Background article: Father David O'Hearn was 'tipped off' during a church "investigation"

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article posted 1 July 2010

A private investigator hired by a Catholic Church panel to "investigate" sexual abuse allegations against Father David Anthony O'Hearn "tipped off" this priest during the church's inquiry, according to a police document tendered to an Australian criminal court.

Members of a panel, which was established by the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese to "investigate" and assess allegations made against priests, believed that one of their own personnel disclosed information to Father O'Hearn, the police document said.

Father David O'Hearn, who was born on 28 April 1961, became a priest of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, north of Sydney, New South Wales.

In 2010, O'Hearn faced a committal hearing with a magistrate in the Newcastle Local Court, charged with 17 child-sex offences relating to five young boys, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Court documents

As a part of the committal process, the prosecution submitted a brief of evidence (a file for the information of the court). This included a statement by Helen Keevers, who was the manager of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese's child-protection unit (she has since left this position). She was on a panel (the Child Protection Advisory Panel) which the diocese formed in 2004. The O'Hearn matter was discussed at one of the first meetings of the panel, Ms Keevers' statement said. The panel was asked by Bishop Michael Malone to investigate Father O'Hearn, she said.

The panel was advised about a series of complaints, dating from earlier years, alleging inappropriate behaviour by Father O'Hearn, Ms Keevers' statement said. She said a psychologist's report given to the former Bishop Leo Clarke outlined information about O'Hearn's behaviour in the company of children. (BishopClarke was in charge of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese until 1995.)

A panel member was asked to investigate, but declined because this panel member was a friend of Father O'Hearn, Ms Keevers' statement said.

A private investigator was hired, but he told Father O'Hearn's friend: "Tell your mate there's nothing to worry about," Ms Keevers' statement said.

Father O'Hearn's friend told the panel about that disclosure and another private investigator (from Sydney) took over the investigation. He found that there was no substance to the allegations against Father O'Hearn.

Father O'Hearn later told Ms Keevers that the first private investigator told him he had nothing to worry about.

Members of the panel believed that the friend also discussed the investigation with Father O'Hearn and disclosed information to him, Ms Keevers' statement said.

Statement from a jailed priest

The brief of evidence tendered to court also contained a statement from a Catholic priest, Vincent Gerard Ryan, who was jailed in 1996 after pleading guilty to abusing dozens of boys over a 20-year period.

Ryan's statement said O'Hearn was his assistant at the Cessnock parish in the early 1990s, however Ryan "didn't hear anything about him or another assistant priest in relation to children".

But Ryan went on to say that "they wouldn't have been aware of my behaviour either".

How the case began

During the early court proceedings of the O'Hearn case in 2009, it emerged that in 2008 the New South Wales police received a complaint from a person who alleged that when he was a child, he had been sexually abused by Father O'Hearn. Charges, relating to this boy, were laid in the Newcastle Local Court in February 2009.

In further procedural court appearances in 2009 and early 2010, Father O'Hearn was charged with offences against additional boys.

The prosecution alleged that the earliest of the charged offences occurred in the Muswellbrook parish in 1987. This was early in Father O'Hearn's career, shortly after he was ordained.

Other offences allegedly occurred in the early 1990s while Father O'Hearn worked in parishes at Cessnock, Maitland and Windale.

Police documents tendered in court on 15 July 2009 referred to youth-group activities that were conducted by Father O'Hearn.

June 2010 hearing

During the final stages of the magistrate's proceedings, on 16-17 June 2010, Father O'Hearn faced multiple charges including sex with a minor, indecent assault and committing acts of indecency against a person aged under 16.

This hearing was held in a closed court.

The alleged victims were not in the courtroom — they gave evidence from elsewhere via closed-circuit TV.

The court was told that one of the boys had been emotionally disturbed and asked Father O'Hearn for advice. The complainant, then a ten-year-old altar boy, alleged that, during a period of months, Father O'Hearn forced him to perform oral sex on the priest, either in the priest's car or at a church presbytery. The alleged victim said in a police statement that when he once refused to comply with Father O'Hearn's sexual demands, the priest said: "If you don't do it, nothing will be fixed and you will still have your problems." The boy was also allegedly told: "This is how we fix your problem" and "I could make things harder for you at school and no one's going to believe you anyway."

Another alleged victim, also a former altar boy, stated that his parents showed little interest in him. He said that "Father David" was the closest thing that he had to a role model and that he had confided in him about being abused by his uncle. The prosecution alleged that Father O'Hearn took the boy on a camping trip for altar boys and shared a tent with him. During the night, the boy woke to find Father Hearn lying on him with an erect penis, his statement said.

Witnesses told of wrestling matches involving Father O'Hearn when the boys were aged from eight to about twelve.

During the "wrestling", Fr O'Hearn allegedly rubbed a boy's genital area and rubbed his own genital area against the boy's body, the court was told.

Prosecutor Helen Wilson told the court: "This is not a case of two grown men in sport — here we have one gown man and a boy."

Sent to trial

On 17 June 2010, at the end of the committal proceedings, the Newcastle Local Court magistrate ordered Father O'Hearn to stand trial before a judge in a higher court, the New South Wales District Court. At the District Court, the various charges were divided into separate trials, with each trial being heard by a separate jury..

  • To see a Broken Rites article about the result of the District Court trials, click HERE.

Broken Rites research

Broken Rites has researched Father David O'Hearn in the annual editions of the Australian Catholic directories. His annual entries all list him as a priest of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.

Before being ordained, David O'Hearn was a deacon at Waratah parish in 1985 and at Singleton parish in 1986.

He was ordained in late 1986. He then became an assistant priest at Muswellbrook in 1987.

In the 1990 directory Fr David O'Hearn was listed as an assistant priest at St Joseph's parish in Cessnock, where the priest in charge was Father Vincent Ryan.

In the early 1990s, Father O'Hearn was listed as the priest in charge firstly at the Windale parish (St Pius X) and later at the Toronto parish (St Joseph's).

In the directories from 1995 to 1999, he was listed as being in charge of the Rutherford parish (St Paul's).

In the 2000 edition of the annual Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy, he was "a priest in residence" at St Columban's/Christ the King, 58 Church Street, Mayfield West. Also listed at that address was Father William (Bill) Burston, who was the Vicar-General of the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese.

In the directories for 2001 and 2003, David O'Hearn was listed as the acting parish priest at St Patrick's, Swansea.

In the 2003 directory, he was listed as "on leave" (care of the diocesan office).

In the 2004 directory, he was listed as the Parish Priest of St Michael's, Nelson Bay, and was still listed there when the police began investigating him in 2008.