Secrets of the Confessional (wink, wink): A priest raped a boy, then used Confession to conceal the crime

By a Broken Rites researcher

In Australia the Catholic Church is publicly defending the "secrecy of the Confessional". This Broken Rites article is about a Melbourne priest, Father James Scannell, who raped a 12-year-old boy. After the rape (in the early 1970s), the priest subjected the boy to the Catholic ritual of "Confession" and ordered the boy never to tell anybody about what had happened. Intimidated by the church's authority, the boy obediently kept this "secret of the Confessional". The church's code of secrecv damaged the victim's life and it took him forty years to bring the priest to justice.

In 2010, the victim's aunt died. The victim (by then in his fifties) was shocked to learn that the funeral was to be conducted by the same priest who had raped him at the age of 12. The victim finally reported this crime to the Victoria Police in 2010, and child-abuse detectives began an investigation.

  • In the Melbourne County Court on 1 July 2014, a jury convicted Father James Henry Scannell, then 88, on a charge of buggery, committed against the 12-year-old boy in the early 1970s. In court, Scannell expressed no remorse.
  • On 7 August 2014, Judge David Parsons gave Scannell a two-year jail sentence. The priest was ordered to serve 12 months behind bars before he could become eligible for release to serve the final 12 months on parole.

The crime and the "confession"

The jury was told that in the early 1970s, Father Scannell (then aged in his mid-forties) was doing some ministering in a Melbourne parish (St Anne's, East Kew), where the 12-year-old boy lived with his mother. The boy's father was absent from the family.

The boy's Catholic aunt was acquainted with Reverend Father Scannell and she presumed that a Catholic priest would be a good "male role model" for the boy. The boy was paid to do some odd jobs at the priest's house in East Kew.

The aunt asked Father Scannell to discuss puberty with the boy some time. When the boy visited the priest's house again to do some more odd jobs, Father Scannell (wearing only a dressing gown) led the boy into the priest's bedroom, stripped him naked and raped him.

In the ritual of Confession after the rape, the boy was required to "confess" the boy's sin for having participated in the sexual event (that is, for having been raped). The ritual was not for the priest to confess his own crime in being the perpetrator.

Thus, a 12-year-old child received some priestly "sex" education  but this introduction to "sex" consisted of a boy being invaded by a priestly penis.

Overcome by shame and despair, the boy had to cope alone with the trauma. He knew that he could not tell his Catholic aunt or mother, because it would hurt them to learn that they had negligently placed the child in danger. Anyway, who would believe that a Catholic priest had committed a serious criminal offence against a child?

The court was told about the long-term consequences of the victim's emotional predicament. extending into his fifties.

Broken Rites research

Simultaneously with his work in parishes, Father Scannell also spent much of his career acting as a "chaplain" for children with an intellectual disability who lived in a residential institution which was known as the "Children's Cottages, Kew" (now abolished). According to the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory, he was listed as doing this work at the Kew Cottages by 1968. And he was listed as doing work there in the early 1970s, when the rape of the 12-year-old boy in the Kew East parish occurred. (The Kew East 12-year-old boy was living in a private suburban house and was not associated with the Kew Cottages.) Scannell kept up his interest in the Kew Cottages, on and off, throughout his career while he was based in other Melbourne parishes, He stopped being in charge of parishes about 1995.

When he appeared in court in 2014, Father Scannell (date of birth 17 April 1926) was still listed in the 2014 printed edition of the Australian Catholic Directory as a "Supplementary Priest" of the Melbourne archdiocese. Supplementary priests are no longer in charge of a parish, but they are available to do relief work for other parish priests or for conducting weddings or funerals. Thus, in 2010 he was invited to conduct the funeral for the aunt of the Kew East rape victim.

In the 2014 printed edition of the Catholic Directory, Father Scannell still had the letters "PE" (pastor emeritus) after his name, which means that the Melbourne archdiocese had awarded him the honour of being a distinguished retired priest. Judging from the 2014 Catholic Directory, Scannell still possessed his priestly status at the time of his jailing. In accordance with its normal practice, the church deleted Scannell's listing from the Australian Catholic Directory in 2015, now that his exposure had become public.

Preliminary court proceedings, 2013

The court process began when James Henry Scannell appeared for a preliminary ("committal") procedure in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 26 June 2013, accompanied by supporters.

Scannell was charged with one incident of buggery and two incidents of indecent assault. He pleaded Not Guilty to all charges.

