Monsignor James Murray pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting a vulnerable woman but the church re-instated him



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Broken Rites Australia helps victims of church sex-abuse to obtain justice.

The Catholic Church's promises about tackling clergy sexual abuse lost credibility in June 2000 after Melbourne Archbishop George Pell allowed Monsignor James Murray to continue as the leader of the Catholic Church in the city of Geelong. (George Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001.)

James Murray was ordained for the Melbourne archdiocese in 1950 and was soon ministering in the Melbourne cathedral parish area. In the 1960s, he was given the title of Monsignor and was the private secretary to Melbourne's Archbishop James Robert Knox. In 1968, Murray moved permanently to Geelong (the second biggest city in the state of Victoria), where he was in charge of the parish of "St Mary of the Angels". He became the Episcopal Vicar (senior cleric) for the Geelong region, which is a part of the Melbourne archdiocese. He also played a role in the administration of the whole Melbourne archdiocese, being a member of key archdiocesan boards and committees.

In the Melbourne County Court on 7 June 2000, Monsignor James William Murray, then aged 76, was convicted and fined $500 after pleading guilty to having indecently assaulted a 25-year-old woman ("Muriel") in 1973 when Murray was 49. The court was told that the woman was a psychiatric patient to whom Murray had offered pastoral help. That is, the sex offence involved a pastoral breach of trust.

Attempt to suppress the priest's name

The Murray case first came to public attention in July 1999 when an attempt was made to suppress media coverage of the case. Police had gone to the office of Murray's solicitor and charged Murray on summons with three counts of assault on Muriel. The solicitor immediately applied to the Melbourne Magistrates Court to suppress Murray's name in relation to the charges. The Chief Magistrate refused because the Victorian Supreme Court had recently ruled that embarrassment was not grounds for suppression. Accordingly, on 31 July 1999 the Melbourne Herald Sun and the Geelong Advertiser revealed Murray's name, plus the suppression attempt.

The church's publicity machine began generating public support for Murray. The Geelong Advertiser denounced the charges as an unfortunate slur on a prominent Geelong citizen.

And the Melbourne Herald Sun's shock-jock columnist Andrew Bolt rushed into print (5 August 1999), without considering the full facts of the case. Bolt ignorantly claimed that Muriel had "waited too many years" before telling the police about what Bolt called a "minor" incident.

In fact, however, the Catholic Church's Towards Healing document (regarding church sex-abuse) says that a priest's breach of trust is a serious, not minor, matter. The judge who sentenced Murray commented that, because of the pastoral circumstances, Murray's offence was not a minor one.

And the subsequent court hearings revealed many reasons why Muriel was prevented from lodging a complaint in 1973. She made several attempts to gain justice from the church before going to the police as a last resort.

Victim's statement

Muriel said in her police statement (tabled in court) that she had been referred to Murray in 1969, aged 21, for pastoral guidance while she was suffering from depression. She became a volunteer at St Mary's Church, Geelong, helping priests to prepare for Mass.

By 1973, she had been under a psychiatrist for several years and had spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital. "In those days it [mental illness] had a real stigma attached to it," she stated.

Muriel described three alleged incidents with Murray:

FIRSTLY, after going for a swim with Murray at Torquay beach one hot night, she was towelling herself in the beach car park before putting on her dress over her swim suit. She alleged that Murray approached her and he was naked. He allegedly pulled down the top of her swim suit and grabbed her breast.

SECONDLY, Muriel alleged that, a few weeks later, Murray (fully clothed this time) pressed his genital area against her body while she was working in the church’s sacristy.

THIRDLY, she alleged that, on a subsequent evening, Murray appeared naked before her in the presbytery, then lay on a bed and (she alleged) asked her to have sex with him; she refused. Muriel said she was a virgin at this time.

Muriel said that, after the three Murray incidents, she "didn't tell anybody about what happened to me because I didn't think anyone would believe me over a monsignor, a well respected man, and me, a psychiatric patient... I wasn't game to talk about it for years because of the stigma of being on a psychiatric invalid pension for depression. I felt that I would be disbelieved and possibly certified."

