Fr Neil Joseph Byrne helped to train Australian Catholic priests

By a Broken Rites Australia researcher.  Article updated 19 May 2012

Broken Rites Australia has researched a prominent Catholic priest, the Very Rev Doctor Neil Joseph Byrne, who pleaded guilty in court on 7 March 2012 on charges of making and possessing child-exploitation material.

Byrne was sentenced to a nine-month jail term, which was to be wholly suspended for two years.

As a lecturer in a seminary, the Very Rev Dr Byrne has been involved in the training of Australia's Catholic priests.

Background

Father Byrne belongs to the Brisbane diocese, which covers the heavily-populated south-eastern corner of the Australian state of Queensland. For several years, Father Byrne was the Dean in charge of a number of priests and parishes in Brisbane's west. This role gave him the title of "Very Reverend". This, together with his Doctor of Philosophy degree, made him "the Very Rev. Dr. Neil Byrne".

According to one of his own publications, Neil Joseph Byrne was born on 9 August 1950 in the small Queensland town of Julia Creek, near Mount Isa. There he was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph and later completed his secondary schooling at Nudgee College (Brisbane) before entering Pius XII seminary, Banyo (Brisbane) in 1968. He was ordained a priest by Archbishop Francis Rush for the Brisbane Archdiocese in 1974.

In addition to his studies at Banyo, he has been awarded the degrees of Bachelor of Divinity, Masters Qualifying and Doctor of Philosophy by the University of Queensland.

From 1979 onwards, Father Byrne taught Church History at Banyo and in the Brisbane College of Theology. In 1991, for example, he was listed as the Academic Dean at Banyo, the editor of Banyo Studies and the President of the Brisbane Catholic Historical Society.

Broken Rites has ascertained that, in addition to his academic roles, Father Byrne has also served in several parishes:

  • From 1975 to 1977, he was an assistant priest at Wavell Heights (St Pascal's parish) and, for many years afterwards, he provided a regular week-end ministry in that parish while teaching on week-days at the Banyo seminary.
  • In the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory, after 1985 until early 2009, he was listed as the priest in charge of Our Lady of the Rosary parish at Kenmore, a prestigious Brisbane suburb popular with professionals. Kenmore has a large parish primary school (Our Lady of the Rosary School). For secondary education, many Kenmore parents send their children on to Catholic schools such as St Joseph's College Gregory Terrace, Brigidine College Indooroopilly and Stuartholme School Toowong.
  • In the mid-2009 and mid-2010 editions of the Australian Catholic Directory, Rev Dr Neil Byrne is listed as the priest of St Johns Wood/The Gap, in Brisbane's inner-west. This parish includes two Catholic churches — Mater Dei (St John's Wood) and St Peter Chanel (The Gap), each of which has a parish primary school.

Court proceedings begin

Father Neil Joseph Byrne originally appeared in the Brisbane Magistrates Court on 30 May 2011, facing two charges of making child exploitation material and one of possessing child exploitation material. This was a brief hearing to initiate the court process. The magistrate remanded Fr Byrne on bail pending further court proceedings.

On 30 May 2011, the day that Fr Byrne appeared in court, a letter was sent to parents of a western Brisbane private school where Fr Byrne had been the local parish priest for 14 years until early 2009. The school's principal informed parents that Fr Byrne "appeared in court this morning on charges relating to the possession of child exploitation material."

The principal said he would do his best to keep parents informed about the matter.

A copy of this letter was obtained by the Brisbane Courier Mail, which reported the matter on May 31.

On May 31, the Brisbane Catholic Communications Office issued a media release on behalf of Archbishop John Alexius Bathersby, stating:

"The Archdiocese can confirm that a priest of the Archdiocese, Fr Neil Byrne, appeared in court yesterday on charges relating to possession of child exploitation material. Archbishop Bathersby has relieved Fr Byrne of all public ministry duties pending the outcome of the legal proceedings."

On 31 May 2011 a church website (CathNews) published another statement in which Archbishop Bathersby stated:

"The charges against Fr Neil Byrne, Parish Priest of St John's Wood The Gap, and formerly Kenmore Parish, are serious and disturbing."

Bathersby confirmed that he was therefore standing Fr Byrne down from his position as parish priest, pending the outcome of the legal proceedings.

Guilty plea

On 7 March 2012, Fr Neil Joseph Byrne (then aged 61) appeared before a judge in the Brisbane District Court.

He pleaded guilty to eight counts of making child exploitation material between August 2005 and 23 February 2007. He also pleaded guilty to one count of possessing "10 images" of child pornography on 27 May 2011.

The prosecutor told the court that Fr Byrne, who was aged between 54 and 60 at the time of the offences, came to the attention of Queensland police after detectives in New South Wales executed a warrant relating to sexual assaults on a nine-year-old boy.

The prosecutor said NSW police notified Queensland's child sex abuse unit (Taskforce Argos) that an accused person at the centre of their investigation (referred to only as "Louise69r") had been engaged in numerous sexually graphic conversations via the internet with Fr Byrne.

The court was told that Taskforce Argos officers raided Fr Byrne's parish residence in May 2011 and seized computer equipment containing 10 child abuse images, including pictures of naked boys and girls in provocative and sexualised positions.

The prosecutor said the graphic internet conversations between Louise69r (who was an adult man) and Fr Byrne (who used the nickname "Cisa-Ciso") detailed the priest's sexual interest in young boys and his boasts of engaging in sex acts with young students.

The prosecutor said that Fr Byrne spoke of his sexual attraction to a "tall blonde 15-year-old boy". He also spoke about "Year 8 boys" getting dressed after swimming classes and about photographing naked boys as they frolicked during a school camp.

In a pre-sentence submission, Fr Byrne’s defence barrister told the judge that Fr Byrne was simply living out personal sexual fantasies.

The defence barrister also claimed that, as a result of losing his a position in the church, Byrne's future would be marked by financial difficulties.

[However, the defence barrister did not give the court any proof of this assertion. The court did not inquire into what private assets or non-church financial resources Byrne might have access to.]

Sentencing

In his sentencing remarks, Judge Hugh Botting told Byrne that he was taking into account that the court had not been given any evidence of Byrne using his priestly role to gain contact with children to abuse them personally.

The judge imposed a nine-month jail term on Neil Joseph Byrne, to be wholly suspended for two years.

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