's cover-up would not be revealed in court.
The veil of secrecy
"Damian" (at the Hasting parish in the 1970s) said he was unable to tell his parents about O’Donnell's abuse because his parents were loyal Catholics and he did not want to upset them. When Damian got married in the early 1980s, his mother insisted that Father Kevin O'Donnell should perform the wedding. Damian reluctantly consented but he is still angry about this.
Damian said: "About 1986, I complained to two priests in other parishes that I had been molested by a priest but they didn't want to know the name of the offender. I also had some counselling in 1986 with a nun, who immediately wrote to the archdiocese about O'Donnell, but the archdiocese ignored the letter."
Damian eventually told his mother about O'Donnell and she wrote a letter of complaint to the archdiocese but the church authorities allowed O’Donnell to continue ministering at Oakleigh until he retired at age 75 in 1992.
Caught in bed
Another victim, "Alan", from Dandenong, said that a certain assistant priest saw him in bed with O'Donnell at the Dandenong presbytery. This assistant priest took no action, even though O'Donnell was obviously committing child-abuse. When Broken Rites checked the annual Catholic Directory in 2009, this silent priest was still in the ministry and was indeed in charge of a parish.
In 1993, after O'Donnell had retired from full-time work at Oakleigh, Alan was annoyed to find that O’Donnell was doing part-time relieving work — at the Dandenong parish. Alan complained to the archdiocese about O'Donnell's abusive history. A mediation meeting was held at the archdiocesan office, where Alan extracted an apology from O'Donnell. Alan forced the archdiocese to stop O'Donnell from acting as a relieving priest at Dandenong but later Alan discovered that O'Donnell was still doing relieving work in another diocese.
Simultaneous with this, in late 1993, Damian of Hasting parish was reporting O'Donnell to Broken Rites and the police. Damian was acting separately and did not know about Alan’s complaint to the church.
In 1994, after hearing that O'Donnell was being charged by police [because of Damian], Alan phoned the police and signed a statement.
While the O'Donnell case was before the courts in 1994-95, further victims telephoned Broken Rites but, for various reasons, some did not go to the police. Some callers said they knew of other victims.
In early 1985. after discussions between the prosecutors and the church lawyers, O'Donnell pleaded guilty to one representative incident of indecent assault (that is, indecent touching) for each victim.
The prosecution dropped all the other incidents, including some more serious charges involved oral and digital penetration. The dropped charges would have incurred a longer jail sentence.
The guilty plea meant that O'Donnell was automatically convicted, and the case did not need to be argued out in court. Therefore, the victims were not required to appear in court, although several of them were present in court, with Broken Rites, as observers.
On 4 August 1995, O'Donnell appeared in the Melbourne County Court for pre-sentence submissions, in which his lawyer requested a lenient non-jail sentence.
Melbourne priest Fr John Brosnan, who appeared as a "character" witness for O'Donnell, tried to elicit the court's sympathy for O’Donnell, describing his predatory behaviour as “a great affliction” which caused him to "suffer greatly". [Victims present in court said later: "What about the victims' suffering?"]
In the Melbourne County Court on 11 August 1995, Judge Murray Kellam sentenced John Kevin O'Donnell to a total of 39 months jail, with a minimum of 15 months behind bars before parole.
The twelve victims in this case were merely the few who contacted the police. Worldwide research has demonstrated that only a tiny minority of victims go to the police after being sexually abused in a church situation.
After the jailing, several O'Donnell supporters in the priesthood asked their congregations to pray for O'Donnell. These pastors did not express the same concern for O'Donnell's victims.
Until O'Donnell pleaded guilty, one of O'Donnell's fellow priests was claiming that O'Donnell was innocent. This priest was one of many who were an accessory in the O'Donnell cover-up. O'Donnell shattered this cover-up when he admitted his crimes in court.
Channel Nine television news ran prominent coverage throughout the O'Donnell case — on 23 February 1995, 15 May 1995 and 4 August 1995.
With help from Broken Rites, the Melbourne "Herald Sun" published a three-page feature about the Kevin O'Donnell case on 5 August 1995, plus another article on 18 August 1995. The newspaper published the Broken Rites telephone number and this prompted more people to ring Broken Rites after the jailing to tell us of their experiences with O’Donnell in his various parishes during his 50-year career.
Instead of phoning Broken Rites, some other O'Donnell victims phoned the Melbourne archdiocesan office.
