Two female victims finally obtained justice by contacting the police

A Catholic priest admitted that he had sexually abused two young girls but the church authorities allowed him to keep his existing job, working in schools with young people, a court has been told.

The two girls had presumed that the church would "do the right thing" and would prevent the priest from working in a school or with young people. Years later, the two victims discovered that he had not been removed from this work. Therefore the victims eventually contacted the police, the court was told.

In November 2008 this priest, Father Michael Francis Reis (then aged 66) was jailed.

Father Michael Reis is a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart religious order. He has spent much of his priestly career since 1971 working as a teacher in schools operated by the MSC order. He has had several periods at Monivae College in Hamilton, south-western Victoria, where he eventually became the headmaster. He has also spent time in Queensland, where he taught at Downlands College in Toowoomba.

Reis was sentenced in Brisbane's District Court on 6 November 2008 for offences against a young girl in the 1980s and another young girl in the 1990s.

Reis pleaded guilty to a total of seven incidents of indecent treatment of the two girls. Because of the guilty plea, the victims were not required to give evidence in court.

This court case was confined to offences committed within Queensland and it was confined to these two victims.

Reis molested the girls by touching them on their breasts and genitals.

The court was told that the earlier victim was aged 13 in 1984 when she was assaulted five times at her Brisbane home.

The court was told that the second girl in the case was assaulted between 1992 and 1995, when she was aged between 10 and 13, at Caboolture, north of Brisbane.

The court was told that the two victims initially went to the Catholic Church with their complaints in 1999. The two girls were merely offered "counselling".

After this, Reis's superiors allowed him to continue working at Monivae College. But the two victims did not know this at the time. After finding out about this, the two victims were so upset that they eventually contacted the police in 2007.

Sentencing Reis, Judge Kerry O'Brien took into account Reis's early guilty plea.

Judge O'Brien said the offences were serious as Reis had breached a position of trust, and that he would be required to spend time in jail.

Reis was sentenced to 18 months' jail, to be suspended after spending six months behind bars.

Broken Rites helped

In October 2007, twelve months before the jailing of Reis, one of his victims contacted Broken Rites. She said that when she was 17, several years after the sexual abuse, she finally told her family about it, and she also lodged a complaint with the Catholic Church's professinal standards office (also known as "Towards Healing"). But the church dithered for years, so in 2007 she finally contacted the police and then Broken Rites.

This victim told Broken Rites that she was wondering whether to proceed with the police investigation. Broken Rites advised her to proceed with it.

The police found a second victim of Reis and then promptly launched the prosecution process.

Broken Rites research

Broken Rites has researched Father Michael Reis's locations in the annual editions of the Official Directory of the Catholic Church in Australia and the Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy.

Reis's first year on the teaching staff at Monivae College, Victoria, was in 1971. In the 1978 he was one of eleven MSC priests listed at Monivae. During these years at Monivae, he worked as senior boarding house master, director of senior studies and deputy headmaster.

About 1979, after eight years at Monivae, he shifted to Downlands College, Queensland.

In 1985, Reis was back at Monivae as the college's seventh headmaster, holding this position until 1990.

In the early 1990s he returned to Downlands College and was listed as one of eleven MSC priests there. He continued to be listed at Downlands College until 1998.

By January 1999, he was back at Monivae College, with a special role in relation to boarders. A Monivae newsletter to students and parents, dated 18 January 1999, stated: “Fr Michael Reis MSC (former Principal, Monivae) returns as Chaplain and Boarding House Advisor.” The Monivae newsletter told students and parents of 1999: "Please feel free to contact Fr Reis, Mrs Ross or Mr Punch on any boarding matter."

The two victims in Father Reis's Queensland court case say that they lodged their sex-abuse complaint at the Catholic Church's professional standards office ("Towards Healing") in October 1999. This was before Father Reis returned to Monivae College as chaplain and boarding house advisor.

And Broken Rites has seen a letter, dated 15 February 2000 on a Monivae letterhead, signed by "Fr Michael Reis MSC, Head of Boarding". This was four months after the two victims contacted "Towards Healing".

In the 2002 Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy, Reis was listed as Monivae's "priest in charge". This was more than two years after the two victims contacted "Towards Healing".

Around 2003, Reis had a break from Monivae, when he was listed at St Mary's Towers, an MSC retreat centre at Douglas Park, south of Sydney.

