This priest was committing indecent acts against children from Day One, a court is told

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 9 January 2022

A Catholic priest, Father Bryan Desmond Coffey, was indecently touching young children immediately after being ordained, an Australian court has been told. During Coffey's 37 years in the priesthood, church leaders kept hearing about his criminal behaviour but they always concealed this information from the police, thus protecting the church's holy image of priestly "celibacy". Finally, one victim reported Father Coffey's crimes to the police, instead of merely to the church. Coffey was convicted in court in 1999, and the media publicity forced the church authorities to realise that they could no longer merely transfer Coffey to another parish. He continued to be a priest, but a priest without a parish. Broken Rites has researched the court transcripts to compile the following account of how the church covered up the crimes of Father Bryan Coffey. In legal actions in 2021, some of Coffey's victims have successfully sued the church to obtain financial compensation for the damage which was done to their lives.

Some background

Bryan Coffey was born in the city of Ballarat in the Australian state of Victoria on 28 October 1934. He was ordained in 1960 as a priest of the vast Ballarat Diocese, which covers all of western Victoria from Mildura on the Murray River in the north to Warrnambool on the coast in the south. Broken Rites research has ascertained that Coffey's main parish appointments were at: Horsham, Koroit and Terang in the 1960s; Port Fairy in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Ouyen in the 1970s; Charlton in the late 1970s and early 1980s; Colac in the late 1980s; and Sea Lake, Gordon and Stawell in the 1990s.

One victim (in the 1999 court case) told police that Coffey indecently touched him, aged 11, in a house in the city of Ballarat in 1960 during a party to celebrate Coffey's ordination. Thereafter, Coffey targeted young children, mostly boys, in parishes across western Victoria, the court was told

The assaults began as tickling games and playful spanking and ended with Coffey fondling a child's private parts, the court was told. The offences occurred in presbyteries, in the sacristy of the church, in Coffey's car, or while Coffey was visiting families. In one case, while a mother was in the kitchen preparing a meal for the priest, Coffey was "playing with" a nine-year-old girl in the family's lounge-room, the court was told.

Victims were silenced

Victims told police that, during the years of the abuse, they felt under pressure to remain silent about it. One former altar boy said that, when he was about 13, his parents used to drive him to church early, before Sunday Mass, leaving him in the church's sacristy (the room where the priest prepared for Mass), where he would be alone with Coffey. The victim said in his police statement: "At the time of this [the abuse] happening, I was always deeply embarrassed by what he [Coffey] was doing. I was afraid to tell my parents at the time because Father Coffey was the Catholic priest, highly respected and looked up to in the community. No one would have believed me. I felt betrayed by what happened and still do."

The court was told that only one victim told his parents immediately after the offence. This boy, aged 11 or 12, was alone with Coffey in the presbytery. Coffey threw the boy onto a bed and, while the boy struggled, Coffey attempted to pull down the boy's pants. The boy's pants zipper caught in his flesh and tore it, causing it to bleed. The boy fled and told his parents, who reacted by causing the family to cease attending Mass.


Several victims told police that Coffey's offences were reported to the church authorities in the 1960s and '70s but the church did no more than transfer Coffey to a new parish, thus giving him access to new victims. The police were never notified during those years.

Another Coffey victim informed the church authorities about Coffey in 1995 but the matter was still kept from the police.

Police learned in 1997 that, in May 1995, a man who was dying told his mother that Coffey had sexually assaulted him as a boy. After the funeral, the mother told the church authorities but they merely replied that they would "keep the matter in mind".

In 1997, Coffey attended a funeral service for a former altar boy. One of the boy's brothers remarked: "Fancy seeing Coffey again! If only people knew what went on behind the altar!"

This prompted one victim to go to the police, instead of to the church. The police easily located more victims — something that the church had refrained from doing.

On 11 December 1997 Coffey, dressed in his vestments, was arrested in front of the congregation at the conclusion of celebrating Mass.

Coffey was then charged with multiple indecent assaults and this publicity resulted in more complainants contacting police.

Coffey in court

After magistrates' hearings in 1998, Coffey was ordered to stand trial. Meanwhile, he was bailed to reside with his brother in Lyons Street, Ballarat. The diocese finally sent him "on leave" from the ministry — after 37 years. A senior diocesan cleric visited Coffey's last parish (Stawell) to do damage control among parishioners.

In Ballarat County Court in February 1999, Bryan Desmond Coffey (then aged 64) pleaded not guilty concerning eleven children (10 boys and one girl), aged between six and 11 years. He applied to have a separate jury for each complainant, meaning that each jury would think there was only one complainant. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions opposed this, and Judge Kelly ruled that one jury would hear all the charges.