In addition, she still felt under the church's power during the 1980s. Her depression continued and in 1986 she tried to commit suicide.

Muriel said that, in the 1990s, her health gradually improved and, also, she dropped out of the Catholic Church

Victim seeks justice

The court heard that Muriel wrote in 1993 to Archbishop Frank Little, complaining about the sexual abuse, but got no result. In 1996, she wrote to Murray about how his breach of pastoral trust had damaged her life. After Archbishop George Pell appointed Peter O'Callaghan QC in mid-1996 to receive complaints about clergy sexual abuse, Muriel lodged an official complaint with Mr O'Callaghan. After this investigation, the diocese decided to take no action against Murray. Frustrated by this inaction, Muriel finally went to the police in February 1999.

Muriel's statement said: "Now that I am well and on my own two feet and coping, I want the truth come out why I became so ill, and that will be part of my healing."

The July 1999 charges comprised all three incidents. The prosecution eventually decided to reduce the charges to only the Torquay beach incident because police found written evidence in which Murray allegedly admitted touching Muriel on the breast at the beach. This evidence would make it difficult for Murray to contest the case.

Guilty plea

A trial was due to start at the County Court on 5 June 2000 (regarding the Torquay incident) but Murray averted the trial by electing to plead guilty. This meant that the court only needed to announce a sentence without hearing evidence. As the Geelong Advertiser pointed out, this prevented full details of the offence from being revealed. And it saved Murray from being cross-examined in the witness box.

His lawyer asserted in court that the guilty plea was to spare the victim from the trauma of being cross-examined but Murray later told parishioners that his guilty plea was based on advice from his lawyers.

Prosecutor Rosemary Carmin told the court: "This is a woman who was a vulnerable woman… It may well have had had a greater impact on her than it might have had on other people less vulnerable."

Murray's lawyer informed the court that, after the 1997 investigation by the church’s Peter O'Callaghan QC, the diocese took no action against Murray. The lawyer asked the court to do the same and to adjourn the matter without conviction to allow Murray to retire at the end of 2000 (after 50 years in the priesthood) "with some dignity".

The defence assured the court that Murray "would not be able to practise as a parish priest" if a conviction was recorded against him. (The defence was referring to the church's promise, made in 1996, that sex-offenders in the clergy who commit a breach of trust will not be given that trust again.)

Judge says 'not a minor offence'

Judge Katharine Williams, however, deliberately recorded a conviction, believing that this would force Murray to leave the ministry.

The judge said she was taking into account Murray's powerful position, the psychological vulnerability of the victim and the seriousness of the breach of trust. The judge said these factors prevented her from registering it as a minor offence. The judge said a conviction was warranted to deter others from 'abusing the vulnerable'.

She told Murray: "You were at all times in a position of authority as parish priest."

Next day's Geelong Advertiser reported that Murray "seems certain to be stood down" from the ministry. (The newspaper was taking Murray's lawyer at his word.)

Archbishop's action

However, on 9 June 2000, Archbishop Pell issued a media statement saying he was restoring Murray to the Geelong position because (Pell claimed) "the incident was isolated, occurred so long ago and was in stark contrast to his otherwise blameless life".

Pell was thus contradicting the sentencing remarks made by Judge Williams.

[An alternative theory is that, because Murray was a powerful figure in Geelong (with supporters, for example, in the all-important Geelong Football Club), he simply refused to go quietly. Geelong people generally resent being governed from Melbourne. Pell therefore caved in, rather than risk a split in the diocese.]

Pell's media release added: "One also wonders how many other incidents of comparable severity have been brought to court for judgement after a time lapse of 27 years."

[Here, Pell was ignoring the fact that Muriel's loyalty to her Catholic religion, plus her "stigma" as a psychiatric patient, had prevented her from coming forward in the early years. He also ignored the fact that Muriel had been trying to obtain justice from the church since 1993 and that she had gone to the police as a last resort. Furthermore, Pell was contradicting the church's Towards Healing document which says that breach of trust is a serious, not trivial, matter.]

Victim's letter

The Geelong Advertiser published several letters from readers supporting Murray and Pell, plus a letter from Muriel (16 June 2000).