In the 2004 Directory, he was back at Monivae College, where he was listed as "priest in residence". In 2007 he was still at Monivae College, being listed as the "community leader" of the MSC order at this address.

Reis continued in a leadership role at Monivae College. In a Monivae College newsletter (dated 2 March 2007), headmaster Bernard Neal wrote: “Fr Mick Reis and I travelled to Toowoomba in Queensland for the year’s first MSC Education Committee meeting. Representatives from each of the four Australian MSC schools meet three times a year to discuss matters relevant to education and specifically to the ethos of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart."

Justice at last

During 2007 one of Reis's Queensland victims finally contacted the police because she was concerned about Reis's continued involvement with the school. The police began an investigation.

A newsletter from Monivae College to parents, dated 7 December 2007, announced that Fr Mick Reis would be taking "a 12-months sabbatical".

Eleven months later, on 6 November 2008, Reis appeared in court in Queensland for sentencing, which resulted in his "sabbatical" becoming a jail sentence.

In preparation for the sentencing, a Sydney-based leader of the MSC order travelled to Victoria to protect the public image of Monivae College.

Monivae College principal Bernard Neal called a whole school assembly where he revealed Reis's charges (and guilty plea) to students and staff. He also wrote to parents, revealing the news.

As soon as the judge sentenced Reis to jail on 6 November 2008, the jailing was reported in Queensland radio news bulletins.

The jailing was reported next day in newspapers in western Victoria.

Towards Healing

The church's original handling of the Reis case, in 1999, has implications for the Catholic Church in general, not just the MSC order.

In 2008, when Father Reis was jailed, the Australian head of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Father Tim Brennan, was one of the two co-chairmen of the Australian Catholic Church's National Committee for Professional Standards. This committee is responsible for supervising the Catholic Church's "Towards Healing" process, which is supposed to be a place where church sex-abuse victims can advance the cause of child-protection.

The two victims in the Reis case say that they are disappointed that the "Towards Healing" process resulted in Father Reis being allowed to continue working in schools. The two victims are disappointed that they were not told of this decision and that they learned of it years later. The victims believe that it was the police and the courts — not the church — that provided moral leadership in the Reis case.

In late 2009, Father Brennan and his co-chairman (Bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba) announced that they were commissioning a review and overhaul of the "Towards Healing" process. The two Reis victims are not optimistic about a satisfactory outcome of this review.

A victim's view

One of the two victims in the Reis case — let us call her "Zelda" (not her real name) — has written to Broken Rites, offering us the following comment for publication.

Zelda writes:

"I was one of the two victims in the Reis case who went through the church's Towards Healing process and later the Queensland criminal courts process.

"The other Reis victim and I made initial contact with Towards Healing in October 1999.

"We were offered counselling and an apology.

"Being in a fragile state of mind at this stage (after revealing the abuse to our families and then talking to strangers about it at Towards Healing), we presumed that the church would remove this perpetrator from schools. Our main aim was to ensure that other children were not put in a position where they could be vulnerable.

"The Towards Healing process for us was a total waste of time. I did get some free counselling but in the end no peace of mind that the offender was out of circulation.

"We did not hear from Towards Healing or the Church again.

"They made no contact to tell us of the decision to allow him to work in schools again.

"We had very little idea of his whereabouts and I certainly had no idea he was working in a school again, especially a boarding school.

"As soon as we found out he was still at Monivae College, we began police proceedings. Through this process, we found out he had been at Monivae pretty much the whole time since we had reported it. There had barely been a break. The only time he wasn't there was a few years later when he had a break at a church retreat centre.

"We found the church's Professional Standards process severely lacking. Not only were we treated poorly and kept in the dark but they put the offender right back where he started and didn't bother to let anyone at the school (for example, parents and students) know.

"I am extremely disturbed that these sorts of events can keep occurring — that there is no monitoring, external process or some sort of guidelines that the church has to follow in regards to these abusers. Every other person that wants to work in a school has to go through a blue card check. Yet here is the Catholic Church knowing full well that a crime has been committed that would exclude Fr Reis from obtaining a blue card and thus working in a school and there is no obligation for them to keep him away from schools. Just the moral obligation should be enough but they have proved over and over again that it isn't.

"What I want to know is what can be done about it, what sort of process needs to happen to get the ball rolling to fix this or, if the solution is all ready rolling, what can I do to give it momentum. The Catholic Church — and all other churches for that matter — need to start having to be accountable in some way and I would like to be a part of making that happen within Australia."