Broken Rites supported these orphanage victims but a bishop supported the offender

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 3 March 2015)

When Broken Rites launched its national telephone hotline in September 1993, our first callers included former inmates of a Catholic orphanage (St Joseph's Home, at Neerkol, near Rockhampton, Queensland). Some of these callers said they were sexually assaulted by Father Reg Durham, who was the "chaplain" at this orphanage from 1965 to 1997. We referred these callers to an appropriate unit of the Queensland Police, and this resulted in Father Reg Durham being jailed in 1999 for child sex crimes. In 2015, Australia's national child-abuse Royal Commission is holding a public hearing in Rockhampton into child-abuse at this orphanage.

Meanwhile, as well as referring these victims to the police, Broken Rites also advised the victims about other ways of obtaining justice. As a result, the matter was raised in the Queensland Parliament in September 1996. Parliament was told about the physical and emotional abuse committed by nuns and sexual abuse committed by priests at the Neerkol orphanage from the 1940s to the 1970s. Rockhampton's Bishop Brian Heenan immediately circulated a letter in his parishes, refuting the allegations of abuse as "scurrilous" and "scandalous".

The allegations against Durham were investigated by Rockhampton detectives. In February 1997, Father Reginald Basil Durham was charged with counts of rape and 41 of indecent dealing, involving two girls and a boy, between 1960 and 1967. When Durham's first committal hearing began in June 1997, some unpleasant secrets surfaced about sexual and physical abuse at Neerkol. One man, who was aged 59 in 1997, said that children who ran away from the orphanage were captured, stripped naked and flogged in front of the entire assembly.

Realising that the Neerkol secrets would eventually become public at Durham's trial, the church swung into damage control. The Sisters of Mercy (operators of the orphanage) published an apology to those inmates "who suffered spiritual, psychological, sexual and physical abuse at Neerkol." Bishop Heenan retracted his September 1996 denial about the abuse. In a public statement in 1998, Heenan told Neerkol victims: "I regret that I did not acknowledge those sufferings when you first raised them and that my first reaction was one of disbelief."

Bishop Brian Heenan (born 1937, ordained as a priest in 1962) was in charge of the Rockhampton diocese from 1991 until he retired in 2013.

The case of Meg

When the Durham charges reached a judge in the District Court, Durham pleaded guilty to six counts of indecently dealing with a young girl ("Meg", aged 12 to 14) in a Rockhampton parish over a two-year period in 1962-3. The court was told that Durham won the trust of Meg's family and then manipulated them to gain access to her on regular occasions. After the sexual assaults, Durham would make Meg say that she had sinned. When Meg asked why the priest did not have to confess, Durham told her: "I don’t go to confession."

In February 1999, the District Court sentenced Reginald Durham to 18 months jail (with parole after four months).

The case of Sally

Meanwhile, more former inmates at Neerkol were phoning Broken Rites and/or the police. After Durham was released from jail, he was put on trial again, charged with raping a 14-year-old orphan girl ("Sally") at the orphanage in 1966. The court was told that Sally's mother died in 1964 and her step-father then had sole custody of her and her siblings. In 1965 it was discovered that the stepfather had been molesting Sally since she was eight. Therefore the children were made wards of the state and Sally was sent to Neerkol to protect her from further sexual abuse. The prosecution alleged that Durham raped Sally on a bed in his presbytery.A crucifix was hanging above them on the wall. Sally told the court she complained to a nun, Sister Mary Francis Regis, in 1965 but the nun allegedly ignored the complaint, telling Sally: "You are just making this up."

Sally finally contacted police in 1996. Police interviewed Durham who admitted that he could remember the girl but he denied the rape. A detective tape-recorded Durham saying he "never let the girls into the presbytery". Prosecutor Paul Rutledge told the court: "The problem for Durham is that police had not told him the rape allegedly took place in the presbytery. The prosecution says Durham knew where the rape had happened and knew it was in the presbytery."

This time, Reginald Durham pleaded not guilty. A jury failed to reach a verdict and was discharged but a second jury convicted him. Judge Warren Howell sentenced Durham to 7 years 6 months jail with no recommendation for parole.

Sentencing Durham, the judge criticised the nun and the Catholic Church for covering up Sally's complaint.

Durham appealed against this conviction on the grounds that Judge Howell's summing up to the jury favoured the prosecution. On 21 March 2000, the Queensland Court of Appeal granted this appeal and ordered a retrial.

Durham, who was aged 83 at the time of his appeal, then applied to be excused from further prosecution on the ground that he was now "physically and psychologically unit" to stand trial. In February 2001, this application was granted. Apart from Sally's case, there were 20 other charges against Durham still outstanding in 2000. Now these charges would never reach the courts.

Other offences at Neerkol

There have also been allegations that another Rockhampton priest, Father John Anderson, sexually abused girls and boys at Neerkol in the 1940s and '50s. However, police found that Anderson is dead, so they were unable to prosecute him.

Eighty former Neerkol inmates took civil action against the Queensland Government, the Sisters of Mercy and the Rockhampton Catholic Diocese for allowing the abuse at Neerkol. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1999. Broken Rites possesses a copy of the deed of release. Many of the victims received as little as $2,000 each, although one received $19,000 and another received $25,000.

Some inmates at Neerkol came from indigenous families, and several of the callers to Broken Rites were from these families.

St Joseph's home, Neerkol, was originally known as the Meteor Park orphanage.  

Royal Commission public hearing, April 2015

The Royal Commission will hold a public hearing commencing on Tuesday 14 April 2015 at the Rockhampton Court House, Virgil Power Building, 46 East Street, Rockhampton.

The scope and purpose of the public hearing is to inquire into:

  • 1. The experiences of a number of men and women who were resident at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Neerkol operated by the Sisters of Mercy between 1940 and 1975;
  • 2. The responses of the Sisters of Mercy, the Catholic Diocese of Rockhampton, and the Queensland state government to complaints made by former residents of St Joseph’s Orphanage, Neerkol, of child sexual abuse by workers, priests and nuns at the Orphanage between 1993 and present.
  • 3. Any related matters.

Any person or institution who believes that they have a direct and substantial interest in the scope and purpose of the public hearing is invited to lodge a written application for leave to appear at the public hearing by 20 March 2015.

Applications for leave to appear should be made using the form available on the Royal Commission website,