A convicted priest appears on TV but is still ignorant about how the church's cover-up can damage the victims and their families

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 2 December 2018

In the early 1970s, a boy complained to the Catholic Church about being sexually abused by a Sydney priest (Father Robert Flaherty) but the church merely transferred the priest to a new parish, thus giving him easy access to more children, a Sydney court has been told. This victim then reported Flaherty to the police. Years later, another victim contacted the police, followed later by a third boy (all from different parishes). In court in 2016, Father Flaherty (then aged 72) was jailed regarding the three boys. In July 2018, a television program ("A Current Affair" on the Nine Network) interviewed Father Flaherty (after his release from jail) and also interviewed one of his victims. On TV, Flaherty is still ignorant about how the church's culture of cover-up can damage the lives (and family relationships) of the church's victims many years later. If you click a link at the end of this article, you can watch the interviews.

In the early 1970s, according to court documents, one of Flaherty's victims (Boy A) complained about Father Flaherty to Bishop Edward Kelly, who was an assistant to Sydney's archbishop. But Father Flaherty was kept in the priesthood for the next 40 years, and, likewise, Bishop Kelly continued his own career.

Robert Francis Flaherty (born 14 June 1943) is a priest in the Sydney archdiocese. After eventually retiring from being in charge of parishes (aged in his mid-sixties), he continued living in a presbytery, working as a hospital chaplain, until the police interviewed him in 2013 (40 years after the first alleged offence).

The three boys in the court case, aged between 11 and 15, did not know each other. They lived in three of Father Flaherty's parishes to the west of Sydney. These parishes, in which Flaherty worked as an assistant priest under the parish-priest-in-charge, were:

  • "Our Lady of the Rosary" parish in the suburb called St Mary's;
  • St Patrick's parish in Blacktown; and
  • St Monica's parish in Richmond.

These three were not necessarily Father Flaherty's only victims. They are merely the three who were interviewed by the detectives. The detectives then interviewed Flaherty.

In a Local Court in 2013, police charged Flaherty regarding these three complainants.

The offences occurred in western Sydney or during visits to Father Flaherty's holiday house at Mollymook, 220 miles from Sydney on the New South Wales south coast, near Ulladulla.

The earliest of these three victims (Boy A in 1971) was being driven home in Flaherty's VW Kombi van after a youth group when Flaherty stopped the vehicle and committed the offence. This boy was assaulted, also, on Flaherty's bed in the parish residence, the presbytery.

Another victim (Boy B) was assaulted at the Mollymook holiday house in 1981. He was woken in the night when Flaherty tried to grope him sexually. Chronologically (according to the year of the offence), this was the third victim in the court proceedings. This victim told his wife in 1996 and then complained to police but there was insufficient evidence for the police to proceed with a prosecution at this time.

Meanwhile, in about 1977 (between Boy A and Boy B), there was another boy (this article will call him "Dwayne"). This boy (aged about 12 years) was taken to Flaherty's holiday house at Mollymook, where the abuse occurred. Therefore, when Dwayne finally contacted the police in 2012, this third complaint prompted the police to proceed with a prosecution relating to all three of these victims.

In 2013, preliminary proceedings were held by a magistrate in a Local Court, where the charges were all filed. Next, the matter proceeded to a judge in Sydney's Parramatta District Court. with Flaherty facing five charges:-

  • In 2014, in the Parramatta District Court, Flaherty pleaded guilty regarding Boy A (two incidents) and Boy B (one incident). The offences against Boy A were very serious but Flaherty agreed to plead guilty if the charges regarding Boy A were reduced to a less serious category, and Boy A agreed to this down-grading of the charges.
  • Flaherty pleaded not guilty to two charges ("indecent assaults of a male") regarding the 1977 victim ("Dwayne"). The charges relating to "Dwayne" were in two separate categories (in the child-sex crime laws). Unlike Boy A, Dwayne refused to reduce these offences to a less serious category in return for getting a plea of "Guilty", and therefore Flaherty contested the charges, hoping to defeat them. On 7 September 2015, after a trial conducted by Judge Richard Cogswell, a jury returned a verdict of "Guilty" on these two charges regarding "Dwayne" (the official number of this court case was 2013/00201461).

Pre-sentence proceedings

In February 2016, Judge Cogswell conducted pre-sentence proceedings for Flaherty. The judge began by hearing pre-sentence submissions from the prosecution and the defence about the kind of sentence that Flaherty should receive

The judge then quoted extracts from the victims' impact statements, where one victim talked of the shame, guilt and anger he had been left with.

"It was the leaders of the church who contributed to the mess my life has become," the statement read.

"What happened has robbed me of having faith.

"How can I have faith in a church that allows a paedophile to move from parish to parish, giving them a playground of vulnerable children?"