Offending to the very end
The charges in court were confined to offences between 1946 and 1976 but the additional complaints (after the court case) included children in his final parish, Oakleigh, up until O'Donnell's retirement in 1992.
One caller to Broken Rites was "Gary" (born 1972), who said he was molested by O'Donnell for some time in the Oakleigh parish in the mid-1980s, a decade later than the 12th victim in the court case. Gary had never been able to talk openly about O'Donnell but the detailed Herald Sun article gave him the opportunity to tell his shocked parents.
"Clive" (born about 1978) told Broken Rites in 2002 about being indecently groped by O’Donnell in the Oakleigh parish repeatedly from 1989 (when Clive was a pupil at the parish primary school) to 1992, when the priest retired. O'Donnell employed the boy to do jobs at the presbytery and also at O'Donnell's seaside holiday house. Clive was too afraid to tell his parents because they held Father O'Donnell in high regard. After O’Donnell was exposed in 1994, Clive's mother asked him about O’Donnell but Clive was still too embarrassed to admit having been abused.
Other Oakleigh parishioners told Broken Rites that O'Donnell used to have boys staying with him overnight at the presbytery there between 1976 and 1992. As before, O'Donnell's Oakleigh boys were given presents and favours to win them over. After O'Donnell retired from full-time parish work in 1992, he continued to associate with boys. In addition, he had access to girls at the Oakleigh parish primary school (see later in this article, regarding Emma and Katie).
Still a priest
O’Donnell was released from jail in late 1996. He was still listed as a priest in the mid-1996 Official Directory of the Catholic Church in Australia (in the Supplementary List of Diocesan Priests, page 142) and he still held the title of "Pastor Emeritus" (retired with honour).
A priestly funeral
O'Donnell died on 11 March 1997. A number of priests attended his funeral service.
It is believed that O’Donnell’s remains were then interred among the graves of other Melbourne priests at the Melbourne General Cemetery, Carlton. This cemetery contains a Catholic chapel, which includes special underground burial vaults for priests. This underground crypt — the final resting place for Melbourne’s priests — is closed to the public.
Thus, O’Donnell is still accepted and embraced by the church authorities as a priest.
His victims would prefer that he had been defrocked. Defrocking would be a sign that the church authorities had ceased tolerating child-sex criminals in its ministry.
And what happened to O'Donnell's estate? He owned a holiday house near Rosebud on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula, where he sometimes took boys and abused them. An interesting question is: after O’Donnell died, who pocketed the proceeds? O'Donnell certainly did not leave anything to his victims.
The story of Emma and Katie
The jailing of O'Donnell in 1995 caused much concern among families in his final parish, Oakleigh. The Vicar-General of the Melbourne Archdiocese (Monsignor Gerald Cudmore) expressed "concern" (in a letter to parishioners at Oakleigh, dated 18 July 1996) that apparently O'Donnell continued offending right up to the time of his retirement in 1992.
As well as being the Parish Priest, O'Donnell had also been the "chaplain" at Oakleigh's Sacred Heart Primary School. This role gave him the right to roam around the school and its playground. He could request to have any child sent to him to help him do chores at the church or in his presbytery. He also would see a child in private for "counselling".
One such child was Emma, whose years at Sacred Heart primary school co-incided with O'Donnell's final years there. Later, during the 1990s, Emma developed into a disturbed teenager and she eventually attempted suicide several times. After the jailing of O'Donnell, Emma disclosed that O'Donnell had sexually abused her at the primary school. Emma had remained silent about this during her school years because she knew that she was prohibited from saying anything negative about the clergy. O'Donnell's eventual disgracing removed this prohibition, leaving Emma free to make her disclosure.
Emma's parents (Anthony and Christine) were devastated. In the late 1990s, Anthony and Christine lodged a complaint with Melbourne archdiocesan sex-abuse commissioner Peter O'Callaghan QC.
After a thorough forensic examination of the case, Commissioner O'Callaghan officially ruled that Emma had indeed been sexually abused by O’Donnell. The archdiocese offered a written apology to Emma from Archbishop George Pell on behalf of the church.
Meanwhile, in the late 1990s, Anthony and Christine were alarmed to find that their second daughter, Katie, was having a disturbed adolescence, similar to Emma. Eventually it was ascertained that Katie, too, had had been sexually abused by O'Donnell when she was at the primary school. By the late 1990s, Katie had started drinking to numb the pain. In 1999, she walked in front of a speeding car, and this left her with permanent intellectual and physical disabilities. Katie now needs full-time supervision, with specialised helpers — an expensive on-going procedure.
