Fr Robert Claffey (already in jail) gets additional time behind bars

  • By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 1 May 2020)

This Broken Rites article gives some background about how a Catholic priest, Father Robert Claffey, committed sexual offences against children (mostly boys) while the Catholic Church transferred him around parishes in western Victoria for 14 years between 1969 and 1992. Some of Claffey's victims began contacting Broken Rites in 1993, and Broken Rites gave each victim a Victoria Police phone number where the victim could have a chat with child-protection detectives. In 1998, Claffey was convicted regarding two of his victims, and in 2016 he was jailed regarding 12 more victims (Claffey's offences included buggery, indecent assault and sexual penetration of a child). The 2016 court case brought the court's total to 14 children. Afterwards, two more victims contacted police and, as a result, Claffey (still in jail and aged 76) was sentenced in 2019 to additional time in jail..

The 2019 court case is reported towards the end of this article.

This Broken Rites article begins with some background information.

Claffey's background

Broken Rites understands that Robert Claffey was ordained as a priest by 1969. All his priestly work has been in the Ballarat diocese which covers the western half of the state of Victoria (it is called the Ballarat Diocese because the bishop is located in the city of Ballarat).

Since his first court appearance in 1998, Claffey has been charged regarding a variety of victims. The courts have been told that in 1969 he attacked a seven-year-old girl who was preparing for her first Communion. Claffey went on to assault altar boys and children making preparations for religious ceremonies. He abused children as young as five at their schools, home, and church. Some of the offences occurred while Claffey was wearing his priestly vestments.

From 1970 to 1992, Father Robert Claffey worked in various western Victoria parishes under the supervision of Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. Bishop Mulkearns (born in 1930) was the bishop of Ballarat from 1971 to 1997.

Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who died in 2016, is on record as having claimed that Claffey's crimes were merely "improper behavior", rather than crimes. This lenient attitude meant that paedophile priests such as Father Claffey (and his colleague Father Gerald Ridsdale) were protected by the church during their life of crime.

Broken Rites has ascertained (by searching through the annual editions of the Australian Cathholic Directory) that Father Claffey's early parishes (in the late 1960s and in the 1970s) included Terang (St Thomas's parish), Warrnambool (St Joseph's) and Apollo Bay (Our Lady Star of the Sea parish).

At Apollo Bay, Claffey replaced another criminal priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale. One Apollo Bay boy was abused by both Ridsdale and Claffey.

During the 1980s, Claffey was in charge of the Wendouree parish (Our Lady Help of Christians), situated in the city of Ballarat, with a junior priest (Father Glynn Murphy) as his assistant. However, parents complained about Claffey sexually touching their children, and therefore Bishop Mulkearns felt obliged to find a new parish for Claffey.

Broken Rites has found that Claffey was listed in the 1990 Australian Catholic Directory as being "on leave", along with another criminal priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale. But in 1991 (according to the Directory) Father Claffey was sent as an assistant priest to Portland (All Saints parish), working under Father Eric Bryant.

More problems occurred at Portland. Claffey's house was next to the All Saints parish school. and Broken Rites understands that the head nun did not like Claffey being in the school playground. However, he was still the chaplain at Portland's other Catholic primary school, the Mary McKillop School.

A mother complained about Father Claffey touching her son indecently under the water at the Portland swimming pool.

About August 1992, Claffey was removed overnight from the Portland parish, without being given the customary parish farewell. Claffey went to live with his parents in Geelong, where he was noticed frequenting the Geelong swimming pool.

Broken Rites found him listed in the annual Australian Catholic Directory in 1994 as being "on leave". Eventually he ceased being included in the list of Australian priests in the annual directory. By then, Broken Rites Australia had helped to get Father Gerald Ridsdale charged in court, and so some of Claffey's victims began to contact Broken Rites.

