A priest leaves jail, then back in court again (and again) on more child-abuse charges

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 24 August 2016)

In March 2015, Victorian Catholic priest Father Leslie Sheahan was jailed for three months for indecently assaulting a nine-year-old girl in one of his parishes forty years ago. After the media reported this court case, more victims contacted the Victoria Police. In July 2015, immediately after leaving jail, Sheahan was charged in court again with indecently assaulting two more girls from another of his early parishes, and the court convicted him again. On 22 August 2016, Sheahan (aged 85) was in court again, where he was convicted of indecently assaulting another girl in one of those early parishes.

In all three court cases, the charges were laid in the Ballarat Magistrates Court by detectives from the Sano Taskforce in the Victoria Police sex crimes squad in Melbourne.

Father Leslie John Sheahan belongs to the Ballarat diocese, which covers the whole of western Victoria, extending to Mildura in the state's far-north, to Horsham in the far-west and to Portland on the south-western coast. The city of Ballarat is where the bishop is based.

Broken Rites research

Broken Rites has learned that Leslie John Sheahan was ordained as a priest in St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1956 on the same day as several other priests including Ronald Mulkearns (a future bishop of Ballarat) and Henry Nolan (Nolan eventually became the vicar-general of the Ballarat diocese).

Broken Rites has researched Father Sheahan's parish postings in the annual printed editions of the Australian Catholic Directory. Father Leslie John Sheahan was listed at the Mildura parish in the early 1960s, followed by Ballarat North parish (also in the 1960s) and then the Horsham parish in the directories for the late 1960s and early 1970s. Later in the 1970s, he was listed at Robinvale (on the Murray River) and then Mildura. He was listed at parishes in Warracknabeal in the 1980s and Wycheproof  until 2002. By 2003, he was retired and was listed in the directory (as Reverend Leslie Sheahan), living in a home unit in a street in Ballarat North. He eventually moved to residential care.

Broken Rites knows that the four above-mentioned victims in the court cases in 2015 and 2016 are not Father Leslie Sheahan's only victims. Broken Rites has been contacted by other women who said that they were abused by Sheahan as a child. Broken Rites told these women that they have a right to have a confidential chat with a Victoria Police detective.

The March 2015 court case

In the March 2015 court case, Sheahan pleaded guilty to unlawful/indecent assault of one girl. The offence was committed in 1970-1971 and therefore the charge was laid according to the criminal statutes existing at that time. (For crimes committed since the 1980s, the statutes include revised laws relating to sexual penetration.)

According to documents tabled in court, the assault occurred in Horsham while Father Sheahan was working at the Horsham parish, when he was aged in his early forties. Father Sheahan frequently visited this family and the assault occurred in the girl's bedroom. The offence allegedly involved some kind of penetration.

Hearing her daughter's screams, the victim's mother confronted Sheahan in the doorway of the girl's bedroom, where the priest responded: "I think I've frightened her."

According to the victim's police statement, this Horsham girl also experienced several other incidents of sexual abuse from Father Sheahan. For legal purposes, the prosecutors chose to base the court case on this more serious incident in which the mother confronted Sheahan at the bedroom doorway.

About 2004 (after Father Les Sheahan had retired from full-time parish work), this victim wrote to the Catholic Church authorities, complaining that the church's holy public image had protected Father Sheahan while he abused her. She also described how this church-abuse, at the age of nine, had damaged her childhood development, her teenage years and her later life. After 2004, the church gave this woman a comparatively trivial financial payout to settle her complaint.

Eventually, in 2014, detectives from the Victoria's Sano Taskforce investigated Father Sheahan. This Horsham victim was offered the opportunity of having a private interview with the detectives. She accepted this offer and the detectives then compiled a written account of her testimony.

This documentation was then tabled in the Ballarat Magistrates Court at a brief administrative procedure in which Sheahan pleaded guilty.

The victim was not required to be present in court during any of these proceedings. The detectives had done all the work.

Sentencing Sheahan to jail on 5 March 2015, magistrate Michelle Hodgson said she realised that the time behind bars would be onerous for the elderly prisoner.

However, the principles of denunciation, general deterrence and just punishment formed part of her sentencing considerations, she said.

"The community should know that the courts denounce such behaviour," she said.

Magistrate Hodgson sentenced Sheahan to 12 months jail, with the first three months to be served behind bars (and the remaining nine months to be served on parole). Ms Hodgson placed Sheahan's name on the sex offenders register for eight years

Sheahan lodged an appeal against the jail sentence but his appeal was soon rejected, and he then began serving his time behind bars.

The July 2015 court case

After the March 2015 court was reported in the media, the police received more complaints about Sheahan from alleged child victims.

In July 2015, after finishing his time behind bars (while he was starting the non-custodial part of his sentence), Sheahan was interviewed again by detectives from the Sano Taskforce. He was charged with having committed indecent assaults against two girls while he was ministering in Ballarat in the 1960s.

In the same court on 31 July 2015, Sheehan (now aged 85) Sheahan pleaded guilty regarding these two additional victims:

  1. Police told the court of an incident between 1964-1965 at Warrenheip (near Ballarat), where Sheahan indecently touched the body of a girl aged 10 or 11, who was home from school, sick. Sheahan allegedly lay on top of the victim, with his arms around her.
  2. Police also said that Father Sheahan, while an assistant priest of St Columba’s Church in Ballarat North in 1968, indecently touched the body of an 13-year-old girl at her house. Sheahan allegedly wrestled her to the floor of the laundry. The following day the victim's father approached Sheahan about the incident and the priest told him "he was sorry, had had too much to drink and it would never happen again".

Sheahen's lawyer presented an apology letter from Sheahan to the court. The lawyer said his client accepted it must be difficult for the complainants and appealed to the magistrate not to deal with the matter with an immediate jail term.

“These matters aren’t as serious as the first lot he went to jail for,” the lawyer said.

Magistrate Catherine Lamble said that, despite the incidents “happening a long time ago”, the charges were “serious”. But she said she would take Sheahan’s apology into account.

As Sheahan had already spent three months behind bars from the March 2015 court case, the magistrate sentenced Sheahan to a six-month jail term, which is suspended. He was also placed on the sex offenders list for eight years.