It is never too late to have a chat with the detectives, as this case proves

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 1 November  2014)

This court case is an example of how it is possible for victims of church child-abuse to get their perpetrator convicted many years after the abuse. In the 1970s, Marist Brother John Skehan had multiple victims in Catholic schools in New South Wales and Victoria. Forty years later, one victim got Brother Skehan convicted in a New South Wales court in 2010 and another victim scored a similar victory over Skehan (aged 75) in a Victorian court in 2014.

Brother Skehan's convictions were for offences committed while he worked at Marist Brothers schools in Broken Hill (NSW) and Shepparton (Victoria) but (according to Marist publications) he also worked at other Marist schools, including (in the 1980s) Marcellin College in Bulleen, Melbourne.

John Skehan (born in 1939) became a trainee Brother in his late teens in the 1950s at the Marist Brothers' training institution in an old mansion, "Drusilla", at Macedon, north-west of Melbourne. In those years, a new Marist Brother would adopt a "religious" name. Broken Rites has seen a photo of a group of Marist Brothers in 1959, one of whom is listed as "Brother Emilian (John Skehan)", presumably named after a famous Saint Emilian. In later years, many of the Brothers changed back to their birth name. Skehan's victims in the 1970s knew him as "Brother John".

Broken Rites first heard of Brother John Skehan in 1994 when we received a phone call from Greg (born in 1956) who had been a pupil  St Colman's school in Shepparton, in north-eastern Victoria.  There, Greg had encountered Brother Skehan about 1970  at the age of 13 or 14. As often happens in church-abuse cases, Greg was intimidated into remaining silent about his abuse at that time.  

Broken Rites explained to Greg in 1994 about the advantage of having a chat with detectives in the Victoria Police child-protection units. Broken Rites gave Greg the contact details for a sergeant in one of those units. For family reasons, Greg had to delay making this contact at the time.

Convicted in NSW

Meanwhile, Broken Rites research discovered that Brother Skehan was convicted in Broken Hill Local Court, in far-western New South Wales, in March 2010 on two charges of indecent assault which he committed on a young child while teaching in Broken Hill during the 1970s.

The Broken Hill magistrate told the court that the offence left the victim with substantial psychological scars and that the incidents were a misuse of trust between the victim and defendant. The magistrate gave Skehan two 18 month jail sentences, which were suspended on condition that Skehan maintained good behaviour in future.

In court again in Victoria

The Victorian victim, Greg, phoned Broken Rites again in July 2013. (By this time, St Colman's boys' school had evolved into a co-ed school, Notre Dame College Shepparton.)  Broken Rites again discussed with Greg the avenues for obtaining justice.

A few months later, in November 2013, Greg's mother died. This meant that he no longer felt obliged to remain silent about Brother John Skehan.

Greg then had a private interview with officers from the Sexual Offences and Child-abuse Investigation Team (SOCIT) in Shepparton. Greg authorised the detectives to contact Broken Rites on his behalf, and Broken Rites confirmed that it first received a call from Greg twenty years earlier.

Greg told the detectives that when he was in Year 8 (Form 2) at the Shepparton school, Skehan fetched Greg from a classroom and took him to Skehan's bedroom in the Brothers' residence.

There, using his authority as a Marist Brother, Skehan aggressively interfered with Greg's genitals. Then Greg was forced to do the same to Skehan.

After enduring this, Greg felt upset and confused. This was Greg's first experience of so-called "sex" — and it was imposed on him by an adult male who was empowered by "religious" status.

Greg said that he was not able to tell his mother about Brother Skehan's offences because he did not want to upset her.

After obtaining Greg's statement, the detectives interviewed Skehan, who was living in a retirement residence for Marist Brothers in Victoria.

After he was charged by the detectives, Skehan was ordered to appear at Shepparton Magistrates Court, where the case was listed for mention several times during mid-2014. Finally, in court on 30 October 2014, John Skehan pleaded guilty to the indecent assault of Greg.

Victim confronts Brother Skehan in court

As well as submitting a written police statement (describing Skehan's sexual assault), Greg was also entitled (like all other victims of sexual assault) to submit a victim impact statement, describing how the crimes affected his later life.

The prosecutor did not need Greg to be present in court, as the prosecutor could have handed Greg's impact statement to the magistrate. However, Greg chose to attend court, so that he could personally exercise his right to read his impact statement to the court.

Addressing his remarks directly to Skehan, Greg said in court:

"I can never have a life free from the effects what you did to me, John Skehan. You robbed me of the life I was meant to have."

Explaining why he delayed contacting the police, Greg said:

"My mother died on November 1 2013. I had made myself a promise many years ago, that I would not report the sexual abuse until after my mother died because I didn’t want her to know about what had happened to me. I know that she would have felt responsible for not being able to protect me. She did not deserve to blame herself for what you did to me. No mother deserves to feel that they have failed to protect their children from the actions of a paedophile...

"You forced me, a child, to carry a secret that I couldn’t share. I couldn’t even find a way to talk about it with my mother. You robbed me of the full, open and honest relationship every child should have with their mother. I miss my mother and I miss the honest relationship I could have had with her had it not been for your actions."

Greg then told Skehan (and the whole courtroom) how Skehan's breach of trust had destroyed Greg's trust in people. As a teenager, he began to become a loner. This solitude increased during his adult life, causing major disruptions to his life.

Sentenced

In sentencing, Magistrate Ian Watkins took into account Skehan's age, his ill health and that he was unlikely to reoffend.

Skehan was given an eight-month jail sentence, suspended for two years on condition of observing good behaviour. He was placed on the sex offenders register.

Outside the court, Greg (now aged 58)  told the media that, despite the non-custodial sentence, he feels vindicated that the abuse that he held secret for 44 years had been admitted by Skehan (with his plea of guilty).

Greg chose to speak to the media in the hope this would encourage other victims of abuse to contact the Victoria Police SOCIT units.

"If we keep things secret, nothing ever gets done," he said.

"I will never be rid of the effects of his deliberate actions and sexual abuse of me. He forced me, a child, to carry a secret that I couldn't share."

Shortly after the sentencing of Skehan, Greg visited his mother's grave in Shepparton.

"One of the gifts Mum gave me was the concept of social justice," he said. "I think she would be proud of me."