After 26 years, Eileen Piper has finally won an apology from the Catholic Church for her daughter's abuse
By Karen Percy
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
April 26, 2020
|Eileen Piper waited 26 years to receive an apology from the Catholic Church for her daughter's abuse.|
Photo by Karen Percy
|Stephanie Piper a week before she died, in 1994.|
|The church long denied Stephanie Piper was abused by Gerard Mulvale, accusing her of fabricating the story due to mental illness.|
|Stephanie Piper was 32 when she died.|
|Eileen Piper confronted Melbourne's newly-appointed Archbishop, Peter Comensoli, in 2018, showing him a photo of her daughter in her coffin.|
Photo by Dylan Anderson
|Lawyer Judy Courtin says abuse by clergy severely impacts victims and their families.|
Photo by Peter Healy
- The Catholic Church had long denied Stephanie Piper was abused by Father Gerard Mulvale in the 1970s
- The Archbishop of Melbourne apologised to Mrs Piper after a review by the former chief justice of the Victorian Supreme Court
- The 95-year-old mother's lawyers said the apology is too little and too late
It's taken 26 years, reams of legal documents and many tears, but Eileen Piper has done what she set out to do — cleared the name of her daughter, Stephanie, who was abused by a Catholic priest in the 1970s.
In December, Mrs Piper, 95, received a written apology from Melbourne's Archbishop, Peter Comensoli, and the Pallotine order of priests which, for years, had denied the crimes of Father Gerard Mulvale.
"I am relieved — but I'm still hurt," she told the ABC.
In the 1970s, Mrs Piper was an active parishioner at St Christopher's in the Melbourne suburb of Syndal, now part of Glen Waverley.
Her adopted daughter, Stephanie, became religious and, as a teenager, played guitar and sang in the church youth group, which is where she met Gerard Mulvale, about 1975.
Father Mulvale served at St Christopher's until 1979, when he was "suddenly" moved to another parish outside Melbourne.
Stephanie Piper alleged he made sexual advances, or worse, on at least eight occasions from 1975 to 1979 — including on one occasion after getting her drunk at a Chinese restaurant, and another time at the beach with other members of the youth group.
While she did not make a report to police until 1994, she spoke to her psychiatrist in 1992, revealing that Father Mulvale had pushed her out of a car when she refused to cooperate with him, and also locked her in the boot of the car.
"I didn't really know what Gerard was doing was wrong," Stephanie Piper told police, as revealed in a submission by Eileen Piper's lawyers in a special review of the case ordered by the church last year.
Mrs Piper was not aware of what was happening until her daughter was released from hospital after a suicide attempt in 1993 and confessed that she was no longer a virgin.
Church claimed Stephanie Piper was lying
Mrs Piper learned that Father Mulvale had threatened Stephanie and the family.
"She knew he was such an evil man, that he would have done it," Mrs Piper said.
After the confession, Eileen Piper told senior figures in the church, who investigated.
The Special Issues Committee convened by the church concluded Stephanie was lying.
The committee relied on evidence from another youth who attended St Christopher's, which discredited Stephanie.
"My knowledge of Stephanie Piper is that she creates fantasies and after a period of time actually believes they came true as fact," the man wrote in a letter in August 1993.
"We had a pact about who could seduce him first," the man wrote.
He would eventually tell investigators he was pressured by the church to provide the false statement.
Stephanie Piper killed herself in January 1994, aged 32, two months after she reported her experiences to police.
Mulvale was convicted the year after Stephanie's death of abusing two boys from his youth group.
The case was looked at again in 1999 by Peter O'Callaghan as part of the Melbourne Response to child sexual abuse allegations.
He made the same finding as in the Special Issues Committee — determining she made it up because of a psychiatric illness.
"She wasn't a villain — she was the most beautiful little angel," Mrs Piper said.
She believes Mulvale targeted Stephanie because of her dyslexia and because she was adopted.
"He could probably sense that something was not quite normal," she said.
She refused to give up on clearing Stephanie's name.
In 2011, she met lawyer Judy Courtin who has since uncovered new evidence, found another victim, and made submissions to the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse.
Together they repeatedly challenged the Catholic Church, including a public confrontation in August 2018 when newly-installed Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli addressed the Melbourne Press Club.
That was a turning point.
Archbishop Comensoli ordered a review, putting former chief justice of the Victorian Supreme Court Marilyn Warren on the case.
Justice Warren reviewed documents from the past investigations as well as the new evidence. She also interviewed Eileen Piper.
"She listened to me, she listened to my story, she knew I was telling the truth, but she had to prove it — but she knew," Mrs Piper said.
Justice Warren also spoke to Gerard Mulvale, who continued to deny he did anything to Stephanie.
"Based on relevant material and, on the balance of probabilities … Stephanie was a victim of sexual abuse by Mulvale," Justice Warren wrote in her 80-page report.
Justice Warren was critical of the processes undertaken by the Church to probe the matters.
"The investigations conducted by committees such as this one were not independent, and were likely to have been affected by the prevailing culture of the time which tended to seek to protect the reputation of the Church rather than to allow complaints such as Stephanie's to be fully ventilated," she said.
"I am not satisfied that the Special Issues Committee investigation adopted a process that was sufficiently thorough to enable the evidence required to properly determine the truth or otherwise of Stephanie's allegations to be gathered."
Church 'sincerely and unreservedly' apologises
Within months of delivering the report, the Catholic Church apologised.
"Eileen, I apologise to you, sincerely and unreservedly for the profound effect of the abuse on Stephanie, and the subsequent effect on you and your family," Archbishop Comensoli wrote in a letter dated December 20, 2019.
It's a relief for Eileen Piper.
"I'm happy that the church at last has given in to the truth," Mrs Piper said.
But she said if the church had taken this approach earlier Stephanie "would be alive today".
Church took 'legalistic approach'
Lawyer Judy Courtin is critical of the way the church dealt with the case.
"It's great to get an apology but I have to say it is far too little and far, far too late," Ms Courtin said.
"There was a very, very legalistic approach right through."
She acknowledges that legally Mrs Piper's case was "out of time" but she said the Church should have responded sooner and more sympathetically.
"They would not entertain any other form of negotiation, meeting, mediation — that was it, legalistic, hiding behind and using the black letter of the law to the nth degree, full stop."
Ms Courtin is not resting yet.
She says the system and the law need to do a better job of accommodating the victims as well as their families and friends who are also affected.
"The impact for families is for a lifetime, the psychiatric harm is for a lifetime.
For Eileen Piper, there is now a chance to sleep better.
"There has hardly been a night that I don't go to bed, that I don't go through it all as if it were still happening … I relive it."