Prosecutor drops rape charges against defrocked Catholic priest
By Richard Baker
December 13, 2020
|Father Thomas Knowles in 2013.|
Photo by Angela Wylie
|Mr Knowles was working as a priest in the city even though then-archbishop Denis Hart had stripped him of his faculties to minister.|
Photo by Angela Wylie
Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions has abandoned the prosecution of a former senior Catholic priest charged with raping a disabled female parishioner, bringing to an end a nine-year effort by the woman to seek justice through the courts.
DPP Kerri Judd, QC, made the decision in July to discontinue the prosecution against Thomas Knowles, a former Australian provincial leader of the Order of the Blessed Sacrament, who had a long-running interaction with the woman that was later deemed inappropriate by a church inquiry.
Mr Knowles was charged with two counts of rape in May, a year after the woman contacted Victoria Police about the events of the 1980s.
Sources familiar with deliberations inside the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions said Ms Judd's decision was influenced by the alleged victim's delay in reporting matters to police and the amount of time she had spent with Mr Knowles after the alleged sexual assaults.
But the decision has outraged the woman, who is aged in her 60s and has asked not to be identified. Delays in contacting police had not stopped other historic abuse cases from proceeding, she said.
"I’m worried about the signal this sends to all the Victorian priests who have and do assault or rape parishioners, past and present. To me, its tells them that they're OK and no one is coming for them."
The story of the woman's fight to have Mr Knowles' conduct addressed by the church and the legal system encapsulates what lawyers and victims' rights advocates say is an often overlooked and under-reported facet of church abuse: adult parishioners who are targeted by their priest for a sexual relationships in situations where there is a power imbalance.
The DPP's citing of the 35-year delay in making a criminal complaint to police has also surprised some of Melbourne's top sexual abuse lawyers, who said such time lapses were relatively common in historic sex abuse cases.
RCT Law partner and head of abuse law Penny Savidis said while delay could in some cases make a prosecution more difficult, it "should not deter the DPP from at least attempting to pursue the matter through the justice system".
The woman's first unwanted sexual interaction with Mr Knowles was when she was 22 and he was a charismatic 30-year-old earmarked by his order for higher things. Her later psychological reports found she had been "groomed" since she was 19.
Because of her age at the time of the alleged offence, the woman's complaints fell outside the scope of the royal commission into child sex abuse. The commission's final report found sex abuse victims often took more than 20 years to report matters to police.
To take a case to trial, the DPP must be satisfied there is a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction. Sources told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that Ms Judd and other senior prosecutors believed the woman's delay in reporting to police and their apparent inability to exclude the possibility the sexual interaction was consensual had cast doubt over the strength of the case. The woman had continued to spend time with Mr Knowles after the alleged assault.
Ms Judd has, according to sources, sought to assure the woman that the decision did not mean she was not believed nor that what she had complained of did not happen. Rather, it was a reflection of the high standard of proof required in criminal trials.
But the woman strongly disputes the DPP's claim of possible consent and describes her interactions with Mr Knowles as "toxic" and "abusive". She was 19, extremely shy and suffered from a severe orthopaedic condition that caused her to walk with an abnormal gait.
American priest Father Thomas P. Doyle, whose work during the 1980s to uncover sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was instrumental in uncovering the issue in the United States, prepared an expert report to assist the woman's case. It said the betrayal of trust meant this was "not a normal boy-girl relationship, any more than a relationship between a doctor and his patient or client and their therapist".
The woman wondered if the High Court's 7-0 decision to quash Cardinal George Pell's historic child sex abuse convictions in April had made the DPP wary of pursuing her case.
Some of Melbourne's top sexual abuse lawyers say it is unlikely the Pell outcome has influenced other historic sex abuse prosecutions because there was nothing in the High Court verdict that established precedents or new tests.
"There is nothing logically or jurisprudentially from Pell which would have a bearing on prosecuting other historical abuse cases," said Mirko Bagaric, a former DPP lawyer, criminal law expert and dean of law at Swinburne University.
Respected sexual abuse lawyer Viv Waller, of Waller Legal, agreed, saying the High Court's Pell finding did not "represent a departure from existing law in sex abuse matters".
Another senior Melbourne sex abuse lawyer, who asked not to be named, said while delay and issues of consent could complicate prosecutions, they should not be seen as deal-breakers.
Several lawyers said not enough time had passed to make any assessment on the fallout from the Pell matter and the prosecution of other historic abuse cases. Regardless, they said Ms Judd and her team would make decisions based only on the facts before them in each case.
Ms Savidis said some clients had expressed concern about being believed by police and the courts in the wake of the Pell matter, and Ms Waller said it could be devastating to find out a prosecution was not going ahead.
"Witnesses in this situation have told me that they feel disbelieved, disappointed, invalidated and some have been so angry that they have wanted to take justice into their own hands," she said.
The Catholic Church in 2016 formally apologised to the woman for "the long-term inappropriate relationship" with Mr Knowles. She also received a confidential financial settlement. Mr Knowles was also defrocked by the church.
The Age and the Herald revealed how in 2013 the Order of the Blessed Sacrament had welcomed Mr Knowles back to full church duties after he had spent 16 months on "administrative leave" to receive counselling over his interactions with the woman and another female parishioner.
His return to Melbourne CBD's busy St Francis' church came despite then-archbishop Denis Hart stripping him of his faculties to minister in Melbourne.
Ms Judd's office declined to comment on the woman's case.