In a police document, tendered in court in 2013, the victim stated that Father Scannell paid him some pocket money to do odd jobs around the priest's house on a Saturday morning. The jobs included weeding the garden, washing his car and sweeping paths.

"On about the third or fourth occasion when I finished my jobs, he would sit me down on the couch in the lounge room and start talking to me about things that made me feel uncomfortable," the victim stated.

He stated that, after these talks, the priest "would tell me to kneel beside his chair and face him, then take Confession." 

The victim stated that the abuse happened several times before the final time he went to the priest's home to do odd jobs. "I don't remember even doing any work. He took me straight into his lounge room and sat me on the couch. He was only wearing a dressing gown," he stated.

The victim detailed to police how the priest "cuddled me and tried to kiss me on the lips. I kept trying to turn away ... he wouldn't let me go.

"I remember being frozen with fear and was scared of what was happening."

The victim stated that the priest then took him to a bedroom where the priest undressed the boy and committed the criminal act.

The priest then made the boy take Confession again before ordering that "this event should never be talked about with anybody," the victim stated.

The boy then walked home crying, the court was told. He never went back to the priest's house again.

The victim stated that he kept the incidents as a secret for many years.

As well a submitting his written statement, the victim also gave verbal evidence to the court. The court arranged for the victim (aged 54 in 2013) to appear, via closed circuit television, from a different room in the court building. He answered questions from the prosecutor and the defence lawyer.

As usual in such committal proceedings, the Magistrates Court was closed to the public during this evidence, so as to protect the privacy of witnesses.

The court was told that the victim first revealed the allegations when he and his wife were watching a documentary about Catholic priests. The wife told the court that the documentary made her husband angry and he then told her about the priest who had molested him.

The court was told that, when the victim's aunt died in October 2010, the victim's sister contacted Father Scannell, asking him to conduct the funeral.. When the victim heard about the proposed funeral arrangements, he said he would refuse to attend if this priest was there - and the victim then revealed what the priest had done to him as a child.

The sister told the court that, after hearing about the abuse, she contacted the priest and told him not to conduct the funeral or attend.

According to court documents, the victim became angry at himself after his aunt's funeral, for never reporting Scannell's crime to police. After the funeral, he finally decided to contact the police. After being interviewed by a detective, he eventually made his signed police statement.

In court, in line with his Not Guilty plea, Scannell denied molesting the boy.

Magistrate Ann Collins decided that there is indeed sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial, to be conducted by a judge in a higher court, the Melbourne County Court.

At this preliminary stage, media reports of the committal result referred merely to an un-named priest.

Magistrate Collins released the priest on bail while the County Court scheduled the jury trial for a later date (normally some months away).

  • [Two days after the Magistrates Court hearing, the Melbourne Herald Sun published a comment from Melbourne retired priest Father Bob Maguire who said (in reply to a question from a reporter) that he had known the accused priest since the 1960s. Father Maguire indicated that, in this court case between the complainant and the priest, he was supporting the priest.]

Jury trial, 2014

At the jury trial in the County Court in June 2014, Scannell was faced with one charge - the buggery. He again pleaded not guilty and the jury was presented with the evidence.

After the  completion of the evidence, prosecutor Kristie Churchill told the jury that the complainant (aged 55 at the time of the trial) is a reliable and believable witness who had given his evidence in graphic detail and "like it was".

Father Scannell's defence lawyer told the jury that it was difficult to prove one person's allegation against another when so much time had elapsed.

After the jury's Guilty verdict, Judge David Parsons allowed Scannell to remain on bail pending the sentencing process. As a result of the jury's Guilty verdict, the judge's remaining  role would be to analyse the trial and to consider what sort of punishment should be imposed on Scannell.

Pre-sentence hearing

In the Melbourne County Court on 1 August 2014, Judge David Parsons held a pre-sentence procedure, to hear submissions by the prosecutor and the church's defence lawyer about the possible kind of sentence.

The prosecutor had submtted a written impact statement from the victim, outlining how the church-abuse disrupted his his later life. The victm stated that he had lived with feelings of loss and guilt every day in the past 40 years. The breach of trust had damaged his ability to form one-on-one friendships and it had put a strain on his marriage, he said.

"I have lost my religion, I lost this the day I was molested, The memories start every time I walk past a church."

He said the only time he enters a church now is to attend a wedding, christening or funeral. "These leave me devastated," he said. "I will live with this for the rest of my life."