The death of Emma
For 12 years after O'Donnell's jailing, Emma's parents battled to keep Emma alive as she sank into a spiral of self-destructive behaviour, including drug-taking. But in early January 2008, Emma died alone on her bedroom floor clutching her teddy bear, a treasured first birthday present from her parents. She was aged 26.
Her parents were told that the cause of death was a suspected drug overdose.
Emma's death and funeral were reported prominently in the Melbourne press and on the evening television news. Thus, parents throughout Victoria were warned about the negligence of the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese in allowing a sexually-abusive priest to remain in contact with children for 50 years.
Bishop Fisher's comment about Emma and Katie
In July 2008 (just six months after the death of Emma), Pope Benedict visited Sydney for the Catholic World Youth Day celebrations. Anthony and Christine flew to Sydney, hoping to meet the Pope, so that they could talk with him personally about what happened to their two daughters.
At a press conference in Sydney on 16 July 2008 (just six months after the death of Emma), reporters asked the World Youth Day co-ordinator (Bishop Anthony Fisher, of Sydney) for a comment specifically about the suffering of Anthony and Christine, who were grieving over the recent death of Emma.
Bishop Fisher (one of the four auxiliary bishops under Cardinal George Pell in Sydney) was dismissive, saying that people such as Anthony and Christine are "dwelling crankily on old wounds".
The bishop then went off to prepare for a re-enactment (in Sydney streets) of the crucifixion of Jesus, which occurred 2,000 years ago. That is, Bishop Fisher himself is "dwelling crankily on old wounds".
In January 2010, Auxiliary Bishop Fisher was promoted to become the bishop in charge of the Parramatta diocese, west of Sydney — while Father Kevin O'Donnell's many victims (and their families) in Victoria were still grieving over their "old wounds". In future, any church-abuse victims in the Parramatta diocese who wish to complain about their "old wounds" will have to deal ultimately with the dismissive Bishop Anthony Fisher.
Broken Rites searched through 50 years of the annual Australian Catholic Directories to compile a list of all the parishes in which O'Donnell had an on-going full-time appointment. Here are the full names of those parishes:-
* South Melbourne (Saints Peter and Paul parish), briefly, in late 1942;
* Balaclava (St Colman's parish), 1943-4,
* Chelsea (St Joseph's, which was then part of Frankston parish), 1944-9;
* Seymour (Immaculate Conception parish), 1949-56;
* East Melbourne (St John the Evangelist church, Victoria Parade, which was attached to the Cathedral parish), 1956;
* Dandenong (St Mary's parish), 1956-69;
* Hastings (Immaculate Conception parish), 1969-76; and
* Oakleigh (Sacred Heart parish), 1976-92.
O’Donnell's victims were not confined to those parishes. For example, while he was at Oakleigh parish in the late 1970s, O’Donnell evidently molested a boy who was attending a Catholic primary school in a neighbouring suburb (not Oakleigh). In September 1994, this ex-pupil (Mr D) served a a statement of complaint upon the Melbourne archdiocese (Broken Rites possesses a copy of the statement.) Mr D said the relationship began when O’Donnell attended the school to say Mass.
The above parishes were not the only ones in which O'Donnell ministered. He is likely to have visited other parishes from time to time. And after he officially retired from the Oakleigh parish in 1992, he acted as a relieving priest in other parishes.
Kevin O’Donnell served under four Melbourne archbishops:
* Daniel Mannix, 1942-1963;
* Justin Simonds, 1963-1967;
* James Knox, 1967-1974; and
* Thomas Francis Little (Sir Frank Little), 1974 onwards.
O'Donnell was also subject to supervision by the Vicar-General of the archdiocese and, in later years, by an auxiliary bishop. O'Donnell's final auxiliary bishop was George Pell, who was responsible for Melbourne's southern parishes (including Oakleigh) from 1987.
O'Donnell sometimes operated outside the Melbourne archdiocese. In the 1960s, he had overseas trips, acting as a chaplain on ships bringing migrants to Australia. This role would have given him opportunities for misbehavior, with freedom from exposure.
According to evidence in court, O'Donnell also acted as a part-time army chaplain in the 1950s while he was stationed at Seymour (near the Puckapunyal army camp, where many 18-year-old conscripted National Service youths were being trained).
Broken Rites will continue to do research on O'Donnell and the church's cover-up.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.