The first court case, in 1998

Claffey victims who contacted Broken Rites in the mid-1990s included two brothers, who eventually spoke to the Ballarat office of the Victoria Police child-protection detectives; this unit is now called the Sexual Offences and Child-abuse Investigation Team (SOCIT).

In February 1998, Claffey (then aged 55) appeared in the Ballarat Magistrates Court, charged with indecently assaulting these two boys. These assaults occurred in 1978 when the brothers were aged 12 and 13. The boys' sister had died in a road accident in 1978, according to court evidence. Claffey started visiting the boys' house after the accident to "comfort" them at bed-time. He touched each boy indecently on several occasions while the boy was in bed.

Neither brother knew that the other had been molested by Fr Bob Claffey until they discussed the matter in their twenties.

The boys were part of a devout Catholic family.

As there were only two victims in the case (and as the offences were at the lower end of the criminal scale, with courts taking a relatively lenient attitude in 1998), Magistrate Rowan McIndoe placed Robert Claffey on a good-behaviour bond.

Broken Rites had alerted the media that the court case was coming up and, as a result, the case was reported in the Ballarat "Courier" on 19 February 1998 and in the Warrnambool "Standard" on 25 February 1998. This alerted other Claffey victims about their right to consult the child-protection detectives.

Second court case, beginning in 2014

After the 1998 case, more Claffey victims spoke to the child-protection detectives - and some of these victims did so at the suggestion of Broken Rites. By 2014, the detectives were ready to begin acting on behalf of additional Claffey victims.

During a preliminary procedure in the Geelong Magistrates Court on 12 December 2014, the court was told that one of the alleged assaults involved Father Claffey going to a boy’s house and indecently assaulting him during the 1980s. Police told the court that the boy allegedly reported the assault to his father, who then allegedly reported it to Bishop Mulkearns. Claffey was then moved from his parish at Wendouree (a suburb of Ballarat) and was later apppointed to another parish [at Portland], police said.

The December 2014 hearing was told that ex-Bishop Mulkearns had initially agreed to give a statement to police in the investigation against ex-priest Claffey, but church lawyers later told police that Mulkearns did not wish to give evidence, because of ill-health. Ex-Bishop Mulkearns then failed to attend a medical assessment that was organised to determine whether he was indeed too ill to take the witness stand, the court was told.

The magistrate told the December 2014 hearing he was satisfied that ex-bishop Mulkearns had refused to provide a statement. He granted the prosecution’s application to have Mulkearns undergo compulsory questioning in court. After the December 2014 hearing, the case was adjourned until 2015.

The bishop in court, July 2015

Claffey's preliminary proceedings resumed in mid-2015 when ex-Bishop Mulkearns (then living near Victoria's Great Ocean Road) was forced to give evidence in court. The church authorities hired a Queen's Counsel to advise Mulkearns about how to handle his appearance in court.

In the witness box on 29 July 2015, Bishop Mulkearns was questioned by the crown prosecutor. Mulkearns agreed that Claffey had been one of his priests.

But on other questions, Mulkearns was blank. For question after question, his answer was "I cannot recall".

Prosecutor Peter Rose QC asked Bishop Mulkearns whether a parishioner from Wendouree (a suburb of the city of Ballarat), came to him to complain about Mr Claffey.

“I don’t recall that,” Bishop Mulkearns said.

Mr Rose produced a note on stationery from the Bishop’s House in Ballarat and signed by Bishop Mulkearns. The note stated that a parishioner went to see the bishop on July 7, 1989, and complained that Father Claffey had made sexual advances to his son and touched him sexually. The note stated that Bishop Mulkearns asked Father Claffey to see him that afternoon and “he [Claffey] admitted that there had been some improper behaviour”. Bishop Mulkearns wrote that Father Claffey agreed to his suggestion that he receive counselling and that he would leave this parish.

Mr Rose asked Bishop Mulkearns what recollection he had of Father Claffey outside of the note. “I remember he had been misbehaving … in a sexual way,” Bishop Mulkearns said.

