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

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 21 April 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 Reginald Basil Durham, who was the "chaplain" at this orphanage. Broken Rites advised these victims how to obtain justice. In 1996 the church authorities were still protecting Durham and denying the crimes. The church's cover-up in the 1990s has been revealed again in 2015 at a public hearing of Australia's national child-abuse Royal Commission.

St Joseph's orphanage was conducted by the Rockhampton Sisters of Mercy for half a century until it closed in 1978. The orphanage had with a fulltime chaplain (from the diocese of Rockhampton) who also acted as the parish priest for the town of Neerkol. When Father Reg Durham was the chaplain and parish priest, he lived at the orphanage.

In September 1996, following action by Broken Rites, the abuse at the Neerkol orphanage was revealed in the Queensland Parliament. Parliament was told about the physical and emotional abuse committed by nuns and sexual abuse committed by priests at the orphanage during many years. Rockhampton's Bishop Brian Heenan immediately circulated a letter in his parishes, refuting the victims' allegations of abuse as "scurrilous" and "scandalous".

Broken Rites possesses a transcript of Bishop Heenan's 1996 statement, which said:

"Over recent weeks, scurrilous allegations have been made against the Sisters and the priests, in the form of claims of physical and sexual abuse. Slanderous statements have been made about the conduct of the orphanage, the conditions that prevailed there, and in general about the care that was given to the children...

"I will not remain silent while the immeasurable benefit that has come to many children through the dedication of the Sisters, is destroyed by sensationally written media articles or TV programs, which do not speak the truth...

"St Joseph’s Orphanage . . . will live on with its fine reputation in spite of what has been published..."

As a result of Broken Rites supporting the victims, 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. These were not Durham's only victims; these were merely those who helped the police.

When Durham's preliminary ("committal") court hearing began in a magistrates court in June 1997, some unpleasant secrets surfaced about sexual and physical abuse at Neerkol. This preliminary hearing was held in a closed court (with no media allowed), but the church authorities realised that the Neerkol secrets would eventually become public because the case would end up in a higher court (the Queensland District Court) for a public trial which would be reported in the media. Therefore, 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 in 1937, was ordained as a priest in 1962. He was the bishop of the Rockhampton diocese from 1991 until he retired in 2013.

Father Durham jailed

When Durham's case proceeded to a judge in the Queensland District Court, Broken Rites continued to follow the hearings. 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 the family 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).

More victims of Durham

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

In April 2015, Australia's national child-abuse Royal Commission held a public hearing to examine how the church and state authorities have responded (or not responded) to the Neerkol incidents.

Former Bishop Brian Heenan was summoned to appear at the public hearing. He was questioned in the witness box by counsel assisting the Commission.

In response to questioning, Heenan admitted that in 1996 he dismissed the clergy-abuse allegations at the orphanage as "scurrilous". He indicated to the Commission that he now admits that in 1996 he had been giving priority to protecting the reputation of the church, instead of considering the victims. He said he now regrets having done this.

Bishop Heenan told the Commission that he now accepts that by allowing Durham to continue working he had placed other children at risk.

The Commission was told that, when Durham was facing a sentencing in court in 1999, Bishop Heenan gave him gave the court a glowing character reference, which stated: "He [Durham] had a unique gift with youth." 

Bishop Brian Heenan told the Commission that he never took steps to de-frock Father Durham - even after the priest admitted the crimes.

Durham died in 2002.