After 50 years, this priest (from NSW) is jailed in Victoria

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 30 April 2014)

In 1959-1962, Father James Patrick Jennings began his priestly career, ministering at St Stanislaus College in Bathurst, New South Wales, followed by a church school in northern Victoria in 1963-68 and a parish in Queensland in the 1970s. Half a century later, on 30 April 2014, aged 81, he was jailed for child-sex crimes committed at the Victorian school in the 1960s.

The Victorian school was St Vincent's College, which was then situated at Bendigo, 150 kilometres north of Melbourne.  Both the Bathurst school and the Bendigo one were boarding schools, for boys only, and were owned by the Catholic order of Vincentian Fathers (this order is officially known as the Congregation of the Mission).

St Vincent's College, Bendigo, was established in 1955 and was staffed by the Vincentian order. In 1977, it was taken over by the Marist Brothers. In 1983 this school then became part of Bendigo Catholic College.

The Vincentians are an Australia-wide religious order, which has schools and parishes in several states. That is, the Vincentians are not confined to a particular diocese. Father Jim Jennings worked in Queensland as well as in New South Wales and Victoria.

Jim Jennings had been a pupil at the Bathurst school, where he first learned the Vincentians' patterns of behaviour. While he was in his teens, the Vincentians recruited him to become a trainee priest in their Order, and, after finishing at the seminary, his first posting was to teach at the Bathurst school, where he worked from 1959 to 1962. It has been alleged that Jennings sexually abused some of his Bathurst pupils but in 2009 he managed to defeat those charges in a New South Wales court.

From 1963 onwards he certainly committed child-sex crimes at the Bendigo school, for which he was jailed in Victoria in 2014.

In 1968, after he had been molesting children at the Bendigo school for five years, the Vincentians took steps to protect Jennings and the Vincentians' public image. Despite the Bendigo offences, the Vincentians kept him in their Order. They merely transferred him back to St Stanislaus College in Bathurst, NSW. After a while, according to court documents, he was transferred away from St Stanislaus College again "because of an undue familiarity problem with one of the students".

In 1973-76, Rev. James P. Jennings was listed at the "Guardian Angels" parish at Southport parish on the Gold Coast in Queensland. (Any complaints from Queensland should be reported to the Queensland police.)

When Jennings left the Southport parish, he also left the priesthood. He later married. In the 1980s he worked as an administrator at a Jewish centre in Sydney. When he was charged in the Victorian County Court in 2014, he had been living in Tasmania.

Convicted in Victoria

On 11 February 2014, Jennings began facing a trial In the Melbourne County Court. Two weeks later, on 24 February 2014, a jury found him guilty of indecently assaulting three boys, aged 11 and 12, while he was their dormitory master at St Vincent's, Bendigo, in 1963-68. The crimes spanned this five-year period.

The  jury found Jennings guilty of five counts of indecent assault. He was cleared of a sixth indecent assault charge.

Jennings had pleaded not guilty to all six charges.

When the jury trial began, the prosecutor told the court that Jennings began offending at Bendigo started soon after he was sent to teach there in 1963.

Jennings's Bendigo victims were in Year 7 or 8 when they were abused in similar ways between 1964 and 1968. On each occasion, Jennings allegedly fondled or masturbated the boys.

In one incident, a boy was allegedly instructed to masturbate Jennings, the court was told.

The prosecutor said that the first alleged incident occurred when one boy, then 13, was called to Jennings' room at the college one night.

A second boy, aged 12, was first assaulted when he woke one night to find Jennings sitting by his bed and touching him.

That boy and the third victim were allegedly indecently assaulted at the college sick bay.

A witness from NSW

A former pupil from St Stanislaus College in Bathurst NSW gave evidence at this Victorian trial that he had been abused by Father James Jennings at St Stanislaus. The purpose of this ex-pupil's evidence was to demonstrate that Jennings had a tendency to abuse children. The Victorian court charges were confined to incidents that occurred in Victoria.

The ex-pupil from St Stanislaus told the Victorian court that he had been preparing for bed at his dormitory at St Stanislaus when the first incident occurred. His pyjama cord came out of his pants, and when Jennings called him into his room to fix it, Jennings indecently assaulted him, the witness said. "I was too ashamed to tell anyone," he told the court. "I felt there must be something wrong with me." He said another incident occurred when he was in bed. He kept his eyes shut throughout it because he was scared he would be "bashed" if he opened them. Once the person stopped touching him, he opened his eyes and saw the priest leaving the dormitory.

Final submissions

At a pre-sentence hearing on 29 April 2014, the court heard final submissions from the prosecution and the defence.

Prosecutor Susan Borg said Jennings learnt his victims' class timetables to find out when they'd be alone. She said he also knew in which dorms they were sleeping.

Ms Borg said Jennings had exploited a power imbalance, and knew the boys would not come forward as they would not be believed.

"It's an attack on one of the most vulnerable categories of victims - children," she said.

Jennings' barrister said that Jennings had been of exemplary behaviour since the offending, doing years of charity work and raising a family after leaving the priesthood.

He asked Judge Wendy Wilmoth to wholly suspend any prison sentence imposed on Jennings.

However, Ms Borg called for an immediate term of imprisonment, saying Jennings had shown no remorse for his offending.

A victim's statement

The court was told how this church-abuse had affected the victims.

One of Jennings' victims, who was abused over a number of years, wrote that Jennings had deprived him of his adolescence and made him feel guilty his whole life.

"He left me feeling exploited, humiliated and with lost self-esteem," he wrote in his statement.


On 30 April 2014, Victorian County Court judge Wendy Wilmoth passed sentenced on Jennings.

The judge said that allegations of abuse were reported to at least three priests at St Vincent's College in Bendigo but took decades to reach the police.

The judge said one complainant — now in his 60s — came forward only when his local priest read aloud an apology from the local bishop for the sexual assaults on children by priests.

Judge Wilmoth said Jennings' state of profound denial led him to allege that the complainants — who had not met and had no knowledge of any other complaints against the former priest and teacher — had fabricated the assaults for financial gain.

The attacks on the boys, aged 12 and 13, started shortly after Father Jennings was appointed to teach at the Bendigo boarding school in 1963 and continued until 1967.

On each occasion, Father Jennings fondled or masturbated the boys in their beds, in his office or in the school sick bay.

In one incident he allegedly instructed one boy to masturbate him, saying that the boy "owed me one".

Father Jennings then admonished the boy, ordering the boy to confess his [that is, the boy's] sins to Jennings and another priest and beg for forgiveness.

Judge Wilmoth said the hypocrisy of the admonition and the exploitation of the young boy's emotions and religious faith were aggravating factors.

Judge Wilmoth said there were many aggravating factors to the crimes, such as the gross breach of trust involved, but mitigating factors — including Jennings' age, ailing health and service to the community — had to be considered.

The judge sentenced Jennings to three years' imprisonment and suspended two-and-a-half years of the term for a three-year period.

He is now registered as a serious sex offender for life.

NSW charges

In New South Wales, James Patrick Jennings was investigated by detectives in Strike Force Belle, based at Bathurst Police. Strike Force Belle was set up to investigate allegations of sexual assaults on students at St Stanislaus College in Bathurst.

In 2010 Jennings stood trial in the Sydney District Court on charges of abusing boys at St Stanislaus’ College. Four complainants gave evidence but the Sydney jury failed to convict Jennings.

  • To read a Broken Rites article about the 2010 New South Wales trial, click HERE