The jury found Coffey guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault involving eight boys and one count involving a girl while ministering in Ballarat city, Port Fairy and Ouyen between 1960 and 1975. He was also found guilty of falsely imprisoning one of the boys in a bedroom. He was acquitted of two counts of indecently assaulting two other boys.

In pre-sentence submissions, church defence lawyers presented glowing references to Coffey's work in pastoral care and the high esteem in which he was held by colleagues and parishioners.

However, prosecutor Peter Jones said that the more Coffey demonstrated he was a good priest, "the higher the crime".

One of Coffey's victims, who was abused when he was aged 11, said the assault had "a profound and devastating effect" on his life. He said, in an impact statement read to the court, that he had become an alcoholic and regularly visited a psychologist because of "what Coffey did to me".

What the judge said

Sentencing Coffey, Judge Kelly said:

"In each case the prisoner [Coffey] was brought into the child's realm by reference to his priestly profession, by his welcome in the home on a pastoral visit or a family occasion, and most shockingly by his training of boys to serve at the Eucharistic Sacrifice. In all these cases he acted with the full power and authority of the church, a power and authority which during the relevant years demanded and received unquestioning respect from the laity, especially from parents charged with the duty of bringing up their children in the Catholic faith. It is noteworthy that, with the exception of [complainant named], whose injury compelled inquiry and provided corroboration, the complainants assigned as their reason for making no complaint and seeking no assistance the believe that no-one would have believed them. Each of the complainants was a member of a Catholic family practising its faith, into which the notion that a priest would seek sexual gratification from a child would be an unwelcome invasion.

"The span of time, 15 years, the number of parish communities, four, in which it occurred, is significant. This was not an isolated surrender to temptation no a period of uncharacteristic behaviour occasioned by unusual circumstances or by some malignancy of the mind or body, by some stressful activity or by depression. These offences were part of the pattern of the prisoner's life during his curacy at one parish after another.

"The betrayal of trust involved in these offences is as heinous as the trust was absolute. The prisoner betrayed the trust reposed in him by his church, both in its hierarchy and laity, betrayed the trust reposted in him by teachers at his school, who permitted children committed to their care to fall into his, and betrayed the trust of the children and betrayed the trust of their parents."

Coffey sentenced

Judge Kelly gave Coffey a three-year jail sentence. However, the judge made this sentence wholly suspended in view of several mitigating factors -- Coffey's absence of previous convictions, the fact that the last of the charged offences occurred many years ago, the public humiliation suffered by Coffey by his conviction, and the termination of his priestly career.

The Director of Public Prosecutions appealed against the leniency of this suspension but in September 1999 the three-judge Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal by a majority of two to one. One of the majority judges claimed that Coffey had "stopped offending in 1975" and Coffey's offences were "not the worst examples" of sexual crimes".

When he attended this appeal hearing, Coffey brought a bag of belongings with him in case he was locked up if the appeal failed, but he did not need the bag and he left the appeal court to hand-shakes and back-slapping from a group of male supporters.

However, did Coffey really "stop offending in 1975"? In February 1998, police charged him with an indecent act on a boy, allegedly committed in the Sea Lake parish in 1993, but, fortunately for Coffey, this charge did not reach the courts.

Furthermore, some other charges against Coffey were indeed of the more serious kind. On 10 July 1998, Coffey appeared in the Ballarat Magistrates Court, charged with five counts of buggery allegedly committed against another boy at Ouyen in 1975 and 1976. However, the complainant was too shy to attend court, so, again fortunately for Coffey, these charges lapsed.

Police were told in 1997 that at least two Coffey victims have committed suicide after growing up with problems.

Compensation for victims

On 26 August 2021, ABC News reported that two men who were abused by Father Bryan Coffey have reached landmark settlement agreements with the Catholic Church. The two abuse survivors were abused by Father Coffey between 1965 and 1968 while he served as assistant priest in Port Fairy, in south-west Victoria.

ABC News reported:

"The settlements are the first to be made in relation to Coffey, but about a dozen other victims have begun legal proceedings to seek compensation for his actions. Coffey, who died in 2013, was convicted in 1999 of sexually abusing children, with the charges including abuse perpetrated while he was in Port Fairy. However, the two matters the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat has settled out of court this week were not part of the 1999 criminal proceedings and have never been prosecuted. It is not known how much each man will receive in the settlements."

In late 2021 another victim of Coffey from the Port Fairy parish successfully claimed compensation from the Ballarat diocese in the Victorian Supreme Court (that is, not merely an out-of-court settlement). This victim said he was abused at the age of five when Father Coffey would visit the family's home. He said that Father Coffey's reverend status gave the priest access to the family's home to commit the offences. The victim says that his later life was damaged by the priestly abuse. The Supreme Court awarded this victim a large amount of compensation. For further details about this Supreme Court case, see an article on the ABC News website: