Broken Rites helped to expose this cover-up in western Sydney

By a Broken Rites researcher

In the 1990s, Broken Rites helped to reveal sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests in the St Gerard Majella religious order in western Sydney. Two decades later, on 15 September 2016, this religious order was mentioned at a public hearing of Australia's national child-abuse Royal Commission. This Broken Rites article gives the background of the St Gerard Majella Society.

In the late 1990s the Sydney District Court jailed three priests who comprised the entire leadership of the St Gerard Majella Society. This society, operating in the Parramatta diocese in western Sydney, consisted of a core of three priests who recruited and "trained" a pool of young Brothers. The three priests were convicted for committing sexual offences against the trainees.

  • FATHER John Sweeney, then 59, head of the order, was sentenced on 18 July 1997 to 2 years 3 months jail (18 months minimum) after a jury found him guilty of three counts of indecent assault against a 19-year-old trainee Brother. Sweeney still faced further charges involving five other young males.
  • FATHER Peter Harold Pritchard, then aged 53 (born on 21 May 1944), second-in-charge in the order (and known as Father "Joseph" Pritchard), was sentenced on 29 October 1997 to six years' jail (four years minimum). Pritchard pleaded guilty to charges of buggery, intent to commit buggery; and indecent assault involving seven trainee Brothers and another young male, all aged 16 to 21, over a 19-year period.
  • FATHER Stephen Joseph Robinson, the order's novice master and "spiritual" director, was sentenced on 27 March 1998 to a minimum of 18 months' jail after two juries convicted him for acts of indecency on two trainees. At the time of his sentencing, he was aged 51 (born in 1946).

The victims in these court cases were not the only victims, just those located by police. The sexual abuse continued for decades, right under the noses of the diocesan authorities, but the church ignored it and the victims had nowhere to go.

In sentencing, the judges said the three priests took advantage of the trainees' naively and their vow of obedience. The trainees lived an "almost a child-like existence" in the order.

Pritchard, for example, silenced his victims by saying "nobody would believe" that Catholic priests would commit such acts.

The background

The St Gerard Majella Society was formed by Sweeney in 1958 to conduct religious classes for Catholic students in state high schools. It had the blessing of Cardinal Gilroy, the then archbishop of Sydney. Sweeney recruited like-minded men as Brothers, some being upgraded to priests. Members wore conservative neck-to-ankle clerical cassocks. It is believed that, in the 1990s, the St Gerard Majella Society comprised about eight priests, including the three who were convicted.

The Society administered the Catholic parish church at Greystanes (near Parramatta), of which Sweeney was the parish priest, and also the nearby Newman Catholic High School, where Pritchard was the principal.

The order had several monasteries where it conducted camps and retreats for secondary school students and for young military personnel, such as naval apprentices. It trained novice Brothers (some beginning as young as 16), who were bound by rules of obedience to the priests in charge.

Parents, students and parishioners complained about the St Gerard priests but nothing was done. However, the cover-up began to crumble in April 1993 when Father Pritchard pleaded guilty in Liverpool Court to indecent assault of a young naval apprentice who was in his care. Pritchard was placed on a $2,000 good behaviour bond. Although it did not attract media attention, this case prompted other St Gerard victims to think about redress.

In December 1993, after Broken Rites was mentioned in the media, Broken Rites began receiving calls from several ex-Brothers. Each caller described the St Gerard Society's systematic sexual abuse. The callers alleged that this order was virtually a paedophile organisation, running a male harem.

The ex-Brothers also gave Broken Rites several confidential memoranda written by Bishop Bede Heather, of the Parramatta diocese, indicating that the church was going into damage control. One memo, in May 1993, said Heather had asked two Sydney priests, Rodger Austin and Peter Blayney, to gather written statements from St Gerard Society victims about the abuse. After this process, a second memo in September 1993 said Heather was suspending Sweeney, Pritchard and Robinson from priestly duties.

However, the laity were not told the truth. For example, the Greystanes parish newsletter merely announced that Father Sweeney "has elected to resign" as parish priest to have "a necessary time of renewal".

Broken Rites advised the ex-Brothers to give statements to the NSW Police child protection unit, which they did during 1994. Detectives then located further victims.

The chief burglar

While this police investigation was proceeding, another cover-up in the Parramatta diocese became exposed. Broken Rites learned that one of the diocese's most prominent priests, Father Richard Cattell, then 54, pleaded guilty on 19 August 1994 to five counts of indecently assaulting a 14-year-old boy. The boy had gone to Cattell (as a parish priest) in 1973-6 after being molested by a teacher.

In 1991 Bishop Heather appointed Cattell as his vicar-general to administer the 48 parishes of the Parramatta diocese (including Greystanes, where the St Gerard Society had its headquarters).

Therefore, anyone who wanted to complain about sexual abuse in the St Gerard Brothers in the early 1990s would have gone through a vicar-general who was himself a paedophile.

To report sexual crimes to the paedophile vicar-general Cattell was like reporting burglaries to a burglar. How many sex-abuse complaints were received by Cattell? And where, are the files?

[This is why Broken Rites recommends that victims should first report a church-abuse offence to the police child-protection unit, not merely to a church official. The church official is a colleague of the offender and may himself be an offender.]

