|Retired Priest Not Fit for Abuse Trial
September 9, 2010
A FRAIL elderly retired Catholic priest has been found unfit to face trial over allegations he sexually assaulted three boys more than 30 years ago.
Hugh Edward Murray was charged with five counts of sexual assault between 1966 and 1978 and his trial was estimated to run from one to three months.
But in Sydney's NSW District Court today, Judge Greg Woods concluded the 81-year-old's fluctuating medical conditions made him unfit for the proposed trial.
Mr Murray taught for some years at a rural secondary college in NSW, a school attended by most of the complainants.
Describing him as a frail man "suffering from a complex set of medical ailments", the judge referred to the "contending" opinions he had heard from "very able medical practitioners".
While Mr Murray may be fit to appear for a quite short trial, the judge concluded he was unfit for the proposed hearing, even if the court sat for only an hour or two each day.
"Let me make plain my view that this is a regrettable and frustrating outcome," Judge Woods said.
"It is, nonetheless, an outcome which the evidence and the law requires."
He referred Mr Murray to the Mental Health Tribunal, which will deal with Mr Murray's matter at a later date.
The retired priest has had a number of heart attacks, is on his sixth cardiac pacemaker and is at serious risk of "an adverse cardiac event or even death", the judge said.
Other conditions include recurrent skin cancers, renal impairment, obstructive sleep apnoea and right deep venous thromboses.
"He has been an intelligent man in the course of his past life, and he retains the capacity to converse in day-to-day conversation of the ordinary kind."
But, the judge found, it was likely Mr Murray, who is on multiple medications, would present very differently on different days.
The Crown case involved three separate cases and it was proposed to call evidence from possible "tendency and coincidence" witnesses.
"The possible Crown witnesses alone may total 43," the judge said.
He concluded Mr Murray's fluctuating condition would mean that at some point or points during a trial, he would not have the capacity to carry out certain functions.
They included giving counsel necessary instructions or making a defence.
While it was not his role to explore how or why the claims were not raised decades earlier, Justice Woods noted material showing the "numerous transfers and movements" of Mr Murray during his career.
"I emphasise, however, that nothing in this judgement is a criticism of the complainants in relation to the long delay," he said.
But he spoke of the possibility that the Catholic Church and "those who have directed father Murray's movements over the years" may bear some responsibility for this "frustrating impasse".
Nonetheless, the fact was that "at this point, the opportunity to conduct a fair trial of these allegations has passed".
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