Muriel wrote: "Monsignor Murray has never apologized or expressed any remorse to me, as the victim, for 27 years. He was prepared to fight until the bitter end and have 'his flock' believe he was innocent…

"The Roman Catholic Church has negated everything the CIB [Criminal Investigation Bureau], the Director of Public Prosecutions and Judge Williams did…

"I question the people of Geelong who support this man… I wonder how they would react if the victim had been a member of their own family."

And a divorced Catholic woman, S.E. Searle of Geelong, wrote (19 June 2000): "I went to Monsignor Murray for comfort and guidance two years ago regarding my position as a divorced woman wanting to be able to attend Mass and receive the sacraments. I was told [by Murray] that I had broken the church's rules and therefore could not receive the sacraments… At the time, Monsignor Murray was being questioned about his own behaviour. Now Archbishop Pell is letting the Monsignor go back to celebrate Mass, provide forgiveness to others and administer Communion. It's special rules for some and not others."

After some readers had criticised the victim for "tarnishing the Monsignor's reputation", the Geelong Rape Crisis Centre wrote (22 June 2000), defending the victim. It wrote: "Perhaps it would be more appropriate to acknowledge the blamelessness of the victim who has courageously sought justice from the legal system… Given the nature of the abuse of power involved in sexual assault, it is often difficult for victims to disclose or report their experiences, and negative media publicity is likely to actively discourage other people from accessing support… We all have a responsibility to work towards the elimination of sexual assault. To do this, we must not minimize the seriousness and impact of sexual offences, or passively accept the trivialization that surrounds and condones sexual assault."

The Rape Crisis Centre's letter amounts to a criticism of Archbishop Pell's attitude.

On 20 June 2000, Muriel was interviewed on Radio 3AW after 5.00pm by presenter Peter Maher (a Catholic who is frequently critical of the hierarchy's hypocrisy). This was followed by nearly an hour of calls from listeners.

Archbishop breaks the church's own rules

By a Broken Rites researcher

Archbishop Pell's decision to re-instate Monsignor James Murray after a sex-offence conviction was contrary to the church's official national policy. The Australian Bishops, including George Pell, issued a pastoral letter to Australia’s Catholics on 24 April 1996, promising that priests who have seriously abused their pastoral powers would not be allowed to exercise such powers in the future. This promise was later embodied in the church's Towards Healing document.

Archbishop Pell's re-instatement of Murray overturned the intention of Judge Katharine Williams, who deliberately recorded a conviction, thereby ensuring that Murray must leave the ministry. It also contradicts the plea made by the church's barrister at the court hearing.

Archbishop Pell was out of step with the policy of the National Bishops' Conference. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who was then the chairman of the Australian bishops' National Professional Standards Committee, stated (in The Australian, 23 September 1999) that the church has failed to enforce the 1996 national policy on every diocese and religious order. Bishop Robinson said: 'The response to victims depends on the person in charge of the diocese or religious order… The response from some dioceses is excellent; from others it's very bad.' Bishop Robinson added: 'The process can be as abusive as the abuse.'

The re-instatement of Monsignor Murray also contradicted a 1996 promise by George Pell. At a media conference held by Archbishop Pell on 30 October 1996 (to announce the appointment of Peter O'Callaghan QC to investigate sexual abuse in the Melbourne diocese), George Pell was asked by a journalist (Karen Kissane of The Age): 'What will the diocese do about priests who are convicted?' Pell replied: 'In Melbourne, they will be pensioned off; they will not be re-employed.'

Following Archbishop Pell's reprieve of Monsignor Murray, other priests may refuse to stand down after conviction for sex offences. They can demand the same lenient treatment from the church.

Archbishop Pell was condoning the breaking of pastoral trust. This will cause victims to be further alienated from the church.

The result of the Murray case is that it was Judge Katharine Williams, rather than Archbishop Pell, who provided moral leadership in reminding the community about the sacredness of trust between a priest and those in his pastoral care. It is Judge Williams who took this opportunity to remind us that, as a community, we regard professional misconduct of this sort as totally unacceptable. Archbishop Pell's action indicates that the church's promises of 1996 were just a media stunt.