Police raid

Broken Rites alerted the media to attend Cattell's sentencing on 9 December 1994, when he was jailed for two years. Heather later wrote a letter to Cattell's parishioners, supporting Cattell.

"He [Cattell] continues to be our brother priest," Heather wrote.

St Gerard Society victims informed Broken Rites that four days later, on 13 December 1994, detectives asked Heather to hand over documents (including the Austin/Blayney report) relating to the St Gerard sex-abuse complaints but Heather allegedly refused. The detectives therefore returned with search warrants for both Heather's office and the Sydney Archdiocese offices and seized the missing documents, including many written complaints that had not been forwarded to the police

Three days later, on 16 December 1994, Heather quietly announced that he was disbanding the St Gerard Society. The church evidently hoped that there would be no organisation left for the police to investigate but Broken Rites tipped off the media, and therefore in late December 1994 the Sydney and Parramatta newspapers began revealing the St Gerard scandal. Broken Rites then received more calls from informants.

The church promptly began disposing of the St Gerard Society's property, believed to be worth millions of dollars. This was a big windfall for the church coffers.

The disposal would make it difficult for victims to tackle the St Gerard Society for damages. Innocent Brothers who had spent their teens and perhaps their twenties in the St Gerard order now had no job and no qualifications for a new one.

On 19 December 1994, Heather wrote to his clergy about the Cattell and St Gerard matters. He gave Cattell's prison address, with suggestions for those priests "intending to visit". He also indicated his depressed mood about all the scandals, saying that "priestly ministry has suffered a severe setback in the eyes of many people." (That is, it was unfortunate that the scandals had become public.)

Sweeney, Pritchard and Robinson were arrested in early 1995 and their court appearances spanned three years. A week before the sentencing of Sweeney, Bishop Heather suddenly took early retirement (this could be interpreted as an attempt by the church to continue its traditional cover-up).

Several priests from the St Gerard Majella religious order, who had not been charged by police for sexual offences, were absorbed into the Parramatta diocese or other dioceses. And in 1999, Newman College Greystanes (formerly administered by the St Gerard Majella Brothers) changed its name to St Paul's Catholic College Greystanes.

Thus, the St Gerard Majella religious order is gone — but not forgotten.

This article, based on Broken Rites research, is the most comprehensive article available about the St Gerard Majella case. Broken Rites conferred with some journalists, who wrote articles in the following newspapers: Sydney Daily Telegraph 19-7-1997, 13-11-1997, Sydney Morning Herald 13-11-1997, 3-3-1998, 4-3-1998, 28-3-1998; The Australian, 23-12-1994, p13, Sydney Sun-Herald 16-11-1997, p56.

Postscript, February 2012

In early 2012, according to several websites, Stephen Robinson is still associated with certain religious groups in Sydney (these groups are not in communion with the Vatican). For example:

  • A congregation known as the "Metropolitan Community Church Good Shepherd", at Granville, in Sydney's western suburbs, stated that one of its contact persons is "Stephen Robinson, BTh, MA, DipTG, DCH Dip. Reflexology, cert. massage." (This western-suburbs group is not to be confused with another Metropolitan Community Church congregation, located in inner Sydney.)
  • Stephen Robinson has also had some connection with a body called Ecumenical Catholic Ministries. The National Library of Australia has a publication, by "Stephen Robinson, born 1946", entitled The New Jerusalem Liturgy, which was produced in association with Ecumenical Catholic Ministries.

Apart from church matters, Stephen Robinson is also pursuing other interests. A website in February 2012 referred to Stephen Robinson in Sydney who is "currently in private practice as a body therapist and personal growth consultant". And another website in February 2012 referred to Stephen Robinson running courses at the "College of Complementary Medicine" in Sydney — and his qualifications are said to include a Bachelor of Theology degree and a Diploma in Remedial Massage.

Postscript, April 2012

Stephen Robinson has been mentioned on the website of St Bernadette's Catholic parish, Lalor Park (in the Parramatta diocese, western Sydney).

The website has stated on its "Parish History" page:

  • "In 2006, the Parish celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the building and dedication of their second church. The celebrations started on Friday 15th September 2006 with a Jubilee Mass for St Bernadette's Parish School ...

    "New Hymn to St Bernadette and a new music Mass setting, dedicated to St Bernadette were composed by Stephen Robinson for the 25th Anniversary...

    "Fr Andrew Robinson [the parish priest at St Bernadette's] celebrated his 60th Birthday with his twin brother Stephen. The parishioners presented Father with a gift at the 10.00am Sunday Mass. After Mass the community shared a cuppa and birthday cake outside the Church to celebrate..."

    "In 2008, icons of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel were painted by Stephen Robinson for the Sanctuary of the Church."

On 13 March 2011, the St Bernadette's parish bulletin stated:

  • "Our thanks are due to many people who assisted in making our Jubilee celebrations last weekend a special time at St Bernadette's.

    "...The Parish Ministry - singers, musicians who worked so passionately to learn the program of Sacred music, under the musical direction of Stephen Robinson... Thank you Stephen for composing all the hymns and Mass in honour of the Immaculate Conception for our Jubilee Year..."