Scannell's defence lawyer told the judge that Scannell has been well regarded by his peers and the community. He emphasised that only one complainant had spoken to the police, and Scannell was being sentenced for only one incident.

The defence requested a non-custodial sentence.

Prosecutor Kristie Churchill said that general deterrence was of paramount importance in cases such as these.

Judge David Parsons noted that Scannell had expressed no remorse for what happened to the boy. "There is not the slightest hint in any of the materials of remorse," the judge said.

This lack of remorse would weigh heavily in the balance of sentencing considerations, the judge said.

The judge also said: "I found the evidence of [the victim] compelling. I found the evidence of Mr Scannell less compelling."

The judge then remanded Scannell in custody untll the sentencing six days later. A security officer escorted Scannell from the court for transferring to the remand prison.


In his sentencing remarks on 7 August 2014, Judge Parsons gave a summary of the trial. He outlined the incident of the sexual assault, including the ritual of Confession immediately after the assault.

The judge gave a summary of Scannell's 70-year-career as a full-time professional practitioner in the church, beginning as a Marist Brother and then as a priest. He noted Scannell's work as chaplain for children at Melbourne's Kew Cottages, where (the judge said) he worked in conjunction with psychologist Valerie Chandler in developing an educational program for autistic children. The judge noted the testimonials that had been submitted to the court by persons who supported Scannell's work as a priest.

Announcing the jail sentence, Judge Parsons said that Scannell had abused his authority. He said that Scannell was guilty of a serious breach of trust and the court had no choice but to sentence Scannell to an immediate term of imprisonment.

The judge took into account Scannell's present age and state of health.

He imposed a jail sentence of two years, with parole possible after 12 months.

Scannell was then removed from the courtroom, heading for prison.

Police contacts

The Victoria Police investigation for the Scannell case was conducted by the Sexual Offences and Child-abuse Investigation Team (SOCIT) in Box Hill, Melbourne. This SOCIT office is still available for receiving any further information about James Henry Scannell.

In addition, the Sexual Crimes Squad, Melbourne, has a unit of detectives (called the Sano Taskforce, at 637 Flinders Street West in Melbourne) which specialises in similar child-abuse cases.

More research by Broken Rites

As a schoolboy, James Henry Scannell was educated by the Marist Brothers, who groomed him to join their religious order. By 1945, aged 19, he was a fully-fledged Brother, adopting the "religious" name "Brother Frederick". He taught at schools in the Marists' southern province; this province, with headquarters in Melbourne, supplied "reverend Brothers" to schools in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. Broken Rites has ascertained that "Brother Frederick" once taught, for example, at the Marist Brothers school in Northam W.A., along with other Marist child-sex offenders, including Brother "Bertinus" and Brother Frank Hesford.

In 1966, aged 30, Scannell was ordained as a priest of the Melbourne archdiocese, where he became known as "Father Jim Scannell". Broken Rites has searched the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory, and found that Scannell was first listed as a priest in the 1967 edition, which said he was then based at the parish of St Mary of the Angels, Geelong.

From 1968 until the late 1990s, Fr Jim Scannell was listed as chaplain at the Geriatric Hospital and the adjoining Children's Cottages in Kew, Melbourne. Simultaneously he did some work in parishes around Melbourne, including Kew East, Kingsville, Brighton East, Warburton, Clayton South and Flemington.

The Kew Children's Cottages and Geriatric Hospital had originally been known (in the 19th century) as the Kew Lunatic Asylum or later as the Kew Mental Hospital or Willesmere. The site was beside the Yarra River, only 6 kilometres from central Melbourne. These institutions have now been closed and the site has been developed for private housing.

Even after he ceased being in charge of parishes in 1995, Scannell continued to be known for his association with the Kew Cottages. For example, on 8 April 1997 the Melbourne Age newspaper reported a ceremony at the Kew Cottages, at which Father Jim Scannell was a speaker.

The Kew Cottages were established in 1887 to accommodate unwanted children who have an intellectual disability. Some Wards of the State and other various "difficult" children were also admitted. Many of those children remained in residence at the Cottages as adults. The Kew Cottages institution was finally closed in 2008.

Broken Rites is continuing its research on Father James Henry Scannell, including his work with children at the Kew Cottages. Did Father Jim Scannell ever provide "sex" education for any of these vulnerable children? And did he make any of these Kew Cottages children undergo the ritual of Confession?