Another victim said he felt isolated from his family and had had difficulties in relationships since the assault.

Justice Cogswell said the abuse occurred in circumstances involving a very serious breach of trust.

He also noted pre-sentencing reports which said Flaherty had shown little victim empathy.

He said imprisonment was the only appropriate sentence.

"To my mind the offending behaviour ... is such that it would not be appropriate to allow Mr Flaherty not to serve full time in prison," he said.

However he said Flaherty's health problems meant the period behind bars would be significantly shorter.

Jail sentence

Judge Cogswell sentenced Flaherty to a jail term of two years and three weeks, although Flaherty would be eligible to apply for parole after six months behind bars.

The prosecutors indicated that they would appeal against the shortness of the time behind bars, as it was too lenient considering the seriousness of some of the incidents.

Flaherty's lawyer gave notice that Flaherty would lodge an appeal against his conviction on the serious charges relating to "Dwayne", plus an appeal against the jail sentence.

Flaherty remained on bail during the appeals process.

Result of the appeals

On 24 August 2016, the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed Flaherty's challenge to the jury's "Guilty" verdict regarding the offences against "Dwayne".

Regarding the length of the jail sentence, the three Appeal Court judges dismissed the Crown request for a longer sentence, while two judges (making a majority) agreed that Flaherty's sentence should be cut to two years, with a non-parole period of three months.

After this appeal decision, Reverend Father Robert Flaherty was taken into custody to spend his first night in jail.

Police investigation

Detectives from Blacktown Local Area Command established Strike Force Nemesis to investigate the allegations against Flaherty. The police investigator was Senior Detective Mick Mahoney, of Blacktown Detectives Office.

Flaherty's other Sydney parishes included Guildford and Woy Woy and (in his final years) Auburn and Clemton Park. In 2011, after he retired from being in charge of a parish, the Sydney archdiocese continued to list him in the printed annual Australian Catholic Directory as one of its priests (a hospital chaplain, residing in the Clemton Park presbytery). After the police charged him in 2013, the archdiocese discreetly removed Flaherty's name from the 2014 edition of the directory, so as to cover-up the matter. When he appeared in court, Flaherty was living an address at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains, although officially the church still regards him as a priest in retirement (that is, a priest without church appointment or duties).

The impact on a victim

One of the victims in the Flaherty court case (Dwayne) has told his story in a written statement, which demonstrates how this church-based abuse (plus the church's culture of cover-up) caused long-term damage to the victim's later life.

Dwayne (aged 50 at the time of Flaherty's jailing) stated:-

"My family members were devout Catholics. In their eyes, priests could do no wrong.

"Father Robert Flaherty was a friend of my parents. When I was aged about 12, he took me down to his holiday house at Mollymook. I slept in a single bed. During the night, I woke from a deep sleep to find Fr Flaherty making an invasive sexual assault on me, followed by another sexual assault. Evidently this was Fr Flaherty's idea of 'sex'.

"This was my first-ever so-called 'sexual' experience and it was a disastrous introduction to so-called sex.

"Fr Flaherty told me that I must not tell anyone, especially my family, because (he said) I would not be believed as my family would trust a Catholic priest more than they trusted me. And (he said) my parents would be disappointed in me for making up such a story.

"Therefore, I was forced to remain silent about the attack but I eventually stopped going to church, and my rejection of the church has continued to be a sore point with my very-Catholic parents. In this way, Fr Flaherty's sexual assault of me (plus the church's code of cover-up and the disruption of my relationship with my parents) continued to hurt me and it damaged my teenage years and my adult life.

"After leaving school, I found it difficult to hold down a job. I became unmotivated to find work

"I resented anybody who had authority over me. I should have been able to ask the church for help but it was the church that got me into this situation.

"I had a series of girlfriends but I lost each of them.

"So I developed addictions. which became a big problem for me for several years, until I eventually managed to overcome this. A counsellor advised me to seek support from my family but there is no way that I could tell my parents about a priest's sexual abuse. Even if they believed me, it would crush their world and this would further damage my relationship with them.

"With the recent headlines about Australia's child-abuse Royal Commission I finally decided to do something about it. I would like the offender to be brought to justice, while still protecting my parents."

Flaherty and the church on TV

After being released from jail, Father Robert Flaherty is still a priest (and he is still "reverend"), although he is retired from parish work. The Catholic Church provides financial support for him, with a car which the church replaces for him every three years.

On 24 July 2018, the Nine Network's "A Current Affair" program aired an interview with Father Flaherty and also an interview with Dwayne. The TV reporter emphasizes how the church is still supporting its convicted-pedophile priests; whereas the main concern of Broken Rites is about the long-term damage on the lives of the church's victims. To see the TV program, click HERE.