After the examination of Bishop Mulkearns, Claffey's lawyer asked that the case be sent straight to the Victorian County Court [where a trial could be heard by a judge].

On 28 September 2015, the Claffey case had a mention in the Victorian County Court. The court agreed to postpone the case until 2016 because of concerns that publicity about Australia's national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse could adversely affect a jury. The Royal Commission was investigating the alleged concealing of clergy sexual abuse in the Ballarat Catholic diocese.

Jailed in 2016

In August 2016, Robert Claffey was due to stand trial in the Victorian County Court. He had previously indicated that he would plead "Not Guilty" to 21 charges relating to 12 victims (ten males and two females). But, instead, he changed his plea to "Guilty" on 19 charges. Prosecutors withdrew two of the 21 charges. The guilty plea removed the need for a jury trial.

On 4 October 2016, Judge Felicity Hampel gave Claffey a jail sentence of 18 years and four months, with a minimum of 13 years and four months before becoming eligible to apply for release on parole.

In her sentencing remarks, Judge Hampel noted that Claffey has offered no apology to his victims, nor shown any remorse.

Judge Hampel said Claffey was a "sexual predator" who groomed parents and children by visiting families, establishing trust, and threatening children to keep them quiet.

The judge told Claffey: "That you were able to act with impunity for such a period speaks volumes for the power you exerted over your victims and the gross nature of the breach of trust of a priest in respect of the children of the parish. The consequences for your victims have been profound and, for many, life-long."

Jailed again in 2019

After the 2016 court case, two additional victims contacted the Victoria Police sexual crimes squad, which then laid new charges against Claffey. A magistrate conducted a committal hearing and then ordered Claffey to stand trial on the new charges.

At first, Claffey indicated that he would plead "Not Guilty" but later he changed his plea to "Guilty", thus making a jury trial unnecessary. At a pre-sentence hearing in the Melbourne County Court on 8 July 2019, the court was told that the allegations, which relate to alleged offences against two young boys, date back to the 1980s.

  • One of the victims was aged between 12 and 15 at the time he was abused. Claffey was a priest at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Wendouree. He sexually abused this boy while providing counselling to the boy in the boy's bedroom. Then he used religion to cover up the offences, telling the boy that their talks were secret (like Confession) and it would be a sin tell anyone.
  • The second victim was aged about six when he was abused by Claffey while pupils were attended the church. Claffey ordered this boy to stay behind after the other boys left the church..

On 18 July 2019, County Court Judge Paul Higham sentenced Claffey;. In his sentencing remarks, the judge condemned Claffey's "gross sense of entitlement".

"You used the disguise of holy orders of the faith that you pretended to practise," the judge said. "Your priestly role provided you with various opportunities to access these children. You indulged your deviant desires and offended against them."

Judge Higham spoke of how the hands that celebrated the Holy Eucharist were the same hands that "defiled children".

"Your offending not only grossly breached the trust placed in you ... but it also mocked the priestly authority that you pretended to exercise."

Judge Higham sentenced Claffey to an extra one year and three months in jail on top of his current prison term, of which he must serve at least another 12 months.

The Claffey investigation has been conducted by detectives in the Sano sex-crimes unit in the Victoria Police in Spencer Street, Docklands, Melbourne.

A victim's death

Father Robert Claffey's crimes (and the church's cover-up) left some long-term feelings of hurt among his victims. A man ("Timothy") told Broken Rites in 2019:

"My little brother (born in 1982) was one of the boys abused by Claffey. This abuse occurred in the Portland parish. My brother eventually reported Claffey's crimes to the police, and I went to the hearing in court to support my brother. My brother was still feeling damaged, and hurt, by the church's cover-up of Claffey. Unfortunately, eventually, my brother lost his life. In 2017 (aged 35) he was found dead from a heroin overdose. The church should never have transferred Claffey to the Portland parish."